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A Kaiseki At Gion Karyo, Kyoto

Hannibal Season Three

To put things plainly, kaiseki is a traditional Japanese diner composed of fourteen servings with an assortment of dishes prepared using different cooking methods and presented in a specific order in various, usually pricey pots and dishes, . Fine ingredients like fugu can be included and the price of such a meal can reach stratospheric level, especially in popular destinations like Kyoto. Fortunately, there are some affordable alternatives on offer, like at Gion Karyo, situated in the main street of the “geisha quarter”. Their set diner menu is only ten dishes and does not end by the traditionnal bowl of rice, brought to the guests as a humble courtesy in case they would still be hungry after such a feast. This enough qualifies as heresy for the purist; it has the advantage of reducing the length of the experience by a good hour. Now that your appetite is whipped, shall we go Hannibal?

1/ Sakizuke
The night one dined there, the appetizer was a nicely balanced crab salad dressed with persimon vinegar, including Shimeji mushroom, Indian spinach, taro, beans and ginger. There was a piece of herring involved too, maybe to the detriment of the crab, but said fish was so good it was hard to consider it a flaw.

2/ Wanmono
The soup was a tile fish bullion flavoured with yuzu, with steamed wax gourd and turnip. Steaming vegetables is not the best way to enhance their flavour, but when in the land of Umami, do like the Umamites do.

3/ Mukozuke
The fresh sashimi of the day was composed of superior tuna, delicious shrimp and squid, which was well, Umami.

4/ Oshinogi
The sushi was mackerel filet and roe dressed with vinegared ginger; the discovery came from the addition of gingko beans, which one never suspected having such a refined taste.

5/ Yakimono
Everything yaki is grilled and has to be done so to perfection: this dish was marrying barracuda, sea urchin and sweet potato, the three of them scrumptious.

 

6/ Hassun
A tour de force of a dish, this one was aligning seven bite-size hors d’oeuvres including Matsukaze (steamed chicken paste), smoked saury, salmon roe dressed with radish, grape and oyster mushroom dressed with tofu sauce, fried pike conger bone and sweet potato, fried octopus and taro with pumpkin sauce. One’s two favourites were a boiled chestnut and a steamed conger with rice, proving that simple is best. Duly noted by a skeptic: tofu makes a great sauce!

7/ Konabe
This must have been the best hot pot ever, smoky flavoured with the blessed pairing of Wagyu beef and Mizuna (herb mustard). An there were leeks, too. Heaven.

8/ Shiizakana
It was rather difficult to follow up on the Konabe so this side dish was a bit of a letdown, based on abalone, eggplant, mackerel and ginger, even though a citrus jelly was welcomingly crashing the party.

9/ Gohan
Gohan is a hearth-cooked rice accompanied with pickles and a miso soup. There were five options and one’s afraid one’s guest didn’t pick up the best one, as it has to shared.

10/ Dessert
Kind of an uncharted territory when not based on azuki or sesame, the Karyo dessert got one right with a sweet potato cake and another very wrong with apple sherbet.

The place is small and neatly laid out, with an open kitchen offering the fascinating spectacle of Japanese cooks plying their trade with impeccable precision in a welcoming atmosphere. Waitresses are a bit shy towards gaijins at first but basic Japanese politeness help them relax (start by taking off your shoes!). All in all, a successful modern take on kaiseki, worth every cent of the 100€ per head price (without drinks). That’s the price of love.

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