Kyoto is the perfect city to experience a traditional Kaiseki dinner with numerous small plates of fresh food, mostly fish.
We felt like characters in a Martin Scorsese movie (think After Hours) as our taxi whisked us from our Kyoto hotel to the restaurant where our kaiseki dinner allegedly awaited. We say allegedly because we didn’t know the name, address or phone number of the restaurant.
All we knew is that our innkeeper had made the reservation based on our explicit instructions for a traditional, non-touristy kaiseki restaurant that wouldn’t break the bank. He didn’t speak much English, and the taxi driver spoke even less, so we half thought that we might end up at McDonald’s.
This is how we ended up spending a delightful evening eating high-end Japanese food at Tujiya.
Kaiseki meals are similar to omakase meals in that both are multi-course affairs, but kaiseki distinguishes itself with its strict traditional structure, points of color and emphasis on seasonality. Since Kyoto is the epicenter for the kaiseki way of dining, this type of meal was integral to our culinary journey.
Upon arriving at Tujiya’s generic door, we removed our shoes (as one does in any traditional Japanese interior) and entered a charming yet simple room with a counter for ten diners. Our fellow diners included a recently married couple, an elderly man and two hipsters on a date. We were the only non-locals, and we were warmly greeted with the international language of nods and smiles.
Kaiseki Dinner – Plate by Plate
We started our kaiseki dinner by ordering beer since we were thirsty. The beer was served draught style and went down easily.
There were no food menus, and each course was served on a small, unique plate.
The first course was sea bream and seasonal vegetables served in a beautiful bowl
Raw fish is a common element of kaiseki meals. This meal was no exception. The sushi and sashimi courses were fresh and perfectly prepared.
After the small sushi courses, we cleansed our palates with savory soup.
We had enjoyed the beer, but it was time to switch to Sake. We opted for a local Sake that was so lovely that we bought a similar bottle before we left Japan. First, though, we each selected a Sake glass from the eclectic selection presented to us on a bamboo tray.
Our next course came adorned with a cherry blossom branch. Lovely, tasty and seasonal.
We had been wanting tempura all week. and we each finally got two perfectly prepared pieces – one shrimp and one asparagus spear, served with pink salt on the side.
Our next course was Pacific cod with greens in broth.
The small, pretty plates kept coming. The next course was sea eel rice served with pickled vegetables and miso soup.
We were beyond full, but somehow we found room for the ninth and final course of the meal. The dessert course was orange blossom ice cream served with a rice cake, fruit gelee and a strawberry. The light dessert went well with green tea.
If nine perfect courses weren’t enough, we woke up to neatly wrapped leftovers the next morning.
Although our evening ended up being less dramatic than the one in After Hours, we almost finished the kaiseki dinner without knowing where in the heck we had eaten. Somehow, without speaking the same language, we used phonetics to finally figure out the name of the restaurant – Tujiya.
Just don’t ask us to find this restaurant again.
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
Original Publication Date: May 15, 2013