A visit to Kyoto is not complete until you have had a traditional kaiseki experience. Kaiseki is Japan’s version of high end fine dining, with great emphasis on seasonality, labor intensive preparations, and most importantly, perfection. Kaiseki meals are often an elaborate productions with multiple courses and beautiful artful presentations. These meals are not cheap nor quick, and therefore not for those who are just looking to eat for the sake of eating. It is an entire experience that is really special to Kyoto. Nakamura has a long history that dates back to 1827. It is 1 of 7 three star Michelin restaurants in Kyoto.
We were seated in a private tatami room. I bemoaned the idea of having to sit cross legged on the floor yet again, but I was delighted to find plenty of leg room beneath the table. My feet, cold from the wet weather, danced on the heated floor. They really thought of everything here! I’ll be improvising on the food descriptions here since there was no written menu.
Appetizer shrimp, cockle, spring vegetables, bamboo, sesame sauce.
A very unassuming presentation.
Hidden beneath was a seasonal selection of spring’s bounty. Everything was fresh. The flavors were very simple and delicate. Nothing particularly flavorful or out of this world though.
Looks like a mini something?
This is a signature dish of the restaurant. Shiromiso zoni is a type of sweet miso soup made with round mochi that is traditionally eaten for New Years in Kyoto. The soup was certainly sweeter than normal miso soup. It was notably homogeneous, without that separation of miso and water you normally have with miso soup. There was something so familiar tasting in the soup, like sushi. The Annoyer guessed it right, wasabi. It was oddly delicious and very comforting, not like anything I’ve had before. The mochi ball was delightfully chewy, but the best part of it was the toasted rice flavor.
Sashimi ika, madai, toro
Kyoto is not known for it’s sushi, being landlocked. The fish here must certainly have come from Tsukiji. It tasted just as fresh and amazing as the sushi we had in Tokyo.
The presentation was lovely. The vibrant green layer of cherry blossom leaves hid a myriad of different bites beneath.
The octopus was so tender. There was icefish, like we had at Kyubey, but cooked. The whole salt water fish was best eaten in its entirety and probably my favorite bit. One bite uncovered one hidden treasure after another. There was egg and marinated celery. There was cucumber and scallop on a toothpick. The tilefish sushi was nice despite the hint of shiso. I’ll be honest. I didn’t think everything here was spectacular. The Annoyer probably liked it more than I did, but if I were eating with my eyes than my eyeballs would have been bursting with happiness.
The service was exquisite, almost deferential. There was a lot of bowing and you sort of don’t know what to do or say when someone is folded over hands and face on the ground. It’s safe to say we just smiled a lot and bopped our heads to convey as much appreciation as possible.
Yakimono grilled bamboo and cherry salmon
The grilled course, or yakimono, featured cherry salmon and bamboo. It was served with this lovely relish kind of thing. I tasted radish, yuzu, and herbs of some sort.
The bamboo was tender and crisp. The subtle sweet glaze just lightly caramelized and charred in some spots. The herbs reminded me of kaffir lime, but had a numbing quality on the tongue.
As you can see, the salmon was impressively crispy all over with a good amount of smokey char on the skin. It was a a tad overcooked for our liking but still surprisingly juicy.
Tofu uni, white wine gelee, citrus
This was my favorite course of the night.
Fresh tofu was served in this Japanese tangerine like fruit. So the citrus notes were just subtly imparted. Most of the flavor came from that gelee. The uni kicked up the savoriness. This seemed like such a simple dish, but you could tell only a genius could create something so light yet so tasty. YUMS!
Shiizakana tilefish head
Another signature dish at Nakamura. This dish is not for the faint of heart. I’m looking at you Care Bear.
The head of a tilefish was basted in sake and baked. The skin was fantastically crispy and caramelized. It was really flavorful, like a concentrated sophisticated bite of the ocean. The best part was the cheek meat of course, very tender, delicate, juicy. The meat at the bottom of the bowl had the most sake flavor. Overall, I liked the fish but it was a tad too salty for my liking, but The Annoyer didn’t think so.
The next course involved pouring hot kombu broth over the leftover fish carcass.
It’s not pretty, but it was darn tasty. The Japanese are highly skilled at translating simplicity into deep satisfaction. The excess salt perhaps lingered slightly still.
Really lightly flavored rice with shreds of crunchy bamboo.
I never knew Japanese had some many different types of citrus fruit. This was a hyuganatsu, often though of as a cross between a pomelo and an orange. I loved the hybrid flavor. It went well with the fresh strawberries, that were bathed in a sweet vanilla cream. The gelee was described as white wine jelly but I can’t say I tasted much alcohol. Fruit seems like such a lame dessert but in Japan they only serve you the sweetest and best fruits. They have such high regard for perfect produce, so a dessert like this is supposed to be as special as something baked with lots of butter.
The meal was good, but not mindblowing. No doubt, the the food was beautiful and artfully prepared. There was nothing frou frou about it, which probably sets kaiseki apart from the haute cuisine of France, for example, where complex sauces reign supreme. The service was excellent. The ambiance evoked a sense of old school Japanese fine dining, though I thought the harsh fluorescent white lighting detracted from the warm service. When I got the bill, I was like, “Daaaaaamn that was expensive!” That meal didn’t seem to warrant the HEFTY price tag that it did. My wallet is still bleeding from that one. I think I actually liked the more modern kaiseki experience at n/naka, but if you argue I am paying for the experience than maybe Nakamura is worth the $$$$$. If I visited Kyoto again, I would probably opt for a non Michelin kaiseki restaurant. I bet the food/experience would be comparable and easier on the wallet.
10 – You NEED to eat here
9 – Awesome
8 – Very good
7 – Good
6 – OK
5 – Average
4 – Not bad
3 – Not good
2 – Terrible
1 – Do NOT eat here