During our recent trip to Japan, we made a point to make reservations for a Kaiseki dinner in Kyoto.  Kaiseki is a formalized, seasonal multi-course Japanese meal in which the food is prepared and arranged in a very artistic manner.   Our reservations were at Kichisen, recommended by Mischa of Tasty Bits.  After I made the reservations I did a bit of research and discovered how well known Kichisen and Chef Yoshimi Tanigawa were.  Needless to say,  we were very much looking forward to the dinner, especially after dealing with the stressful crowds in Kyoto:

The meal began inauspiciously enough as we walked up and down the street looking for the restaurant.  It turned out to be a plain door in a residential-looking house.  We were greeted by bowing servers and apprentices and led to our private room.  Throughout the meal, I was only able to get off one picture or so of each dish before Chef Tanigawa came in to explain how to eat each course.  It was a great honor to be served by the chef himself, but after half the courses his constant attention made us almost as nervous and stressed as the crowds on the streets!

After being served a cherry blossom tea, the first course was brought out: three tiny dishes shaped like birds, draped with a sprig of cherry blossoms.

The birds were opened to reveal (clockwise from top): dried and sauced squid, sashimi which we suspected might be fugu served with tiny chips flaked with gold, and uni topped with a tiny poached quail egg.  Each bite was distinct in flavor, fresh and delicate.

The second course was barely cooked spring peas in a sweet broth.  Meticulous attention was paid to the dishware and how they were presented to us.  This course was most evocative of the season.

Third was a clear broth with a fish cake, mushroom and young shoots.  The fish cake was delicious, lacking the cloying sweetness of commercial fish cakes.  The mushroom was meaty but I found the shoots to be unpleasantly bitter, a theme that would repeat throughout the meal.

Sashimi was served by one of the chef’s apprentices, who quickly explained which of the pieces were “choice” for dip, and which were for one sauce only.  We were about to dive in when Chef Tanigawa came out and began to direct us on each piece.  First, he reached over the counter with chopsticks and mixed a dab of wasabi in with Matt’s soy sauce.  Then he directed him in which order to eat the fish, and which sauce to use, and how much, watching Matt’s face each time he took a bite, nodding approvingly, and moving on to the next fish.  I mimicked their actions as closely as possible, not wanting to draw the Chef’s personal attention.  Matt, to his credit, repeated the chef’s directions attentively, and ate each piece with every bit of apparent relish.

A delicious rice dish topped with eggs was served fifth.  I dove into this dish with every amount of relish when once again, Chef came out to direct us on proper etiquette.  He instructed Matt to hold the dish in a cupped palm and bring it to his face to eat rather than bending over the bowl.  That would have been all well and good had the dish not been scalding hot – though I’m sure the temperature was fine for a chef, I could feel rings being burned into my hand as I grinned and held the bowl.  At this point, Chef asked for my camera and took a picture of us, hapless tourists holding burning bowls of rice. I’d post it but we sort of look like we’re in pain.  Heat aside, this was one of my favorite courses.  The rice was savory and the egg fragrant and light.

Dinner will continue with Part 2 of this entry in which I manage to make an utter fool of myself…