March 28, 2024

50 Best and then some day 8: no pictures, part 1

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This is it. The reason why I paid an arm and a leg to change my return flight to spend 2 extra days in Kyoto. The reason for my detour. Dinner with Geruhage. At least it wasn't last minute like last year... this time he did ask me 2 weeks in advance.

Iida (飯田) is a name that would be familiar to anyone who is serious about fine dining in Japan. The restaurant had the honor of holding 3 stars in the Michelin Guide for Kyoto in the 2018-2020 editions but, like a few restaurants before them, had supposedly asked to be delisted from the guide entirely. The reservation for dinner tonight was made by my friend back in 2022, so I felt I should make the effort to come and see why it's so difficult to dine here. Basically, they're just not taking any bookings from new customers they don't already know.

Never wanting to be late while dining in Japan, I arrived more than 15 minutes before the restaurant opened. The okami-san (女将さん) was doing her usual routine of watering in front of the restaurant entrance when she spotted me, and invited me to come in and be seated early in our private room.

It was great to see Yuko-san again, having dined with her in Tokyo last year and met up again in Singapore later that same month. She is certainly great company.

Okami-san saw from the time she led me to the room that I was carrying around my camera, and she did not interfere with our picture-taking and filming since we were in a private room. She did, at some point, let us know that while we were welcome to take all the pictures we wished, we should refrain from posting any pictures of the food to social media. This is a request that I would, of course, acquiesce to. I did do a little checking later, and I could not find any pictures of the cuisine posted with any of the reviews on Tabelog (食べログ), or just about any online source.

We started with a welcome drink with a few bubu arare (ぶぶあられ) floating on top. There's a slight hint of savory notes here.

The aperitif (食前酒) was sake that was described as juice-like, with a peach color. There was good acidity as well as fruity flavors.

Sakizuke : Keen's gaper with wasabi stems (先附: 海松貝 花山葵) - the wasabi stems (花山葵) were marinated in sake, and their flavors were quite strong. The ginger vinegar jelly (生姜酢煮凝り) on top added a good dose of acidity that neutralized any iodine flavors from the mirugai (海松貝) that I normally dislike. I'm genuinely impressed by Iida-san's thoughtfulness on this.

Owan: clam with sesame tofu and hosta (お椀: 蛤 胡麻豆腐 ウルイ) - naturally, the lacquer bowls used here were simply beautiful, and we all had different patterns on our serveware. The clam was scored and coated with kudzu powder to make kudzu tataki (葛叩き). The homemade sesame tofu had a wonderful springy texture while being a little sticky, and the sesame flavors were pretty nice. I loved that there was a good amount of hosta (ウルイ) in the bowl, with a few leaves of sansho leaves (木の芽) to lend their fragrance.

Mukozuke: ark shell, red seabream, bracken (向付: 赤貝 鯛 蕨) - the red seabream from Akashi (明石) came with an amazing texture that was soooo soft yet crunchy at the same time. Ark shell is not an ingredient I normally care for, as it often brings a hit of iodine. This was undoubtedly the best ark shell I have ever had in my life, as the flavors were so crisp and just so sweet, with no hint of iodine whatsoever. By now it is glaringly obvious that the ingredients here are just better than most of the places out there.

The plate that we used for soy sauce date from the Edo period.

Teppoae (鉄砲和え) - with tree onion (わけぎ) and ark shell skirt in a sauce made with mustard and miso.

Agemono: fried sandwich of bamboo and cherry salmon (揚物: 筍と桜鱒のはさみ揚げ) - this was... amazing! Pulling open the layers of bamboo shoot leaves reveals two halves of a lightly-battered and deep-fried "sandwich", with a layer of cherry salmon (桜鱒) in between two slices of sweet-tasting bamboo shoots. While this has already been seasoned with salt, a few drops of sudachi (酢橘) juice also helped to enhance the flavors. Both ingredients were very tender, and I would have been happy if I could have had another one of these...

Soba with sea urchin and nori (雲丹と海苔のお蕎麦) - apparently the nori (海苔) is harvested wild as opposed to farmed nori, in small quantities which makes it pretty rare. The soba definitely had a good bite to it.

Yakimono: stone-grilled firefly squid (焼物: 螢烏賊の石焼) - we were presented with two items: a small bowl containing 4 little raw firefly squids (螢烏賊), and a small but (presumbly) very hot stone. We were to cook the squid on the stones ourselves, and I watched as the tentacles shriveled and twisted in response to the heat. I really loved the charring on the tentacles. And since we were grilling the squid in front of us, the wonderful scent hung in the air for quite some time.

Charcoal-grilled moroko (モロコの炭火焼き) - the wild moroko (モロコ), otherwise known as Biwa gudgeon, came from Lake Biwa (琵琶湖). These carry eggs inside them, and had an interesting flavor that is not quite fatty. The sauce is sansho leaf vinegar (木の芽酢), which naturally carried some acidity to work with the lightly-charred fish.

As tasty as these little beauties were - and they're certainly considered a delicacy by many - I was dismayed to discover later that they are actually considered ENDANGERED... Not only was it classified as "Endangered" on the 1994 ICUN Red List, it's also classified as "Critically Endangered Class IA" in the Red Data Book from the Japanese Ministry of Environment, as the annual catch recorded around 15 years ago was already less than 1/10 of what it used to be compared to 30 years ago.

So, yeah... now I feel a little guilty.

Webfoot octopus and issunmame simmered in honey (飯蛸と一寸豆の蜜煮) - the tentacles were nice and bouncy, and the eggs in the body were pretty nice, too. The "one inch broad beans (一寸豆)" are now pretty sweet thanks to being simmered in sugar and honey.

White asparagus and sea cucumber innards (白アスパラガス 海鼠腸) - this was served alongside the octopus.

Hirosu (飛竜頭) - also known as ganmodoki (がんもどき) in the Kanto (関東) region, this is a type of fritter whose name originated from the Portuguese word filhós. This particular one came with Gekko lily bulb (月光百合根) from Hokkaido and wood ear fungus (木耳) encased in the tofu. Served with blanched water dropwort (田芹) in a bowl with dashi.

Gohan: hinazushi (ご飯: 雛寿司) - as Japan celebrates Hinamatsuri (雛祭り) this month, the restaurant decided to serve us hinamatsuri chirashizushi (ひな祭り ちらし寿司) in lieu of their usual clay pot rice (土鍋ご飯). This was steamed and inside the shari (シャリ) we had dried young sardines (縮緬雑魚), Koya tofu (高野豆腐), shiitake mushrooms, kanpyo (干瓢), with garnishes of seseme seeds, finely-shredded yuba (錦糸湯葉), fried head of field horsetail (土筆), and ginger that had been cooked with Japanese seabass.

The red miso soup (赤出し) came with some Japanese basket clams (大和蜆).

Mizumono: grapefruit pudding, grapefruit, strawberry (水物: グレープフルーツのプリン グレープフルーツ 苺) - I was surprised that it was a pudding and not a panna cotta, but I did like the acidity as well as the nice fragrance from those vanilla seeds on top. The grapefruit on the side was marinated with a little Cointreau, and the Sanukihime (さぬきひめ) strawberry was juicy.

Okashi: kusamochi (お菓子: 草餅) - a mochi (餅) made with Japanese mugwort (蓬), filled with adzuki beans, and dusted with soybean powder (黄粉).

The matcha to finish our meal was a koicha (濃茶) from Ippodo (一保堂).

One of us didn't drink alcohol, so we took it pretty easy...

Kokuryu Jungin Tarekuchi (黒龍 純吟 垂れ口), 2023 - seimaibuai of 55%. Taste was more dry with the wasabi, but on its own the palate was on the soft side, and there was a little acidity here.

Urakasumi Betsuatsurae Daiginjo (浦霞 別誂 大吟醸), 2023 - seimaibuai of 40%. Softer on the palate and more fruity.

I gotta say... I'm sure happy I made the detour! The meal was certainly very delicious, with some of the best ingredients I had ever seen in top Japanese restaurants. I appreciated the thought Iida-san put into the dishes, which have the effect of bringing out the best flavors from those ingredients. And it is by dining at establishments like this that I am able to learn about new ingredients as well as new preparations and seasonings.

And most of all... after converting the price being charged into Hong Kong Dollars, it was significantly cheaper than any high end Japanese meal I could possibly have in Hong Kong. I am grateful to my friend for offering me a chance to experience this.

Well, we hadn't had nearly enough alcohol tonight, so off we went to Gion to look for a wine bar. Some friends had recommended komorebino, a natural wine bar, but they were closed today due to some sudden plumbing issues. Geruhage took us across the street to Suzunari Vigne, a place he knows well, but they were completely full. So... we ended up going back across the street to Coupe de Champagne.

As the name suggests, they only offer Champagne here, and Geruhage wanted a blanc de noirs. So we started with one that was more wallet-friendly before moving on to the good stuff.

Benoît Lehaye Blanc de Noirs, dégorgée en Juillet 2022 - the nose was more metallic than I had expected, with flinty notes. The acidity was pretty high as this was an Extra-Brut, and the nose showed sharp alcohol.

Ulysse Collin Les Maillons Blanc de Noirs, YG 36 mois, dégorgée en Mars 2019 - the nose was nice and toasty, and the wine was lean on the palate and a little grippy. Unquestionably a step up from the Lehaye.

I tend to get peckish when I drink, so after running out of the free otsumami (おつまみ), I decided to order up some French fries... That really hit the spot.

It's been a really wonderful evening, and it's been great seeing Geruhage and Tomo-chan the last 2 days. Now I needed some sleep...

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