The minute you step into Ichirin (一凛), it feels like a different world. The space is serene yet unstuffy, with a light wood counter dominating one side of the room and two tables generously positioned apart from each other and away from the counter, offering a bit of privacy. A young lady, clad in a white outfit that is often seen on Japanese chefs, quietly escorts you to your table and takes drinks orders, as if performing a time-honoured ritual.
Our first dish was yomogi-dofu, a dumpling of sesame tofu mixed with yomogi in a very light broth that made it clear the cuisine at Ichirin faithfully follows the traditions of Kyoto kaiseki cuisine. Since we visited in April, it was only natural to be served yomogi, which is seasonal.
What followed next was also a seasonal dish – young bamboo shoots and wakame seaweed with sansho leaves. It is a rare kaiseki restaurant that would not serve young bamboo shoots in the spring but the specimen served at Ichirin was somewhat special in being a rare variety known as shirako-take from Kyoto.
The red lacquer bowl in which this dish was served was sprinkled lightly with water, giving it a cool and fresh look. This is a practice in chakaiseki, formal tea ceremony, where wooden objects, including chopsticks sometimes, are sprinkled with water to purify them.
The highlight of our lunch was the hassun – a collection of 8 small dishes arranged colorfully like a three-dimensional painting, on a tray. The small dishes held a wide variety of spring vegetables, including seri (water celery) in a tofu sauce, bamboo shoot in kinome (prickly ash), and gobo (burdock) that can only be found in Fukui prefecture. The prettiest dish was the chawan mushi egg custard topped with flavorful and crisp light green usumame (bean) and a salted sakura (cherry blossom) flower.
Mikizo Hashimoto, the chef, is particularly proud of his hassun. “Some day I would like to express all the seasons throughout Japan,” in a hassun, he writes on his website.
The so-called shime (closing dish) was takenoko gohan or rice cooked with small bites of bamboo shoots, which came with a shijimi (small clams) soup of red miso (aka-dashi) and pickles.
For dessert, we were served uguisu mochi (Japanese cake with sweet red bean paste in a sticky dough sprinkled with green soy bean flour) and green tea – both in a light green tone that alluded to the new leaves of spring.
Ichirin’s courses are mostly vegetarian and therefore easy on the stomach.
There is a small selection of white wines and champagnes in addition to a range of sakes.