It is regularly voted the best Japanese restaurant in Tokyo. The proprietor is a legendary chef, who inspires adulation among his loyal fans. As one of an exclusive community of “ichigen-san okotowari” (or “introduction required”) restaurants, foodies, both foreign and Japanese, agonize over how to secure a seat there.
But there is nothing grand about Kyoaji, even though it is arguably one of Tokyo’s most highly regarded kaiseki restaurants and, undeniably, one of the most difficult to get into.
In fact, master chef Kenichiro Nishi, a bespectacled, mild-mannered septuagenarian who famously turned down Michelin’s effort to bestow three stars on his establishment, seems to go out of his way to keep everything at Kyoaji refreshingly low key.
The nondescript building in which the restaurant is housed could easily be mistaken for a mid-market soba joint, if it weren’t for the kimono-clad serving staff who greet diners outside.
Even the dishes that chef Nishi serves are striking in their apparent simplicity, as in the case of the deep-fried ebi-imo (a type of taro or yam) we had on a recent visit, or the grilled salmon on rice that wrapped up our meal that evening.
Every dish at Kyoaji looks like it has been prepared with the simplest of ingredients and with none of the culinary acrobatics or high-tech contraptions that have become the hallmark of the modern-day celebrity chef.
But there is no question that a great deal of time-consuming preparation has gone into each dish, in order to bring out the best in the seasonal ingredients that chef Nishi prepares for his guests.
On the evening of our visit, the meal began with a small serving of konowata (salted entrails of sea cucumber) on mochi-gome (sticky rice).
I tend to avoid offal of any sort and the slimy, brownish puddle, topped with bright green slivers of leek that sat in front of me did not look particularly appetizing.
But when I took a bite, it confounded my gastronomic biases. Most Japanese delicacies involving entrails tend to be very salty and rather crunchy, but this konowata was very mild tasting and the texture was pleasantly soft. The little bit of leek garnish on top gave it just the right zing. I have no idea what chef Nishi did, but much to my surprise I fully enjoyed it, despite my initial misgivings.
The karasumi (dried mullet roe), kakinamasu (a vinegar-seasoned persimmon and vegetable dish) and grilled leek, which followed, was another surprise. I do not like karasumi, and I cannot say Kyoaji’s karasumi was an exception.
But I did enjoy the leek, which was grilled to perfection, as well as the kakinamasu, which was mildly sweet.
The next dish was even more of a challenge for me than the konowata: shirako, or the sperm sacs of male cod or puffer-fish.
This is one delicacy I have never appreciated and have tried to avoid as much as possible.
However, chef Nishi managed to season it in such a way, with a touch of yuzu adding zest to what is essentially a creamy blob, and to grill it to just the right texture on the outside, that I was able to appreciate the taste and texture as never before.
By the time we were served the fourth dish – a generous arrangement of several types of crab and crab legs – I was beginning to worry about developing gout from the cholesterol overload.
But then, after several more dishes, came the egg tofu in dashi broth. This is another one of those Japanese dishes that look so simple but can make or break the reputation of a kaiseki chef.
Nishi-san did not let us down. He served us the smoothest egg tofu I have ever had, in dashi that was close to sublime.
The grilled amadai (tile fish), which came next, was so tasty and tender I even ate the skin, which I normally discard.
Next came simmered daikon radish, crab and shungiku (chrysanthemum greens), which was more my kind of dish and extremely good.
Finally, we were served a bowl of grilled salmon on rice, which I found irresistible.
The meal overall was a huge success, particularly among our fellow diners, one of whom went out a few days later and bought Nishi-san’s cookbook.
But in terms of personal preference, I could have easily skipped the exotic range of delicacies, such as konowata and shirako. I also found the mini-mountains of crab rather overwhelming.
It is the prevalence of these delicacies, which no doubt makes dining at Kyoaji as costly as it usually is. Our meal came to Y40,000 per person, excluding tax.
Substitute the expensive delicacies with more vegetable and tofu dishes and lower the price, and Kyoaji would be my ideal Japanese kaiseki restaurant.
Address: 3-3-5 Shinbashi,
Lunch : 12:00-14:00
Dinner : 18:00-22:00
Closed : Sundays and national holidays
The cost of a meal at Kyoaji usually comes to more than Y30,000, whether for lunch or dinner. The actual cost depends on what ingredients are in season. Early autumn, which is matsutake mushroom season, and winter, when crab is usually served in abundance, are generally expensive times to dine there. Customers do not pay at the restaurant but will be sent a bill at a later date.