Sunday, 4 January 2015

Kyoto travels: the best bang-for-your-yen lunch at Roan Kikunoi

Roan Kikunoi: smoked cherry trout
There are only so many meals that you feel you can do justice to with a blog post and I'm afraid time has usually got the better of me for most of them. I'm not one of those bloggers who is satisfied writing down "I went here and I ate that" and sending it out into the ether of the internet. It's boring to write and boring to read. But there are some experiences I've had that I really want to share, even if it is belatedly and with more brevity than usual (hurrah, I hear you cheer!). Anyway, my mind has recently returned to Japan, and Kyoto in particular, since I've just booked another holiday there. Japan is one of those places that gets under your skin and Kyoto, more than others, is somewhere that never leaves you. I've written of some memorable meals (noodles, tofu, unagi and Fushimi Inari) from the visit to Kyoto in April 2014, but so far I've left out the blockbuster two and three Michelin star spots that I ate in. One of the most enjoyable, and best bang-for-my-yen, meals was lunch at Roan Kikunoi - the two-star kappo sister to the flagship three-star Kikunoi.
Roan Kikunoi: dinner preparations
With the help of my hotel concierge, we scored lunch reservations at Roan Kikunoi on our final day in Kyoto. I chose the 10,000Y menu, since I wanted to experience the best that was on offer, but lunch can be had from just 4,000Y. At dinner, the menus run from 10,000Y to 18,000Y plus tax and service. The counter seating (kappo style) means an interactive kaiseki experience, with the chefs adding finishing touches to most of the dishes. I've always enjoyed watching passionate chefs cook. Since we had a late lunch seating, the staff moved on to some preparation for the evening meal too. We gawked at the incredibly skilled fish filleting and some prep of the seasonal firefly squid.
Roan Kikunoi: Tai milt tofu with ponzu jelly
The meal started with a sake aperitif, infused with cherry blossom leaf, served in a shallow bowl. A fresh mouthful of red sea bream milt tofu with a ponzu jelly followed. The aromatic flavour from the milt (fish sperm sac) was enhanced by the tart sweetness of the ponzu. This rather inconspicuous dish is actually incredibly seasonal, since sea bream only spawn once a year.

The Hassun course followed: a beautifully presented dish of various seasonal seafood and vegetables, accented by the last of the cherry blossoms. Small mouthfuls of ikura (salmon roe) and octopus with its eggs (better than the overcooked version at Chihana) were outstanding. The tai sushi was incredibly fresh, but was let down by overcooked rice, however I loved experiencing the vegetables I'd never seen before like mountain yams, udo stalks (a mountain asparagus) and lily roots (Yurine).
Roan Kikunoi: Hassun course
Sashimi followed. Spanish mackerel (sagoshi), paired with a similarly cut slab of ponzu jelly was incredibly tender with lingering fresh flavours. The red sea bream (tai) had a firmer texture which was a nice counterpoint to the creamier mackerel. The freshness of the fish and the preparation was outstanding.
Roan Kikunoi: sashimi of Spanish mackerel and sea bream
A Kikunoi signature sashimi dish followed: baby tuna (koshibi) with a marinated egg yolk sauce. Again, the fish was incredibly tender. When draped through the yolk sauce and punctuated with the small blob of mustard on the fish, the mouthful left a vibrant but delicate heat.
Roan Kikunoi: baby tuna with egg yolk sauce
Preparing the tuna...
Roan Kikunoi: finishing touches added to the sashimi course

A steamed course, again presented in beautiful lacquer-ware, was next. The gelatinous soup contained a cherry leaf encasing some tender tilefish (guji) which was wrapped around glutinous rice. There were some salt cured cherry blossom petals in there too, contributing to the heady aroma released from the bowl as the lid was lifted. Small cubes of tender bamboo and some ground rice crackers added texture. The dish was topped with delicate warabi (bracken fern) and a little ginger kept things fresh. This was quite a substantial course, but I enjoyed the progression of flavours from the punchier tuna sashimi to this one, which seemed simpler (but far from simple) and earthier.
Roan Kikunoi: steamed tilefish in a cherry leaf with sticky rice
My favourite dish followed and is considered another Kikunoi classic. The smoked cherry trout was presented adorned with only a cherry blossom on a rustic plate (see picture at the top). For all its simplicity, the dish leans heavily on the quality of its ingredients and skill in preparation. The scroll-like construction was tender, gently smoked and fantastically juicy and sweet. Another stunning dish.
Roan Kikunoi: grilled tofu with kinome miso
Continuing in the grilled vein, two small tofu skewers followed. The silken tofu was smothered in kinome-miso giving each bite a wonderful herbaceous and slightly numbing essence. The tofu was incredibly delicate and really melted with each bite. The sweetness, coupled with a hint of the charcoal over which it was cooked, meant this was another inspiring dish.
Roan Kikunoi: hot pot
A cleansing hotpot full of seasonal regional ingredients appeared fresh from the steamer, shrouded with a cloth. The lid was theatrically lifted to unveil an infusion of intricately cut bamboo, seaweed, fish (more tai) and herbs (more kinome). Clean flavours and a mixture of textures were all present and correct. I could linger over bowls of this.
Roan Kikunoi: hot pot with bamboo, seaweed and fish
The rice course was not simply an afterthought, but rather it was a sensational vehicle for showing off the best seasonal produce. The rice was presented by the beaming chef and the fabulous fragrance of bamboo shoots and herbs wafted out.
Roan Kikunoi: bamboo shoot rice with kinome
The warming rice was spiked with freshly cut kinome giving each mouthful a slight peppery numbness. The course was completed with various pickles (some sweet, some sharp and tart) and a green pea soup containing a fried minced shrimp ball.
Roan Kikunoi: rice, pea soup and pickles
We ended with a pure palate cleansing dessert and it was a stunning finale. The chilled basil seed soup with an almond jelly topped by two fragrant strawberries was as refreshing as it sounds. The basil seeds had been soaked in almond water, giving a natural gelatinous consistency to the "soup".
Roan Kikunoi: almond jelly with basil seed and strawberry
So there you have it. 10 outstanding courses, several of which come straight from the main Kikunoi ryotei. For the price of lunch, I think it's an experience hard to beat. Almost everything was perfect - from the thoughtful sequence of the dishes and the echo of certain ingredients in various courses, to the small touches like packing up the uneaten rice for an o-nigiri snack later on, showed an element of warmth and hospitality which I think was lacking from my dinner at three star Chihana. The English skills of the staff were good throughout, making Roan Kikunoi a great destination for the western tourist, and I think the bolder flavours are more suited to Western palates than the more subtle dishes I had at Chihana.
Roan Kikunoi: the entrance to the dining room
It's hard to believe that this oasis is only metres away from bustling downtown Kyoto. On my upcoming return trip, there's really only one place I want to revisit, and it's Roan Kikunoi.

By the way, if you are at all interested in Chef Murata and kaiseki, I highly recommend his book, Kaiseki: The Equisite Cuisine of Kyoto's Kikunoi Restaurant. Several of the dishes that I ate above are featured in the book with detailed descriptions of the ingredients and preparation methods. I find that knowing more of the story behind each dish really adds to my enjoyment. I find I use his home-style Japanese cookbook a lot for meals at home too. Basically, I'm a fan boy!

PS - in hindsight, I wasn't as brief as I thought I could be!

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