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Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kikunoi Honten

During Chinese New Year, our family took a short trip to Osaka and Kyoto. As with all our trips, prior to leaving I started to research about places to eat. Since Kyoto is famous for kaiseki, I wanted to make sure we try one and asked the hotel to make a reservation for lunch at Kikunoi Honten.

Kikunoi 菊乃井 is one of the best restaurants in Kyoto and the Michelin guide awarded it three stars for four consecutive years. I chose Kikunoi for a few reasons. First of all, I have seen Kikunoi's chef and proprietor Yoshihiro Murata's book on kaiseki and always wanted to try some of the dishes. Second, the restaurant welcomes children. Third, the restaurant has a very well priced lunch menu. And finally, the location is quite convenient for us.

Kikunoi is situated just south of Chionin Temple in the Gion district. The idea was we would visit the temple and stroll through the park and take lunch at the restaurant. However, we ran late and thus took a taxi. As the taxi made a turn from the street into a forecourt of the restaurant, it was clear we entered an exclusive and special place.

The staff of the restaurant greeted us outside the restaurant and helped us alight from the cars. Right after we stepped inside the restaurant we sat down on the tatami to take off our shoes. Then a kimono-clad hostess led us through a series of narrow corridors to our private room which has a vestibule to provide some separation from the public. The room was much larger than I expected. The room has a beautiful large rectangular table in the middle which covers a hole underneath for our legs. One side of the room has a little platform with a simple flower arrangement and a scroll on the wall.

Another side of the room has view and access to an outdoor garden. The room is very quiet and serene. The furnishing and decor are very minimal but comfortable; the space really compliments the food.

When I made the request for the reservation I asked if the restaurant was agreeable to serve our two young children. Kikunoi had no problem and could even serve the kids a different menu: a large and elaborate bento box. They only asked that we be in a private room, which I was only happy to oblige. At the restaurant there was no menu to choose from as I already picked out a simple set menu when the reservation was made. The set lunch was priced at 8,000 yen plus service charge and tax, which I thought was very reasonable. The kids menu was priced at 2,700 yen.

The lunch started with a large cup of tea. The first course was a collection of hor d'oeuvres, or Hassun, which included: "horse reins" sushi, ume jelly, ice fish with yuzu, tofu marinated in red-pickled ume, fuki bud marinated in miso, rapini with mustard, cod roe terrine, sweet black beans and wasabi greens. Everything was good and needless to say beautifully presented.

The second course was sashimi of red sea bream and young maguro or blue fin tuna. They were served with some udo (wild mountain vegetable), carrot, wasabi, and marinated fresh nori.

The third course was a turtle soup with minced duck, yomogi (Japanese mugwort) dumpling, Kujo onion, arrowhead root, giant turnip slice, daikon, carrot, tetragon leaf, and gold leaf. This was arguably the best dish of the meal. Not only were the flavors and textures wonderful, the dish was also poetic: the giant turnip slice floating on top evoked the image of a thin sheet of ice floating on water. My photo of the dish taken with the iPhone doesn't really express the wonders of this soup - a complex dish that really demonstrated the skill and intellect of the chef.

The soup was followed by a grilled halibut topped with dried karasumi (grey mullet roe), shiitake mushroom. The fish was perfectly cooked and the roe really added to the umami taste of the dish. I also enjoyed the simple presentation of the dish with the contrasting forms and the greenish plate. At this point of the meal, Chef Murata's daughter came into our room with the server to say hello and serve the dish to us.

For the next course, our server brought out individual burners and lit them at the table. The dish was a hotpot of yellow tail, with tofu, turnip, carrot, onion, and mibuna leaf. Our server helped us cook the dish.

The last savory course was glutinous rice with anago eel, which was served with a white miso soup and pickled daikon stalk, daikon leaf, and eggplant.

Dessert was strawberry ice cream with strawberry fruit, which was just delicious. Our kids were also served the same dessert which they quite enjoyed.

The lunch ended with a mochi dessert and a small bowl of green tea.

Our lunch at Kikunoi was by far the best meal of our Osaka/Kyoto trip. I love the ambiance of the room, the seasonality of the dishes, and the variety of techniques, ingredients, and flavors put forth by the chef. The service was wonderful. Our server said "Okini" (Kyoto dialect for thank you) so frequently that I started to say "Okini" back to her half way through the lunch. The meal was a revelation and I gained a great deal of appreciation for kaiseki. As we were leaving the restaurant, chef Murata's daughter walked out with us to our taxis. I thanked her for the wonderful meal and told her we will definitely be back, probably at a different season to experience the restaurant and the food in a different way. Kikunoi is worth a special journey.


  1. My apologies if I have contacted you in the past.

    I publish the following lists which are based on a survey of experienced diners:

    I have expanded the survey to include Asian restaurants, and I am hoping to publish a list of the top Asian restaurants next spring. I noticed that your blog includes a number of reviews of restaurants on the continent, and I am writing to you to see if you would like to participate. Many of the top bloggers in the US & Europe are already participating. I would encourage you to add reviews of restaurants in the U.S. and Europe as well.

    I can also accommodate uploading your reviews via an Excel spreadsheet. If you would like to do that, please register and then send me an email and I will give you instructions about what to do.

    If you have any questions, feel free to ask. Otherwise click on the link below and register. The pre-certification code is the word olive. You can find a list of the Top 100 reviewers on the landing page.

    Thanks and maybe one day we can catch a meal together.

    Steve P.