Our final dinner in Japan, was bittersweet. We went full on for this one and rented kimonos. We met some amazing people at this restaurant including the owner’s son who has worked in NY. Our guest who sat next to us gave us a list of places to see on our next trip, with areas we knew nothing about. We are already planning on a trip in November 2016 with this information to capture that season’s bounties.
Sojiki Nakahagashi was the most difficult reservation to book our entire trip. It needed to be booked 6 months ahead of time. The chef is like the Rene Redzepi of Japan, as he forages for herbs, roots, and vegetables in the mountains before every dinner.
We started with the ayu (sweet fish) with taro and fava beans, with some other foraged items that we could not identify. This ayu was different in that it was like the adolescent ayu, caught higher upstream before they have a chance to grow to adult size, hence the softer the bones. Hidden inside the bamboo leaf that was wrapped with aromatic herbs was a piece of Sabazushi as they call it in Kyoto, Saba (mackerel) lightly pickled in rice vinegar. In the old days, before refrigeration, this is how the emperor’s sushi would survive transportation from the ocean. I am ruined with mackerel in the US, so stinky and fishy here, can’t trust it. This mackerel here was briny but almost fragrant and perfumed, maybe the vinegar?
Next was Momijigasa, which is a wild foraged mountain plant that looks like the plant from little shop of horrors, with dried deer meat. There were some smoked black sesame seeds on top, talk about forest, doesn’t get wilder than that.
My wife and I really appreciated the variety of nice crystal baccarat glasses we saw at the restaurants in Japan. I know that all these young hipster chefs source their dishware to local artisan potters, etc and complain that restaurants should spend less money on the tablecloths, silverware, and glasses and focus on the food, but it was such an experience to eat in gold plated Baccarat crystal bowls, etched crystal wine glasses, whiskey glasses, we’ve ranted enough about this.
Next, this milky amazing miso soup made with koshu, which is a Japanese wine made from the koshu grape, with spring onion, mustard, and special snow peas. They took pleasure in ruining us for some of these classic staple Japanese dishes we love, like miso soup, which will never taste as good as this again.
Then aoi (hollyhock and wild ginger, I’m assuming foraged) with Ibana trout. They told us the metaphor of how the carp becomes a dragon once it can jump up the waterfall. Interestingly, we heard this story at one of the temples in Kyoto during the day. Moral of the story, never give up, keep trying to swim upstream. As the proverb states, those who try hard enough will be rewarded with unimaginable benefits regardless of how humble their origins. In our case we were rewarded with twenty year miso on this carp with the separately cooked/charred bones that demonstrated an amazing use of a commonly discarded part of the fish.
Then bonito fish marinated for one week, winter fern, and three types of Wasabi, and grilled carp with water shield. This was like eating an orchestra, strings, horns, percussion all going off at the same time, no solos. Each item was so novel to us, and the medley in this soup was inducing the paradox of choice, didn’t know what to eat first. Boiled raw Wasabi, wow, like boiled dandelion. Again, fresh Wasabi is not like the horseradish you get in the US, it’s delicate and sweet almost.
I know the next plate looks really plane, just a bowl of rice. But there was an interesting element here that you never get at any other restaurant. They served the rice to us at the exact moment that the raw rice becomes cooked rice, and you have to eat it right away to capture that moment. Again, nothing molecular with beakers and Bunsen burners, but timing and elbow grease to capture a flavor at a tangential point in the cooking process, that probably was only available in the past to grandmothers making home cooked meals or chefs trying to impress each other behind the scenes.
Finally, I have waited the whole trip to talk about this next item. This was by far the best piece of food I put in my mouth the entire trip after the tempura quail egg and red clam in Tokyo. Not only the best flavor, but also a unique glimpse at a style of sushi making unique to Kyoto, and almost a lost technique at that. According to the chef, this was the original way that sushi was prepared in the dark ages. Reason being, this piece of pressed sabazushi was made in May of 2014. I ate mackerel sushi that was fermenting for one year, with daikon leaf and root that dissolved into a putridly stinky paste in my mouth. It has a nitric content of fertilizer, almost reminded me of epoise cheese in its astringency. The flavor came in waves, and had a long finish. I can’t tell you what a perfect type of vessel a grain of rice can be in capturing the molecules that break down in degrading fish. The rice just mushes nasty, salty rottenness. I’m getting chills just remembering the shock at experiencing this for the first time.
Again, the idea of fish jumping upstream from the wild rapids against the backdrop of the bamboo forest, recreated with nirangi scallion and various medicinal foraged roots. Sweet fish again. Love the recreation on the plate of the nature scenes.
They did this again by plating a charred sweet fish on a plate with the picture of the sky, like the view the fish has from the water looking up or the human looking down into the water depending on your perspective.
Then Kyoto beef grilled and wrapped around wild asparagus, cauliflower, and persimmon flowers. The place smelled like caramelized amazingness at this point.
Then a dish of Japanese parsley and shitake mushrooms. Followed by assorted pickled vegetables that I cannot even begin to differentiate, to cleanse the palate.
Ending with iri banchan, smokey tea, then wild foraged strawberries in cream with pistachio, ending with slow drip iced coffee. What a gastronomic adventure to end our trip. We were so sad that this would last dinner, but could not wait to untie our kimonos as we were about to burst.
Gallery view below.