For my last dinner in Kyoto, I found myself at Sakurada, a twenty-five year old establishment where diners are graciously attended to by a team of kimono’d waitresses, the chefs hidden from sight throughout dinner.
Sakurada was a unique experience in hospitality, on top of the already tradition-infused structure of kaiseki, essentially a multi-course tasting menu of ardently seasonal items prepared in often-traditional, always-careful ways. The ladies, polite and graceful, would bring along beautifully and skillfully arranged dishes on an array of porcelain and lacquerware, each different from the next and from those of other diners. The food arrived with the lid on, and I was instructed each time to in essence show myself the dish, which was then explained in as much English as the women could muster (anything unknown was then calligraphically scribed on parchment paper). More than the sushi omakase dinner, kaiseki was an exercise in patience, pacing, (broader) palette of technique, artistry of presentation.
The show began with barley tea with soba & shiso:Cold tofu (preceded by a gulp of cold sake) topped with uni & wasabi, in yuzu juiceSoup of abalone, ginger & winter melon:Sashimi of flatfish, sea bream, & clam (torigai), with ponzu sauce and incredibly fragrant shiso blossoms and freshly grated wasabi: Japanese round eggplant (from Kyoto) with sweet pepper and white miso: Miniature chie no wa (a sculptural shape dedicated to the Buddhist god of wisdom) with pike sushi, baby taro, sweet potato, butter eel: Lake fish from Siga: Poached hamo (pike conger) with lime:Heart of taro plant, with eggplant, sweet pepper, and shaved ginger: Steamed rice with lotus root, zucchini, corn, nori topping, pickles, & miso soup Melon, watermelon, and mango, misho orange juice (not pictured):Ajisai (hydrangea flower), kinton (yam), red bean filling:Green tea to finish the meal:Each course – its composition, the wares and utensils, its timing and portions – was so meticulous, always elegant, often indulgent, sometimes minimalist, but always thoughtful.
To make a long story shorter, my favorite elements were the tofu with uni & yuzu (an impossibly harmonious triumvirate of umami, silkiness, and tart sweetness), the combination of the spicy grated ginger and the hot, rich soup with the winter melon, the mindblowing lightness of the intensely flavored white miso, and the intense sugary sweetness of the mango. The rice, while a fun service experience, was a flavor letdown and pushed me to a somewhat uncomfortable fullness. Along those veins, the service had an effortless fluidity, interspersed with subtle moments of flair or gracious engagement. The kimono’d women kept a constant but unobtrusive eye on me, peeking out from behind the kitchen curtain, purposefully guiding the rhythm of my courses.
After draining my final tea cup, I left with an undiluted sense of surrealism, having been let in on a carefully orchestrated performance, a breathtaking exhibition of dinnerware, a sublime display of seasonal offerings, and with a gracious smile, a measured bow, kindly let back into the stream of my previous reality. Sakurada is in that sense a waking dream, a fantasy I would unscrupulously indulge over again.
Nioitenjincho, Karasuma Bukkoji Higashi iru Hitosujime Sagaru