Is This The Ultimate Dining Experience?

by Julian Ryall
Kitcho Restaurant Michelin-starred Kitcho restaurant marks 80 years in Kyoto

The green of the tea that has been carefully combined with the rough pyramid of shaved ice is even darker than the needles of the pine trees in the garden of Kitcho. The taste and texture of the carefully prepared brew infuse this traditional summer dish and, at the bottom of the rough-glazed bowl, is a deep red pearl of sweet bean jam.

Kyoto Kitcho ArashiyamaThe dish is simple yet exquisite in its appeal to all the human senses. Which is precisely what Kunio Tokuoka has set out to achieve since first picking up a noodle strainer in his early 20s. The authors of the much-vaunted Michelin guide believe he has achieved what he set out to do and have rewarded him with three stars.

Today, the restaurant that his grandfather Teiichi Yuki founded in the Arashiyama district of Kyoto is famous for its commitment to the very highest quality in the entire dining experience. From only the finest quality ingredients, to the decor, service and hospitality, the delicate scent of incense to the arrangement of flowers or a scroll chosen to appeal to the customer and the occasion, the attention to detail is minute.

But people come here, above all else, for meals that are deeply influenced by the age-old tea ceremony and have been refined in the 80 years since the restaurant opened. “Kaiseki may be a form of art, but the kanji characters literally mean ‘breast stone,’ because zen monks would slip a hot stone next to their skin to keep the hunger and cold at bay,” says Tokuoka, aged 50. “But the most important thing today is to use the meal to convey feelings to a guest.”

In the 14th century, Sen no Rikyu, Japan’s greatest tea master, found the “perfect” balance between tea and food and used the tea ceremony to express his emotions to his guests, Tokuoka said. Tea is no longer difficult to come by and more ingredients than Sen no Rikyu would ever have been able to dream of are available today, but his values remain.

“Kaiseki is taking everything that is available and using that to express your feelings to the person who is gracing your presence,” said Tokuoka, with a sweep of his arms showing how the private dining room we are seated in has been thoughtfully prepared.

We are seated at a gleaming lacquer-coated table on a carpet over the tatami mat floor because, as a foreigner, I might find it uncomfortable to sit in the traditional cross-legged position on the floor. A scroll hangs in the tokonoma alcove and a simple array of flowers stand in a basket. The paper screens on two sides have been opened up and through the sliding glass doors the garden is in pristine condition. A small stone lamp stands atop a mossy bank and the leaves of a tree are about to start taking on their autumn colors.

Ultimate Dining ExperienceWith the change of the seasons, Tokuoka and his team of chefs have begun to consider the ingredients that are coming into their own. A favorite is shrimp croquettes with Kyoto taro accompanied by grilled sword beans, carrot and shiitake mushrooms in a creamy sauce made of daikon radish, kelp, onion and butter. Another Tokuoka original is the steamed yuba wrap, in which a Chinese yam and saltwater eel are surrounded by a wrap of soymilk skin that is a local specialty.

Mushrooms are as treasured in Japan as truffles are in Europe at this time of year, with another seasonal delight combining matsutake and pike conger.

But ask Tokuoka to name his favorite ingredient to work with, and the answer comes as a surprise.

“Rice, soy sauce and wasabi,” he said with firm conviction. “Those are the base of Japanese cuisine and I couldn’t choose one over the others as a favorite.

“You have to start with the very basics and choose the very best quality ingredients, even down to the water and salt, because these are the building blocks that everything else relies upon,” he said. “They change constantly, the quality and flavor, and you have to pay very close attention to what you are working with. You have to always ensure quality, and if I find better quality elsewhere then I will switch supplier.”

Likewise, Tokuoka said he is unable to name a favorite recipe but is constantly pursuing “the idea of deliciousness.”

“I try to do it from a scientific standpoint: What is deliciousness?” he asked. “I have had this debate with university professors, authors and artists and I have reached several conclusions. Good flavor can be a physical thing. Glutamate, from kelp, and inosinic acid, in bonito flakes, can make a major difference and when you get the two together in the right amounts, the degree of deliciousness increases eight-fold.

“When the receptors on our tongues connect with the brain, that releases dopamine and endorphines that combine as an explosion, and that’s what flavor is.”

The trick, he said, is to come up with the right ingredients and combine them in the perfect amounts, but also to make sure that the textures work together. And this must all be done in a way that no one has achieved before.

“In the West, people sometimes take food supplements and don’t think they need to eat properly, but it’s not that simple,” he said. “There is one receptor on the tongue for sweet tastes, but 50 for bitterness and countless others that give the mouth an idea of texture. There are 380 for scent. And we have to take all of these into account when we want to make a full-bodied flavor.

“You have to add depth. You have to have a scent. In the Japanese language, there is lots of onomatopoeia for stickiness, slipperiness and there are countless ways of talking about food,” he added. “Whether something tastes good depends on who you are eating with, the surroundings and all the things that you take in through all your senses. For a meal to be really good, a chef cannot just focus on one flavor because that misses the point. That scientific information may not have been available in the past, but now it is and it is a chef’s tool that I have to use.

“The whole point is to bring happiness and share happiness around the whole world.”

All images from: Kitcho: Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience,  Published by Kodansha International  ¥5,500

All images from: Kitcho: Japan’s Ultimate Dining Experience, Published by Kodansha International ¥5,500

Kyoto Kitcho Arashiyama
58 Susukinobaba-cho, Saga Tenryuji,
Ukyo-ku, Kyoto City, Kyoto 616-8385
Tel: 075-881-1101