Every so often, a meal comes around that fundamentally alters the way you look at food. In Japan, that seems to happen every fourth meal or so, from bowls of handmade noodles to grilled skewers of odd chicken parts to cups of green tea thick enough to coat your throat on the way down. It’s all pretty paradigm-shifting stuff over there, mainly because the Japanese have a mind for detail and a penchant for perfectionism that makes stereotypical sticklers like Scandinavians and Germans look downright sloppy. Nowhere does that mentality take finer shape than in the great kaiseki restaurants of Kyoto, where three-hour feasts fuse technical mastery and delicate artistry for the kinds of results that leave you slack-jawed and school-girl giddy.
Kichisen is one of Kyoto’s great kaiseki restaurants, a small, elegant space run by Yoshimi Tanigawa, a guy best known for demolishing Morimoto in Battle Pike Eel many years back on Iron Chef. (Unlike Iron Chef America, where mediocre chefs like Bobby Flay routinely lose to any dude who knows how to sear a steak or peel a carrot, Iron Chef Japan rarely features one of their big guns going down—let alone Morimoto losing in a clean sweep.) Tanigawa-san is still understandably fired up over the victory; at the end of the meal, he came into our private room and handed me a DVD of the momentous victory for my at-home viewing pleasure.
It doesn’t take more than a few bites to recognize the potential for Morimoto emasculation: rosy dominoes of raw tuna belly paired with whipped yam and fresh wasabi; pregnant smelt with pickled kumquats; tea pots of braised eel and thick matsutake mushrooms—choptstick out the fish and the fungus, then pour yourself a few glasses of the steaming broth to wash it all down. The high-water mark, though, is found in the photo above, Japanese-style oyster stew, a burbling pot of fat, barely-cooked beauties cloaked in white miso and lashed with Sichuan peppercorns. Plumb the murky depths of the clay pot for alternating blasts of miso sweetness, sea brine, and lip-numbing, tongue-tingling Sichuan heat. It’s kaiseki cuisine at its finest, elegant and sophisticated enough to eat in a kimono on a tatami mat, but just willd enough to leave your head spinning.