Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Roan Kikunoi

One of the perks of living in Hong Kong is the opportunity to travel - Hong Kong International Airport is fantastically well-connected to hundreds of international locations, and getting in and out of the airport is the easiest I've experienced the world over. Also, it helps that the husband works for an airline, which offers some travel perks.

This past weekend, we did a weekend trip to Kyoto, one of my favorite spots in Japan. Kyoto is so lovely and serene - it's a city where you still get to see geishas dressed in kimonos walking around in the Gion district, where you can spend a relaxing night in a ryokan eating an exquisite kaiseki meal and bathing in onsen and where there are endless opportunities to eat delicious soba, tempura, tofu, green tea desserts, kaiseki and street snacks.

Our final meal in Kyoto was kaiseki at Roan Kikuno, a 2-Michelin starred restaurant featuring traditional Japanese cuisine.

Hassun (appetizers): "horse reins" sushi (no horse involved, supposed to be shapes to look like horse reins), cod roe terrine, marinated tofu in pickled-ume (Japanese plum), broccoli rabe with mustard, sweet black beans, whitebait with yuzu, steamed kabocha pumpkin, marinated Fuki buds in miso

Amuse: steamed snow crab with grated red turnip, ginger and crab roe

Sashimi (first course): hirame (flounder) and botan-ebi (sweet prawn), grated wasabi and nori, served with soy sauced and flounder liver sauce (not pictured). The hirame dipped in a sauce made of hirame liver was amazing - rich, savory, brimming with umami

 Sashimi (second course): koshibi (baby tuna) served with marinated egg yolk sauce

Soup: minced duck meatball, yomogi (mochi made of Japanese mugwort), arrowhead root, leek, daikon, yuzu, carrot and gold leaf

As we were only having lunch, we did a truncated version of the kaiseki meal, skipping a couple of the courses, such as the yakimono (grilled course). Our next course was Japanese hotpot served with a broth made of sake, daikon and sweet carrot and a plate of buri (amberjack) and mibuna greens, which you cook quickly in the broth, then dip into the ponzu sauce and eat.

Our rice course (always the penultimate course before dessert): rice steamed with tilefish and shiso. The chef painstakingly takes out every fish bone in front of you, then mixes the rice together with the fish and shiso and serves the rice in individual bowls.

Japanese pickles to accompany the rice. A burdock soup was also served, which is not pictured.

Dessert: homemade strawberry ice cream and "sponge cake pudding" - basically a pound cake soaked in eggy custard with a creme brulee top. I didn't think the strawberry ice cream paired very well with the cake, but the cake was rich, creamy and delicious!

While the meal was pretty good and each course did a good job of honing in on the subtle flavors of each of the ingredients, the experience was, on the scale of amazing Japanese meals, only a 7 out of 10. It may have had to to do with the fact that we were 45 minutes late (the gods were against us - for whatever reason, the traffic that morning was horrendous), which admittedly I know is a cardinal sin in haute Japanese dining but we didn't know there would be so much traffic! Our tardiness clearly angered the chef so much that he refused to serve us himself and instead made his sous chefs serve us. The only problem with that was that none of the sous chefs spoke English and were not able to instruct us on how to eat the dishes (for example, the hirame liver sauce was only for the hirame, and the ebi should be dipped in the soy sauce), so we'd fumble and try to figure it out, then the chef would come over and admonish us: "no no no, hirame goes in liver sauce! Dip more sauce, more sauce!" The service marred our overall experience - I suggest that if you don't want to suffer the wrath of the chef, make sure you are on time!

Food rating: *** and a half
Bang for buck rating: 3

The essentials:
Location: 118 Saito-cho, Shijo-sagaru, Kiyamachi-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto
Average price of kaiseki: Lunch options for 4,200 yen, 7,350 yen or 10,500 yen; Dinner options from 10,500 yen to 18,900 yen


  1. For a first time in Japan, for a foodie who also likes other aspects of Japan's charms (architectures, arts), would you recommend Kyoto or Tokyo?

    1. Impossible to choose between the two (sorry, I know that's not of much help) - if you can swing it, the shinkansen train between Kyoto and Tokyo is only a little over 2 hours, so try to do both! If you absolutely only have time for one, then I'd go with Kyoto - it really maintains the feel of old Japan in Gion/Higashiyama areas and the food is excellent.