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Image 1: I've never been a big fan of kaiseki but since it was strongly recommended by David Kinch during my visit to Manresa last summer, I decided to pay a visit to Ishikawa's 3-star establishment on the last evening of my Japan trip. I easily located the street as it was just off from the intersection of the Bishamonten Zenkokuji temple.
Image 2: Just as I thought that we could easily locate a restaurant for once in Japan without much trouble, we ended up walking up and down the street several times before noticing this big black wooden box attached to a residential building on the opposite side.
Image 3: I then walked across and had a peak inside of what I initially thought was a rubbish bin area for the apartment block. I spotted a tiny yet elegant garden area which was often found in a kaiseki restaurant.
Image 4: Whilst still unsure if this was the right place, we entered considering that the worst case would be to ask for direction to Ishikawa. Lucky enough, appearing in front of us was THE man himself, working behind a 6-seat counter while chatting with guests and enjoying sips of sake. Every bottle of sake here was sampled by him before serving the customer. Born in Niigata, no wonder why he loves his sake!
Image 5: Supported by a team of seven chefs and four staffs, the counter seats plus a small private room covered no more than 25 customers per evening. Ishikawa immediately came to apologise for giving us such a late booking. On the table was a copy of our tasting menu with our name printed on top, and it was all in English. First time we got this treatment in Japan. Brilliant!
Image 6: Shortly after we settled with sips of sake (which again had been sampled by Ishikawa himself) the first item arrived. Fugu, slices of the poisonous blowfish, as an appetizer. I tried fugu a few times and still didn't get the pleasure. Instead…
Image 7: ... I found the cod liver underneath was much more appealing! Witnessing that we finished the course in three quick bites, Ishikawa apologised again and instructed his team to accelerate our menu thinking that we must be too hungry! Yes, it was a late booking (9:30pm) but what he didn't know was that we already had a quick stop at at our favourite Matsusaka steakhouse for a pre-dinner!
Image 8: The second course arrived in no time and was presented in a covered bowl.
Image 9: Floating on top of a soft-shell turtle sauce were cubes of deep fried tofu. The tofu was delicate with an ultra thin yet crispy surface while the inside remained silky; the sauce was light with good flavours so I treated it more like a soup course although the next course was a soup according to the menu...
Image 10: ... But it was actually a somen noodle course with abalone and horsehead snapper. Initially a bit bland but I quickly realized the focus was on the steamed abalone. The deep shellfish taste dominated the course with a soft yielding texture, enough firmness and not being rubbery. Impressive, but a bit too much to have two consecutive soup courses!
Image 11: On to some sashimi, sea bream with a small bundle of finely julienned shiso providing an elegant fragrance to accompany the freshness of raw fish.
Image 12: Lightly boiled crab topped with crab tomalley and dashi jello. The crab was high quality needless to say, the tomalley was indulging as expected, however, the surprise was the deep flavour from the jello, consisted of bonito, kelp, mirin, rice vinaigrette, and light soy sauce, which made this course come alive. Incredible really!
Image 13: The fried course was sweet potato tempura…
Image 14: … and fried conger eel which had a crispy skin and a lovely chargrilled smokiness.
Image 15: Served in a small cup was a mixture of duck and mushroom. Crunchy mushroom with the slightly gamey meat. Ideal to have with some rice as I found it too powerful to have by itself, but I understood a rice course was coming up soon.
Image 16: A very hot shallow bowl comprising of grouper, turnip, and leek. The hot steam had a nice yuzu aroma that carried throughout the course and I felt a touch of ponzu citrus on my palate as well. Beautiful flavours! I wasn't sure if they expected us to finish the soup and I decided not to since we had more or less two soup courses already. Nonetheless, a wonderful course!
Image 17: Chef Ishikawa then brought out a big pot…
Image 18: … and presented us the rice course, which was a pot of rice harvested the week before from his home region. And as with any kaiseki, the rice came with pickles.
Image 19: This was the first time that I really enjoyed a kaiseki rice course!
Image 20: And it was this mashed bream along with seaweed and sesame that brightened up what could have been another bland rice course.
Image 21: He also suggested us to eat only half and save half for a second serving where he mixed more bream…
Image 22: … and poured dashi into the bowl - each drop was packed with flavours!
Image 23: Amazing, both servings were superb. Loving it!
Image 24: We then watched his young assistant chef prepare our dessert which I found quite disgusting! Every component of the dessert was first scooped up by a spoon before he used his left index finger to push it onto the plate. That was fine except that he then licked that same finger every time after he touched the food so every component of every plate of dessert had his saliva!!!
Image 25: To avoid making a scene and to spoil my own experience, I tried my best to enjoy the dessert which consisted of sweet red bean, green tea jello, chestnut ice cream, and coconut milk. I did email Ishikawa later about this basic hygiene issue of his staff. What a shame to leave here with a bad impression of such a superb meal.
Image 26: Ishikawa accompanied our way out and gave us a small bag containing onigiri stuffed with mashed bream, yes, the addictive mashed bream from the rice course. He said the onigiri was made using the rice that we left in the pot from our rice course!
Image 27: So the rice course actually had a third serving! Very clever and we had it for breakfast the next morning. Tasty and leaving us with a memorable experience before we headed to the airport.
Image 28: The meal was not heavy on the palate at all. Each course had enough light elements not to distract my enjoyment from the main ingredients. A very refined cuisine indeed!
Image 29: The service was very friendly and especially with Ishikawa's enthusiasm to engage in many short conversations with every guests (sometimes with the help of his English speaking manager), he really made us feel welcomed to his place. I was glad to end this Japan trip with a warm and memorable meal!