You need a strategy when you’re visiting a city the size of Kyoto. Ours was simple: No tourist spots, no taxis and no traipsing around. We were there to eat.
We had a day and a half, just time for three good meals (not counting breakfast). So, instead of zooming from one side of the city to the other — we’ve seen the main sights many times over, anyway — our plan was to relax, explore on foot and stick to a single neighborhood.
Our focus was the quadrant to the southeast of the busy Shijo-Kawaramachi Crossing. This area, sandwiched between the mighty Kamogawa River and the scenic Takasegawa canal, is much quieter than the brash Pontocho/Kiyamachi entertainment district to the north.
The narrow alleys are lined with inscrutable bars and one-counter eateries. Many of these squat traditional buildings were (and some still are) houses of assignation. The path that follows the canal here is a far cry from the famous Philosopher’s Walk — more like the Philanderer’s Walk, if you will. This was our route to dinner on our first evening.
Giro Giro Hitoshina lies a good 10-minute stroll downstream. The architecture here is functional rather than quaint, and the bright lights seem a long way away. It’s an obscure location — but that is only apt for this most unorthodox of Japanese restaurants.
Housed in a converted warehouse already several decades old, Giro Giro feels fun and funky. Inside and out, most of the original features have been retained, apart from the back wall, which has been knocked out and replaced with vast picture windows looking out onto the foliage of the cherry trees lining the swift-moving canal.
Several of the young crew members who cook and serve here sport punkish haircuts. None rivals the tonsure of the head chef, whose scalp is currently adorned with a large pink strawberry and yellow chrysanthemum cut and dyed onto his otherwise buzz-shaved bonce.
He certainly knows how to cook, though. Call it “punk kaiseki” — a multicourse dinner that basically follows the conventions and structure of traditional Kyoto cuisine, without the formality and elaboration. The ingredients are less sophisticated than you’d be served at a top-end restaurant, and the bowls and utensils humbler. But each of the eight courses — from the elaborate hassun (appetizer) tray through to a selection of desserts each made by different members of the staff — was given the requisite seasonal accent, often with an amusing quirkiness.
The other main difference is the price. At just ¥3,680 per person, this represents unbelievable value. No wonder Giro Giro is so popular that they have to take two (or more) sittings each evening. If you want to relax, sit at the counter and interact with the chefs, you need to book well in advance.
Giro Giro (it’s pronounced with a hard “g”) is sometimes transliterated as Guilo-guilo. That’s the way they spell it in French, since they now have an offshoot in Paris. If it’s anything like the original restaurant, there’s no way it can fail.
For lunch the next day, we were back in the same neighborhood, but for very different cuisine. Il Ghiottone, generally considered the finest Italian restaurant in the city, opened a new branch last year and we were keen to see how it stacked up.
Chef Yasuhiro Sasajima virtually invented the category Japanese-Italian. It’s not just that he incorporates traditional Kyoto vegetables in his antipasti, pasta and secundi. More than that, he imbues his cucina with that ineffable kaiseki aesthetic. It’s won him plaudits and Michelin stars.
At his new place, Il Ghiottone Cucineria, he tones down the Japanese sensibility, offering a more relaxed style and affordable versions of his cooking. It still feels entirely Kyoto. Perched right on the bank of the Kamogawa, it has a huge window looking over the river. The dining room is clean and unadorned, the service is precise and the cooking exquisite.
The simplest of the prix-fixe lunches (¥3,675) is a substantial five-course affair, and the “B Course” (¥5,250) is even more elaborate. We didn’t even contemplate the top-of-the-line ¥7,815 banquet; not with dinner yet to come.
The highlights were numerous: a tartare of lightly smoked fresh salmon and avocado, topped with spring herbs and a foam perfumed with orange; a perfect tagliatelle with creamy shirako milt and kujo-negi scallions, dusted with bottarga and shichimi seven-spice; and a juicy fillet of charcoal-grilled duck breast served with a croquette made with confit of duck, rucola salad and a swoosh of dark anchovy/olive/caper sauce. Bravo!
The word is that the Capo — Sasajima’s term for himself — likes to work in the open kitchen here as often as he can. He was not in evidence on the day we were there, but his influence certainly was.
The kaiseki aesthetic seems all-pervasive in Kyoto, so it was only fitting that we spent our last evening at the source. Kikunoi is one of the jewels in the city’s gastronomic crown, and its third-generation owner-chef, Yoshihiro Murata, is acknowledged as a master of his craft.
At the Kiyamachi branch, called Roan Kikunoi , the cuisine is virtually identical to that at the main restaurant, but instead of exclusive private rooms with garden views you sit at an imposing scrubbed-wood counter. This more relaxed kappo format allows you to watch and interact with the chefs.
Relaxed is, of course, a relative term. The look is sparse and austere, and in deference to your fellow diners, you may find yourself talking sotto voce, at least until the later stages when the sake starts to kick in.
We booked the mid-level ¥15,000 dinner. This comprises 12 separate courses, which, served with few gaps in between, last a good three hours. Murata’s embrace of nontraditional influences — still considered anathema in some circles — was clear from the very outset, an amuse featuring shirako blended with tofu and topped with a dark sauce richly infused with black truffles.
Again in the otsukuri (sashimi) course: fat slices of tora-fugu puffer-fish milt seasoned with fine-chopped asatsuki scallions, zest of yuzu, sea salt and drops of fragrant truffle oil. Besides being potentially lethal, the flavor in itself was enough to generate major frissons.
This is heady cuisine, rich with the profound umami savor of superlative dashi soup stock and featuring Kyoto’s distinctive vegetables in raw, cooked or pickled form. Some people find kaiseki too serious and wonder what the fuss is about. We find it elevates the spirit and insinuates our dreams. This was the stuff of memory, to linger with us on our journey home.
Giro Giro Hitoshina, 420-7 Nanba-cho, Nishi-kiyamachi-dori Matsubara-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku; (075) 343-7070; www.guiloguilo.com; open 5:30-11 p.m. (last order); closed last Sun. of the month; set dinner ¥3,680; no credit cards (cash only)
Il Ghiottone Cucineria, 160-2 Izumiya-cho, Kiyamachi-dori Matsubara-agaru, Shimogyo-ku; (075) 353-8866; www.cucineria.jp; open 12-2 p.m. (last order) & 6-11 p.m. (last order); closed Wed.; lunch from ¥3,675; dinner from ¥7,875, also a la carte; major credit cards
Roan Kikunoi, 118 Saito-cho, Kiyamachi-dori Shijo-sagaru, Shimogyo-ku; (075) 361-5580; kikunoi.jp/english/store/roan/; open daily 12-2 p.m. (last entry) & 5-8 p.m. (last entry); lunch from ¥4,200, dinner from ¥10,500; major credit cards