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Harimaya: Remember this one, baby

by J.J. O'Donoghue

For lunch at Harimaya I was joined by my son, who was celebrating a birthday, of sorts. Six months. He’s a good kid, but let’s face it, he’s a baby — so a six-course lunch could have been more a pain than a pleasure. Two things worked in our favor though. First, the food was a color fest: Imagine a kitchen where the chef works with a chopping board and a color wheel and you might get the picture. Second, we were tucked away in an anteroom room to the front of the restaurant; each time our waitress peeled back the sliding screens to bring forth our food it was like an elaborate game of peek-a-boo.

Harimaya sits just below street level at the antique-shop end of Gion. If lunch had a subtitle, it might be “The Color and the Taste,” or “Sight and Savory.” There was a luminosity to each dish: bright citrus hues offsetting winter browns, reds and holly greens. This was food alive to the possibility of color.

Masahiko Morimoto, proprietor of Harimaya, is a seventh-generation chef who hails from a Kyoto cooking dynasty stretching back to the Edo Period (1603-1867). His food is classic Kyoto style. At heart this is simple washoku served with panache.

Lunch started with fried ebi-imo, a potato so called for its crustacean shape, served in a lemony colored yuzu sauce and topped with a sliver of red and green pepper. No sooner was this finished — and it was finished soon — than the door slid open and our waitress returned with the next course: kabura mushi, or steamed turnip in a thick dashi broth. The turnip held the color of rice fields sheared and cropped in winter. It was a dish perfectly in tune with the season and the region. So far, so delicious.

Re-enter our waitress bearing sashimi, striped jack and tuna. The menu was makase, or entrusted to the chef, so it takes the work out of ordering, but it does mean that the waitress needs to know it inside out in order for you to decode it.

The next course left us with no doubt to which season it was. Under a porcelain Christmas tree was another “tree,” a twig of broccoli topped with a “snow fall” of fish eggs. Elaborate, playful, OTT? Perhaps, but the dengaku toast — miso smeared on a bite-size crust of bread — might just have been the most luscious morsel I ate in 2013.

If I had one worry it was that this amuse-bouche-style lunch would leave me wanting to eat more. However, our waitress returned (peek-a-boo) with shabu-shabu: vegetables, yellowtail so tender it barley needed a swish in the boiling broth, rice and miso soup. On reflection, lunch isn’t supposed to overwhelm but patiently indulge. Dessert, molasses fondue, was sweet and playful.

Chef Morimoto brings something of the monozukuri tradition, “making things well” (or really well), to his restaurant. This was one of the most memorable and delicious lunches I ate all year. (As for Haruki, my son, who can tell?)

181 Cabin Sanjo Aqua 1F, Yamato Oji-dori, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto; 075-551-5671; open lunch and dinner (closed Mon.); nearest stations Sanjo Keihan, Sanjo and Gion Shijo; smoking and no-smoking areas; lunch ¥3,500 per head plus drinks, dinner ¥6,500 per head plus drinks; Japanese menu; English spoken. JJ O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.