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Iwasaki: Family run, Michelin starred, and no food photos allowed

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Special To The Japan Times

It was a coincidence that on the same day we had a reservation for Iwasaki, a small family-run restaurant west of Kyoto’s Municipal Office, the Iwasaki’s were quietly marking a milestone: the restaurant’s 10-year anniversary.

Iwasaki has retained a Michelin star every year since 2012, and last month Tabelog, the restaurant listing and reviews website, included it in its list of Japan’s best restaurants, but neither the accolades nor the anniversary were being celebrated. Modesty was to the fore, except perhaps in the cooking, where there were flashes of creativity in nearly every dish.

Two things to note about Iwasaki: First, it’s on the wee side of small. The L-shaped counter seats six, and past the kitchen at the back there’s a private room that seats another five diners. Needless to say, getting a booking can be tricky.

Second, food photography is prohibited, so you’ll have to fill up your Instagram feed with adjectives. But don’t let Iwasaki’s size or photo rules get in the way, because it is one of the best kaiseki-ryori (traditional multi-course meal) restaurants in a city that is essentially the capital of them.

Two generations of the Iwasakis work here — the kitchen is overseen by Yoshinori Iwasaki, while his wife and daughter are out front, doling out the dishes and the hospitality.

Chef Iwasaki hails from Tamba, to the northwest of the city, a region rich in agricultural produce. Rice grown by his father in Tamba is the star of the penultimate course: Iwasaki presents three separate servings of rice, each cooked to varying degrees in order to compare and savor the texture and flavor of each. The rice course was the most refined and simple dish, but the simplicity was a fitting denouement to a meal that was otherwise quite ornate.

Lunch began with tea infused with kumquat before giving way to the first of several fish dishes, simmered conger eel served with slivers of myōga ginger, yuba (bean curd skin) and rapeseed flowers. Iwasaki’s cooking is infused with delicacy and thoughtfulness. Where the anago eel and yuba both share a melt-in-the-mouth quality, their flavors diverge — the eel was savory sweet, but the tofu-like yuba has a slightly nutty flavor.

We moved through a few more fish dishes, and meat never featured in our omakase chef-selected lunch. As expected, much of the fare is grounded in the season. Turnip formed the basis of the hearty and deeply pleasing kabura mushi (steamed and grated turnip) with scallops and shredded crab. Toward the end of lunch a rice cake flavored and colored with Japanese mugwort and accompanied by a chunk of sea bream, Japanese parsley and a strand of yuba harkened back to New Year’s cuisine. Mochi, the sticky rice cake, returned again for desert, this time flavored with lotus root.

Lunch from ¥5,400; dinner ¥10,800; closed Sunday; Japanese spoken, Japanese menu