Wakuden in Kyoto Station opens for lunch at 11 a.m. Who eats lunch that early? To answer I arrived minutes after 11, thinking I would be dining tout seul. Far from it: The queue was out the door. The reason: Wakuden serves pricey kaiseki (haute cuisine) — sets starts at ¥6,000 — but every day there are a set number of roughly 15 lunches (called Kuchinashi) priced at ¥2,700. Hence the early birds, many of whom were in their twilight years.
Like many things in Kyoto, there’s a history lesson first. Wakuden began as a ryokan (inn) in the third year of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) in the eastern part of Kyoto. At the Kyoto Station restaurant I was seated at the counter, with Kyoto fanned out in gridiron formation, offering a chance to gaze across the city. Save for some temples and the ring of mountains that accommodate Kyoto, much of this city has changed since Wakuden began. But, maybe not with Kyoryori, or Kyoto cooking, Wakuden’s raison d’etre.
As happens in many Japanese restaurants, once you choose your course the menu disappears. This has its advantages, and its drawbacks, as per when the first dish arrived — a cup, actually, little bigger than a thimble. I heard my server say genmai (unpolished rice), missed the rest and presumed from its clear color it was sake. A kind neighbor explained it was kosencha, a rice tea served to show the restaurant’s hospitality.
Kuchinashi is a four-course meal, and from my experience, what you get is mostly good. The first platter was an assortment of hors d’oeuvres assembled around the centerpiece, a serving of mozuku, an edible seaweed that has more texture than taste. Kyoto cuisine is famed for its pickling and fermenting, which was on show on the plate: boiled spinach worked into a creamy tofu sauce (shiroae); okra and shiitake mushrooms with a sprinkling of sesame seeds; and simmered herring and a renkon chip, Kyoto’s riff on fish and chips. It was a beautifully orchestrated beginning.
The next dish — enoki mushrooms wrapped in hamo (conger eel), served in butternut squash soup, with broiled pepper and asparagus — was gorgeous. The penultimate serving was the least complex, taimeshi (sea bream on rice). I was enjoying the interplay between the dishes and the food — the taimeshi plate was frankly boring, but this is a minor quibble. The tai was cut nearly as thin as parmesan shavings; simple fish dishes like this work because of their freshness. Dessert, adzuki beans and mochi (pounded rice), was the only middling dish.
Wakuden is quite formal; cellphone usage is not tolerated and there is no music. The lady next to me closed her eyes after each dish, as if she might have been in a temple.
It was only when I left that I spotted the other counter, facing the open kitchen and a team of a dozen chefs. I’ll be back to watch them next time for one of the best-priced kaiseki lunches in Kyoto.
11F JR Kyoto Isetan, Higashi Shiokoji-cho, Shiokoji-sagaru, Karasuma-dori, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto; 075-365-1000; www.wakuden.jp; open daily 11 a.m.- 3 p.m., 5 p.m.-10 p.m.; inside Kyoto Station; no smoking; Kuchinashi lunch ¥2,700 (plus drinks); English menu; some English spoken. J.J. O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.