On the wall at Gion Sasaki there are two signs depicting mobile phones with lines through them. Bringing your phone with you is allowed, but speaking on it is a no-no. When I visited for lunch, an Asian tourist dining on his own nearby barely put his phone down during the entire nine-course kaiseki meal. He was, I fear, so distracted by apps, messages, news updates and pictures he may have missed one of Kyoto’s best meals. I dedicate this review to him, for he was there in body, but that is all.
Reservations don’t come easy at Michelin-starred Gion Sasaki, especially for the kaiseki lunch set, which is priced relatively reasonably (¥6,000) for a two-star establishment.
The main restaurant is housed in an old townhouse, with lanterns adorning the steps and kimono-clad receptionists guide you to your seat in the main room. Sasaki is a kappo (counter-style) restaurant — and what a counter it is. It seats 19 people, if my count is correct, and the many chefs (there appears to be one for every customer) bring a certain degree of theatricality to the preparation of meals, which lessens the stuffiness and formality that often comes with haute cuisine. But take note that all meals begin being served at the same time, so be sure you’re punctual or you’ll upset the orchestration.
Lunch opened with a simple dish: simmered daikon served in a slightly sweet dashi, accompanied by leeks and fresh wasabi. It was followed by a more ornate mix, which included konbu (kelp), green beans and yuzu (citrus fruit) straddling a delicate serving of sea bass and tofu — a course that mixed hues of white and green. A speck of ume (plum) sauce enlivened the dish, both in terms of taste and appearance.
The next dish was more fun. It featured hamo, (conger eel) served in small mikoshi (portable shrine), to mimic much-larger versions used during July’s Gion Matsuri, one of Japan’s most famous festivals. The presentation felt a little gimmicky, but when each of us were shown our tiny shrines, the restaurant was filled with sighs of pleasure and nostalgia.
I enjoyed the udon salad a lot more. All the ingredients were sent to the countertop, and chefs peeled off to two stations along it as if they were in a race. They proceeded to assemble the salad, starting with the udon before adding shrimp, jellyfish, squid and okra. Just prior to being served, another chef appeared with a machine I have no name for — its purpose was simply to spray water over the dish. Next, sweet fish from nearby Lake Biwa was cooked over charcoals at the counter and served with cucumber and vinegar sauce. These three ingredients captured summer like no other.
There was much more to come, including two rice dishes, which were again prepared at the counter and laden with flavour. Get yourself to Gion Sasaki, but leave your devices behind.
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