I am almost certain that I wouldn’t survive a day working under chef Noriyuki Hashinaga. I am, however, certain that I could eat his food every day.
He is an exacting boss. On a recent lunchtime visit, Hashinaga was joined at his eponymous restaurant by one other staff member, who occupied pretty much every role imaginable in the kitchen and restaurant — apart from head chef. The poor soul never stopped going, and when he did pause, Hashinaga wasn’t long in lighting a fire under him.
This is a modestly sized restaurant, which is lucky for the server, who more than likely covers a half marathon in the course of a day’s work. It is dominated by a counter with seating for eight and two tables at the back. And it was a full house when I dined there. Hashinaga’s addition to the Michelin food bible notwithstanding, I imagine he’s not short of patrons as he offers one of the most affordable, delicious and unstuffy kaiseki (traditional multi-course meals) lunch courses in Kyoto.
Whereas many kaiseki restaurants serve up an atmosphere of monastic silence, Hashinaga’s was chatty — the jazz piano soundtrack helped. For lunch, there are two prix-fixe menus (¥2,000 and ¥3,500), with more options at dinner (¥4,000, ¥5,500 and ¥8,000).
Lunch opened with hassun, a serving of seven autumnal appetizers. You can, if you wish, do a blind taste testing here and be left with no doubt of the season. The dish contained a sweet broiled chestnut, satoimo (taro), served pickled and also cubed and topped with a zesty plum dressing. Maitake mushrooms, sesame flavored tofu, a dashi-infused skinless cherry tomato and broiled sardines were the other appetizers.
Staying with the seasonal motif, the tonyu (soy milk) soup was topped with kamaboko (broiled fish cake) in the shape of maple leaves. The velvety surface of the soup was studded with yuzu (Japanese citrus), making it the best-looking dish, and despite the citrus it had a delicate, sweet flavor.
Hashinaga excels at giving his dishes a taste somewhere between sweet and pickled. This was especially true in the yakimono (a grilled dish, usually midcourse in kaiseki cuisine) serving that included a seasonal mix of sugar- and soy-coated delights. The chestnut was glazed in a teriyaki-style sauce, as was the herring. Then another reprise, the taro, this time fried until it had a crisp golden shell. A single bite of satoimo, slightly pickled, helped to anchor the sweetness of a dish that otherwise disregarded subtlety in favor of sweet tones that you’ll want to savor.
As lunch drew to a close, Hashinaga climbed down from the preceding honey-tones. The nimono, or simmered course, was Chinese cabbage and sea bream simmered in a broth that was too liberal with ginger, giving it a medicinal quality perhaps more suited to winter. The meal ended with a simple desert of chestnut cake, a segment of orange and sencha green tea.
For an introduction to kaiseki, or even a continuation, Hashinaga is worth seeking out.
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