One of my favorite occasions to eat out in Japan is after returning from a long trip abroad. I have learned to empathize with those Japanese tourists who can’t wait to get home and eat Japanese rice after a whirlwind tour of Europe.
But, incidentally, rice was in short supply when I visited Moriwaki, a family-run restaurant that clutches to the corner of a side street in the Gion district. There were, however, plenty of occasions when I smiled from the sheer delight of eating food that I had missed while away.
Chef and owner Tsutomu Moriwaki serves kaiseki ryōri (traditional multicourse cuisine) that is classical in concept and execution, but he leaves enough room for the unexpected. Instead of serving rice for the penultimate dish, he opted for homemade 100 percent buckwheat soba noodles.
Opened in 2014, the restaurant is nearly as long as it is narrow. Its counter seats six, and is angled parallel to the street. Behind the counter, in the narrowest of kitchens, Moriwaki and his staff of two move wordlessly as the concert of cooking and serving plays out.
For lunch there are two prix fixe options priced ¥3,500 and ¥5,500. I opted for the latter, which opened with genmai (brown rice) soup, a palate cleanser. It’s only nominally a soup, but it prepares your taste buds. This was quickly followed by the first fish dish: hamo (conger eel) served with a thin wedge of crispy lotus root in a gelatinous, slightly vinegary dashi. A pale yellow (and edible) okra leaf added a dash of color. It was a refreshing and light late-summer dish.
The sashimi plate followed, with servings of kinmedai (splendid alfonsino) and chū-toro (tuna belly-flesh). The tuna provided one of the meal’s moments of bliss: it was buttery, and prepared and served in a manner that accentuated its freshness. You’ll want to close your eyes and force time to slow down, just so you can prolong the sensation of pure happiness as you take a bite. Another serving of kinmedai followed, this time broiled and served with matsutake. This mushroom is fungus royalty in Japan and just coming into season — the neighboring couple and I sighed in anticipation when it arrived. It’s an inordinately expensive mushroom, and here it reminded me of what a sake expert once told me about fugu: it’s appreciated not so much for its flavor but for the purity of its texture.
The standout at Moriwaki is the hassun (a course of mixed seasonal food), which is small in comparison to the elaborate servings at many other kaiseki restaurants in Kyoto. Here the focus was on flavor. A single slice of seared duck, hidden beneath a twig of maple leaf was exquisite, and kinmedai featured again, this time topped with a zesty, verdant cucumber dressing. Between this and the penultimate course of jūwari soba (string-like soba noodles cooked al dente), Moriwaki served a delightfully small parcel of rice wrapped inside fried tofu.
You don’t need to leave Japan to appreciate Moriwaki’s cooking but, for me, it was a memorable welcome home.