Food & Drink | KYOTO RESTAURANTS

Gion Nishikawa: Perfecting the sublime art of kaiseki

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

There’s a small window between Christmas and the new year when restaurants in Japan break out sets of dishes that otherwise remain hidden for months on end. Perhaps “break out” is the wrong choice of words — some of these dishes are individually worth more than the price of lunch or dinner — “showcase” might be more apt. And, in this regard, Gion Nishikawa didn’t disappoint.

The opposite, in fact. The highlights of a recent visit to Gion Nishikawa for lunch ranged from a little house filled with fugu to a water basin in the restroom that had been transformed into a pine tree art installation. The restaurant is a short walk south of Kyoto’s Yasaka Shrine, and it counts two of the city’s most famous kaiseki restaurants, Kikunoi and Wakuden, as neighbors. Both Nishikawa and Wakuden have two Michelin stars, while Kikunoi has three.

At Nishikawa, lunch is served in one sitting and customers are divided between the counter, which seats about 10, and private rooms hidden on the opposite side of the kitchen. To say Nishikawa is a lot like other kappo style restaurants, is true, but also risks selling it short. Wood and bamboo abound; the lighting, kept low, creates a somber atmosphere; and yet, thankfully, Nishikawa is not the kind of place you go to sit in silence and reflect on your food. All through the meal — which ran to nearly two hours, but never felt long — the chefs were engaging, friendly and funny.

Lunch opened with shirako (milt) served on a petite mound of rice. Usually, milt is not for everyone, but at Nishikawa it could be. Possibly. The sacs were lightly torched so that they were just about melting when served, and the taste was both rich and creamy. By contrast, the accompanying sabazushi (chub mackerel sushi) had a far meatier feel. Often sabazushi suffers from too much vinegar; at Nishikawa it is just right.

The starter was followed by a bowl of kani shinjo, a crab meatball served in a deep and savory dashi broth that was colored with flecks of yuzu citrus. It both cleared the palate and warmed the soul.

And then we were each served a house, Lilliputian in size, on a beautiful gold-rimmed plate. Outside the house — on the lawn? — was sashimi of Spanish mackerel, signaling that inside there would also be something fishy. One by one we lifted off the lid to reveal fugu blowfish, or, more accurately, the skin of fugu in a ponzu and scallion sauce. It was a little bit of theater with a whole lot of taste.

Dish after dish, adhering to the rhythm of the kaiseki formation, Nishikawa delivers: the small chunk of yellowtail broiled with a miso glaze and Chinese radish; the sweet, musky turnip-based chawanmushi (steamed egg custard); and the serving of miniature fried potatoes. Lunch wound its way back to tradition and location, ending with a bowl of matcha. And even this bitter tea felt uplifting.

Lunch from ¥5,000; dinner ¥15,000; Japanese menu; some English spoken