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Tai no Tai: Ambitious kaiseki that plays on the basics

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Chef Noriyuki Hashinaga’s new outpost — Tai no Tai — opened less than a year ago and it is close to his eponymous restaurant in many senses of the word.

Both restaurants are on Takoyakushi-dori avenue in central Kyoto, near enough that Hashinaga could conceivably run back and forth between the two, were it not for the constant stream of cars, bicycles, shoppers and tourists. Besides their proximity, the menus at both restaurants are drawn from the kaiseki canon (the traditional multicourse meal). At Tai no Tai, Hashinaga continues his modus operandi, serving kaiseki cuisine that is reasonably priced.

At Tai no Tai, Hashinaga has foregone counter seating, but that’s understandable given the small size of the space. In some restaurants, the kitchen alone is the same size as Tai no Tai, but for its size, Hashinaga has been both clever and artful with the design. Wallpaper with Japanese design motifs covers the ceiling and the walls, and the seating is divided between Western-style tables and chairs and, on a slightly-raised level, Japanese-style tables. It’s a bright and airy restaurant for what could easily have been a dimly-lit, tavern-like space.

For both lunch and dinner, the choice is between two omakase (chef’s selection) menus, the most expensive of which tops out at ¥8,000 for dinner and the least expensive at ¥2,200 for lunch, which for a kaiseki lunch that runs to seven courses is ambitious. So how does Hashinaga do it without cutting corners? Well for one thing, he doesn’t mind mixing basics into the fold, but in a way that creates something fresh and exciting.

Anyone educated in Japan will have memories of hijiki — the dark, edible seaweed that’s a go-to for school cooks as a cheap source of vitamins and minerals. Hashinaga uses it as the centerpiece in a delightful plate of appetizers that includes a chunk of bacon wrapped inside paper-thin layers of rolled egg; a similar roll of daikon with a piece of salmon at its heart and pickled cucumber, crowned with yellow miso. Hashinaga extracts much from these bite-size and basic ingredients.

In keeping with the seasonal dictates of kaiseki, Hashinaga turns to the root vegetables next with kaburamushi, a thick turnip soup with a minced chicken meatball folded into the mix. The soup is thick enough to trot a chicken across it, but this only reinforced the overall flavor making it perfect for the cold season.

The sashimi plate has a minimal pairing of a piece of yokowa (young tuna) and sea bream that is given a quick searing at the edges. The only dish that fell flat was the plate of lightly fried fish meat and vegetables, which felt stodgy and out of place. However, the steamed daikon topped with yellow miso redeemed the previous dish and it showed just how much flavor Hashinaga can draw from a few simple everyday ingredients.

If you’re looking for quality at low prices, Tai no Tai and Hashinaga are two restaurants that you should really get to know.

Lunch 12 p.m.-2 p.m. dinner 6 p.m.-10 p.m. (L.O. 8 p.m.); Lunch from ¥2,200; dinner ¥5,500