When I made my food itinerary for Japan, it wasn’t with Michelin stars in mind. I’ve eaten a lot of great food in Japan, but on this trip, I wanted to experience the “best” sushi, tempura, yakitori and kaiseki to see if what people considered the best, tasted that much better than very good or great. When I started looking at restaurants that were “best of class”, it just so happened that many of them would also be in the Michelin star category.
When I left Tokyo, I had added an additional 7 Michelin stars onto my dining repertoire. With my meal at Kikunoi Honten in Kyoto, I’d add 3 more. Kaiseki, which is most simply described as a traditional multi-course Japanese meal, has never been anything I’ve sought in Japan in my adult life. But when I watched David Chang wax poetic during his kaiseki meal at Kikunoi on a Mind of a Chef episode, I was reminded of a similar peak experience I’d had as a child with my mom in Kyoto.
I remember being taken to a beautifully serene restaurant and sitting in a private dining room with my mom and aunties being served perfectly presented food, almost too picturesque to eat. When I asked my mom about it, she couldn’t tell me the name of the restaurant, but also remembered intricate details of the meal. I decided that if I could get a reservation at Kikunoi, I had to go and it only seemed natural that my mom would be my dining companion again for this highly anticipated meal.
Kaiseki is described by Anthony Bourdain in Mind of a Chef as “a multi-course, ultra-refined, obsessively local and seasonal and very traditional”. David Chang names Kikunoi as “one of the best restaurants in the world, arguably the best kaiseki restaurant in Japan and an extraordinary experience”. Described that way, I was motivated to get a reservation. Lucky for me, my amazing hotel concierge was able to secure me lunch reservations.
On my last day in Kyoto, as my mom and I walked through the quiet streets on our way to Kikunoi, I was bombarded with memories of our many visits together. I realized that many of my fondest memories in Japan included moments in Kyoto with my mom, and the most amazing thing about my mom is that when she commits to an adventure, she’s all in.
As we walked up the path to Kikunoi, I was feeling a bit uneasy that I was under-dressed for our meal. Anywhere else in the world, there would be no way I’d show up at a 3* restaurant wearing leggings and a Lululemon top. But I knew in Japan, that they’d be too polite to look down their noses at me for my attire. I bought a pair of socks on our way to the restaurant so I wouldn’t embarrass my mom with my bare feet as we took off our shoes when we arrived.
From the moment of our arrival, we were treated graciously. After we took off our shoes, (and I slipped on my socks quickly), we were shown to our private room which overlooked a garden just starting to show signs of spring blossoming.
We were left with a copy of Chef Murata’s book, Kaiseki which helped to explain to me the different courses of a kaiseki meal and also how the ingredients and dishes were closely tied to each season. At the front of the book, I showed my mom that Ferran Adria had written the forward. My mom got a kick out of that because she remembered the photo that I had with Adria in Barcelona.
Chef Murata changes the meal monthly to reflect the seasons. Since we were there at the start of cherry blossom season, our meal would try to evoke “feelings of sitting under cherry blossom trees on a regal crimson carpet, while watching the delicate pink petals flutter elegantly to earth” as described in his book. I read and re-read that passage, wondering how any meal could capture those feelings, but as service began and beautiful vessels holding thoughtfully presented food arrived at our table, I saw the sensitivity of the chef’s words unfolding in front of me.
Service at Kikunoi is traditional and our server gracefully entered the room to present each dish. For the fish course above, 2 women entered the room and we were served our pieces of fish from a bigger tray to our plates. I was too busy looking at the gigantic wooden chopsticks used for service that I didn’t notice that our server had changed. Lucky my mother did and struck up a conversation with her. It turns out that in traditional Japanese service, the woman of the house will come to visit the guests and usually serve a course. In our case, we were told that Chef Murata-san’s wife was not present, but the lovely young woman serving us was Murata-san’s daughter. My mom told Murata’s daughter about how I travel all over the world to eat and showed the photo of Adria in her dad’s book to explain how I’d eaten beside Adria at his restaurant, but how his food is so much different from what we were eating. It was at that moment that I realized that my mom pays attention to my posts and all of the eating I’ve been doing over the last few years.
All in, our meal was over 3 hours. After the French Laundry, this is the longest meal I’ve ever had. Normally, food alone isn’t enough to keep me engaged through a dinner, but the combination of food, drink, my company and people-watching is what makes the experience for me. At Kikunoi, it was just my mom and I, gazing out into the peaceful garden for our meal. Experiencing a meal at Kikunoi made me feel like I was watching fine theatre, but at the same time being an active participant. The service was captivating and brought me to a zen-like state that kept me thoroughly engaged throughout the meal. To top everything off, dish after dish, we were served extraordinary food. No tricks, nothing splashy, but it was definitely a five sensory meal.
We were given menus for our meal, but my mom said that the English translations were a bit “poor” in their description. My mom asked Murata’s daughter to sign my menu, which she did in beautiful calligraphy.
On our way out, we were escorted by Murata’s daughter and my mom got to chatting again, only to find out that Murata-san was in the kitchen and that I could go over to peek in. Thanks to my mom, I got this great photo to top off our peak experience at Kikunoi.