We were willing to splurge a bit for a mid-range restaurant (we weren't quite baller enough for a really high-end one), but it turns out our willingness to pay wasn't the problem. The obstacle was actually getting reservations. Most of the well-known kaiseki restaurants on accepted reservations made by hotel concierges. We didn't have a hotel concierge at our beck and call, so we were a bit at a loss.
That is, until we discovered Gion Nanba. Located in a tiny alley across the street from Starbucks, Gion Nanba is a one-star Michelin restaurant with none of the fuss:
Reservations are easy to come by, even for foreigners. Just go on their website (there's an English version too!) and a couple clicks later, you're all set. You can opt for a seat at the counter for the kitchen experience, a tatami table for larger groups, or a Western dining room if you weren't quick enough to snag one of the other two alternatives.
We went with the counter seating:
They were a little awkward to get into, but very comfortable once in. The deep space under the counter meant plenty of leg room and no concerns about limbs falling asleep from kneeling.
For dinner, you can choose from different prix fixe options. You can get eight courses for 8000 yen ($80), ten courses for 10000 yen ($100), eleven courses for 13000 yen ($130), or eleven courses with more expensive ingredients for 15000 yen ($150).
Since we'd already committed to splurging, we went for the 15000 yen set.
Our reservation was for 7:00pm. We killed some time at the Starbucks across the street. We probably shouldn't have eaten anything right before dinner, but we couldn't resist the earl grey and peach pie. I wanted to try the seasonal cantaloupe frappuccino, but that particular Starbucks had run out. Deeply saddened, I didn't read the menu carefully before I ordered my go-to chai latte. It was only after I was seated with my cup that I realized my colossal mistake.
How in the world could I have ordered a chai latte, when I could have had a HOJICHA latte instead? Ugh. I'm such an idiot!
I wasn't going to let my disappointment ruin my kaiseki experience though. By the time we were greeted at the door of Gion Nanba and had taken our shoes off, the hojicha latte was forgotten.
We were the only people in the small restaurant at first, so we had the undivided attention of the hostess and the chefs. The sous chef was the one who presented most of the dishes on our side of the counter. Luckily, he spoke enough English for us to understand the gist of what we were eating.
Unfortunately, now almost two months later, I've forgotten most of the details from our meal. So this post may quickly devolve into a slideshow of photos. I apologize in advance.
Our kaiseki journey began with uni and pickled veggies:
Followed by a very light, clear fish broth:
Which came with two dipping sauces:
Taking a break from the seafood, the next course was some thinly sliced beef, perfectly grilled:
Then it was right back to seafood:
CK asked the sous chef how we were supposed to eat this course. Being Korean, she assumed we had to wrap the shrimp with the assortment of leaves on the plate. But the sous chef immediately nixed that idea with his horrified, "No! No eat! Decoration!"
His reaction was so abrupt in that quiet space that all three of us dissolved into muffled giggles. Needless to say, we left the decorative leaves uneaten.
The next course was definitely more straightforward. No questions necessary regarding how to eat the fried shishamo (smelt):
The shishamo head was so surprisingly bitter that I couldn't bring myself to eat the head of the second one.
More seafood followed:
The chawanmushi (steamed egg) was light and lovely:
As was the veggie and mushroom rice, which was the last savory course:
I don't really remember what this was, but it was icy and refreshing:
And maybe slightly alcoholic.
The last dessert course was brought to us by the chef himself:
As he set it down, he very gravely pointed at the leaf and said, "No eat."
We couldn't contain our laughter that time.
We dutifully removed the leaf and bit into the pink ball to find red bean paste inside:
Just when we thought the meal was over, we were each brought a bowl of matcha:
A bowl of really, really concentrated matcha. Matcha. My nemesis. Not wanting to offend the chefs, I drank every single drop.
After settling our bill and putting on our shoes, we left the restaurant. Just as we turned to each other in that dark alley to squee about the awesome culinary experience we'd just had, the chef himself popped out of some mysterious side door and scared a couple years off of our lives. We thanked him profusely for the meal and made some very, very small talk.
He bowed to us, we bowed to him. He bowed again, then we bowed again. Realizing we'd somehow found ourselves in a bowing war, we made our escape by half-bowing while backing out of the alley. Back on the main street, something made me look back. Thank goodness I did because the chef was still standing there. We bowed one final time and quickly scurried out of sight to let that poor man finally return inside.
If you're visiting Kyoto and looking for a kaiseki experience, I highly recommend Gion Nanba. Easy reservation process, super affordable, and very attentive staff. And the food! Everything was gorgeously presented, the ingredients were fresh, and the flavors so subtle and perfect.
Thank you, Chef Nanba and staff for a meal we will definitely never forget!