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Kyoto’s ryotei restaurants: Japanese culinary art in a garden setting

Kyoto’s ryotei restaurants: Japanese culinary art in a garden setting

Jean-Patrick Ménard - 2010-08-11

Dining in one of Kyoto’s ryotei is an experience that goes beyond the realm of pure gastronomy. It is total immersion in Japanese culture, where the Zen Buddhist rituals of the tea ceremony are combined with culinary traditions deeply rooted in the rhythm of the seasons.

Red and white carp glide silently along a miniature river set in an idyllic landscape of bamboo, maple trees and camellias. Muffled by the muggy evening air, a resonating gong is a reminder of the presence of a nearby temple. Night is about to fall in the Japanese gardens of Hyo-Tei, in the Sakyo-Ku district of Kyoto.
 
Hyo-Tei is the oldest restaurant – or, more precisely, ryotei – in the imperial capital. Fourteen generations of chefs have worked here since 1837. Today, Eitichi Takahashi is the man in charge. When we ask him what a ryotei is, he gets up, crosses the room, which is devoid of furniture, stops in front of an alcove soberly decorated with a bouquet of flowers, puts a long bamboo stem back in its place and comes to sit back down again: “A ryotei” he says, “sums up the whole of Japanese culture. Our cuisine must reflect the season.” The sequence of the flavours designed by the chef harks back to the old catering tradition of the teahouses. After the ceremony a meal would be served, with the succession of dishes following a strict order. This cuisine, known as chagaïseki, gave birth to Kyoto’s traditional cuisine, kaiseki. The ryotei restaurants carry on this tradition, although they are more flexible when it comes to the order and choice of recipes.
 
At the beginning of dinner, a low table is laid, cushions are pulled up and we sit down in a specially designed space that has been hollowed out in the floor; a small pit covered by the lacquered table. Sitting at kneeling height, our unusual position changes our perspective on the objects around us and the ever visible landscape of the Japanese garden. Rather than dominating, we are part of the decor.
 
To begin, we are brought tea infused with roasted flavours. This is followed by hassun, which often opens the way for a succession of ten or so dishes. It consists of a wide selection of grilled vegetables, raw fish, prawns and seaweed, illustrating the season in all its entirety. In summer, matsutake (wild mushrooms), ayu (small river trout), and hamo (a sort of sea eel) are the most prized delicacies, available at every ryotei. Sake is served with the hassun, the range of flavours accentuated every time by a new combination with rice alcohol.
 
To accompany his thin slices of raw sea bream, Eitichi Takahashi serves an aquatic green seaweed jelly that has barely set. It immediately dissolves in the mouth in a burst of marine flavours; an ocean in a thimble…
 
Kunio Tokuoka, chef and owner of Kitcho, presents a black lacquered bowl containing a universe inhabited by two energies: order, symbolised by precision-cut red squares of tuna belly; and disorder, represented by the coiled mass of a sea snail. Although the first mouthful is beautifully tender, the second requires vigorous chewing. Contrasting shapes, colours, flavours and textures; a history of the world in a lacquered bowl…
 
“If French cuisine is a crescendo,” says Kunio Tokuoka, “traditional Japanese cuisine is a modulation.” And so, after the diced tuna sashimi he proposes a yashiyasume – literally “a little dish for a change of scene during the meal” – containing the muted, soothing flavours of tofu and sea urchin.
 
Before the end of the meal there will inevitably be a course of rice and grilled fish, a compulsory part of a ryotei meal.
 
A mizumono (jelly dessert) or kudamono (fruity dessert) usually brings this culinary journey to an end. In a nod to the French cuisine that he admires, Eitichi Takahashi’s mizumono consists of a single peach and stewed fig set in a maraschino and kirsch flavoured jelly. Is he departing from tradition? “Tradition,” he smiles, “is an enclosure, so not to deviate from it would be a backward step. I like to set a foot outside the enclosure but I would be careful not to depart from it entirely…”
 
Addresses
Kitcho Ayashiyama
58, Susukinobabacho
Sagatenryuji, Ukyo-ku
Kyoto
Tel: 075-881-1101
Closed Wednesdays
Lunch: 37,100 yen
Dinner: 42,400 yen
(Tax and service included, drinks not included)
A fine establishment serving traditional cuisine with forays into European flavours; the grandfather of the present chef notably introduced foie gras in his recipes.
 
Hyotei
36, Kusakawacho, Nanzenji, Sakyoku, Kyoto
Tel: 075-771-4116
Closed on the 2nd and 4th Tuesdays of the month.
Lunch: 23,000 yen
Dinner: 27,000 yen
(Tax and service included, drinks not included)
The exact date on which this ryotei first opened is 15th August 1837. Before then, from the early 17th century, tea was served here for worshippers visiting the neighbouring Buddhist temple.
 

Dining in one of Kyoto’s ryotei is an experience that goes beyond the realm of pure gastronomy. It is total immersion in Japanese culture, where the Zen Buddhist rituals of the tea ceremony are combined with culinary traditions deeply rooted in the rhythm of the seasons.

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