(Part II of our Saturday in Kyoto…)
In the land of “shame culture,” I was pretty shameless in the backseat of The President’s Mercedes-Benz. I asked for help with a restaurant recommendation for Kyoto. He asked what kind of food we were interested in, and I answered with one word: “Delicious!” They laughed and immediately jumped on their cellphones to make a reservation for us. They sounded it out from the Japanese and wrote it on a slip of paper: KAWAKAMI, 7 pm. It is in the Gion district of Kyoto, down a back alley way that the taxi could not navigate.
We arrived punctually, but we were still last on the scene, the 9th and 10th diners at a 10 seat bar. The star of the show was clearly the chef, “Captain Kutoh,” as the blue insignia proudly said against the backdrop of his white tunic. There were three or four younger men in matching white jackets who orbited him, along with one older man who came in every once in a while to carefully replace a piece of porcelain or glass.
We had read online that there would be no menu, and that the chef would serve seasonal specialties, omakase-style. “Omakase” means “I leave it to you,” or perhaps more deeply, “I trust you.” But that only describes the transaction and contract between chef and diner. The other element can only be described as performance art!
Chef Kutoh moved deftly from one item to another with great precision and rhythm. There were ramps and fiddleheads, harbingers of Spring. There were chopstick-like items I had never seen before, used to fold small leaves or neaten the way a slice of fish leaned against another. It is Kyoto, so there are literally hundreds of small dishes and cups and tiny containers that are lavished on such a meal. The hardest worker of all in Kyoto may be the dishwasher! The knives are each initialed by the maker, and there is no question about whether the fish will surrender to their blades. When building the dish that he is about to serve, it is as if he looking through a microscope and dancing with the shape of it at the same time. Each course has its own specially shaped plate, like the butterfly, below.
I don’t have a picture of the Kobe beef course that was served, and I think that is mainly a function of how gloriously sinful it felt to eat it! It had no relationship to any Kobe beef that I have ever encountered in the U.S., and in fact no relationship to any steak I have ever had. The meal ended with simple fruit slices, cut masterfully in front of us: an orange, a grapefruit, a strawberry, with one carefully placed mint leaf. Off we sauntered down the alley way, our hearts (and our wallets!) lighter. Once again on this magical day in Kyoto, we had been taken care of – another ripple in the pond.