Besides being named one of the top ten most livable cities in the world, Kyoto is also a major center of culinary delights offering a variety of opportunities to not only try traditional Japanese cuisine but also experiment with some of the most creative and bold fusion restaurants anywhere in the world.
So it is no surprise given my Italian background I was keen to try one of the many establishments in the city that meld good old Italian “cucina tradizionale” with Japanese techniques and ingredients. I approached this experience with some trepidation, because as a traditionalist I knew I would need to temper my expectations and open my culinary taste to a brand new experience which, in the end, may not be my cup of tea.
There are several options in Kyoto to choose from when it comes to Italian/Japanese cuisine, after all, Italian food is the “ethnic” food of choice to most Japanese above all other international options – at least that is what many of our friends told us while we were staying in the city. Maybe out of convenience because it was down the street from our hotel and maybe because of its already established reputation as one of the flag bearers in this culinary landscape, I chose to go to Ristorante 245, in the old and traditional Gion area of the city.
The restaurant only seats 10 people at a time, all facing the kitchen from counter seating and given that the composition of each dish is so complex, this turns into not only a a marvelous show of cooking, but also of culinary art. The fixed price menu is divided into a 9 course meal, which I must say was one of my few criticisms of this meal since the dishes were not all small, and thus created a challenge to stay hungry enough to savor and enjoy each dish.
Service is supervised by the charming and engaging Masakazu Yoshioka who is assisted in his tiny kitchen by a sous chef who prepares most of the meals and an additional assistant who tends to the kitchen and to the clientele.
Our first dish was served to us on a beautiful rectangular slate dish with bright yellow ingredients that jumped out from the plate. Small roles of ahi tuna were topped with local caviar and decorated with a saffron cream and saffron chips – beautiful to look at but nothing that special taste-wise since in my view the salt from the caviar overwhelmed the saffron flavors which is what I was looking forward most in this dish. But all in all it was very creative and very beautiful to look at.
Dish two was presented in a beautiful pink clay cup filled with what I can only describe as ramen type noodles topped with small squid and other local herbs and topped with salmon roe – very delicious with an unctuous texture that stayed with you for a while. With these two dishes I was definitely tasting the Japanese side of this food marriage, but the Italian character notes were yet to make their first appearance.
As a third course, the theme remained the same – two beautifully deep fired squid were placed beautifully on a large white plate with a smear of cherry blossom cream and tiny cherry tomatoes. The sweetness of the cream was offset beautifully by the acidity of the small tomatoes and the shrimp were delightfully sweet and crunchy, overall a wonderful dish – but once again, where’s the Italian?
It made its first appearance in what I can only say was the most complex salad I had ever had the pleasure to see created and to savor. It included over 30 ingredients presented so beautifully you felt guilty taking apart the harmony and art with which the plate was put together. But once I dug in I was welcomed with a harmony of flavors and textures which included a variety of local daikon radish, string bean, several micro lettuces and on and on. It was fresh, savory and sprinkled with a light black garlic vinaigrette which helped tie all the fresh ingredients together.
The fifth dish was my least favorite – presented in a smoking jar filled with what may have been Hinoki wood chips, was a single serving of a quail egg, soft boiled, with a piece of smoked eel. I just felt the combination was overwhelmed with smoke flavor and the soft yolk of the egg made the dish unpalatable to my taste.
In dish six I was finally rewarded with what I was hoping to try when I fist selected this restaurant. A plate of pasta! But this was not just any ordinary plate of pasta – it was a delicious concert of flavors and textures including small bits of quail, bamboo shoots, topped with a local herb called “sansho” all tossed in a lemony flavored light cream sauce – delightful, delicious and thoroughly enjoyable.
By now, I was seriously getting full so the last three dishes were more of a blur, including a small rice dish which I assume was to be a dedication to risotto but ended up being a very spicy coconut curry which did not stand out in any way, followed by the last savory dish which, amazingly I loved. It was rolls of tender veal meat covered in bamboo ash and bread crumbs and rolled in very thin slice of prosciutto. A play on Milanesa I assumed, but though not the most attractive dish visually, it was quite delicious and delightfully crunchy.
Finally, dessert was served, somewhat under-whelming consisting of a locally flavored ice cream from the fukinotou plant decorated flakes of cake made from the same plant and a white cream filling. I was in a food coma by this time and must say was not able to properly enjoy this last and only sweet dish.
I left this experience completely satisfied though a bit disappointed that the Italian notes were a a minority player in this concert dominated by the more local ingredients and flavors. Would I go back? Probably not, but I was happy to not only experience chef Yoshioka’s amazing and courteous hospitality but also having had a meal that was original and unique with flavors and ingredients I had never tasted before.
245 Nakano-cho, Hanami-ko-ji Higashi -iru, Shinmonzen do-ri
Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto City 605-0082, JAPAN