kaiseki ryori is a sort of aristocratic multi-course dinner that is built around the delicate flavors of seasonal and local products that originated in Kyoto, Japan’s old capital. A work of culinary art, each dish utilizes cooking methods that bring out the actual flavor of each item to its fullest extent. As one of Kyoto’s seven Michelin-3-starred restaurants, we picked Nakamura to provide us with the ultimate kaiseki dining experience. The experience of entering the magnificent restaurant was like being transported back in time. 200 years have passed since Nakamura opened its doors to the public with just four private tatami rooms, each with a view of the Japanese garden. In addition to serving as an imperial caterer, the Nakamura family is now in its 6th generation of cooks, with Chef Motokazu and his wife continuing to uphold the same remarkable standards that have been synonymous with their name over the ages.
We removed our shoes in a little Japanese garden before entering the tatami-mat-lined institution behind our shuffling kimono-clad hostess, who greeted us at our arrival at the modest but exquisite wooden home a short walk away from our hotel stay at the Ritz Carlton. Each of the private rooms offers a view of the garden and is decorated in natural tones with glimmers of lacquered wood and other accents.
Nakamura The kaiseki tatami room in Kyoto is a traditional Japanese chamber.
After an elegant bow from our hostess, who turned out to be the owner and wife of Chef Motokazu, our much-anticipated lunch was officially underway. Having the opportunity to be served by her, as well as hear her detailed explanations to each dish and the history of the establishment, was a wonderful pleasure and honor. Fortunately, the Hubby knew enough Japanese to be able to interpret everything!
Considering that the lush green terrain around Kyoto is famed for producing some of the world’s best green teas, we began our dinner with exquisite cups of Tenka-ichi, the most premium gyokuro tea available from the centuries-old tea shop Ippodo, which is located in the heart of the city. This shade-grown tea is unlike any other we’ve had before, with a slightly savoury edge that showered the tongue in a rich bouquet of umami flavors. It had the texture and flavor like a savory broth rather than a cup of tea, and it was filled with powerful flavors.
Following our palate-cleansing experience with this intriguing tea, we detoxed with sips of cold beer and sake before moving on to our first meal of silken tofu topped with yuzu jelly and shiso blossoms. To be honest, the meal was almost too beautiful to eat. Thin slivers of radish created a tactile contrast to the creamy tofu, while the sweetness of the kani (crab) and eel contributed to the delicate balance. The zing of yuzu and shiso brought even more depth to the dish.
kyoto nakamura michelin nakamuraFollowing that, we were treated to warm bowls of the venerable shiromiso zoni, which was cooked without broth in order to enhance the fragrances of the white miso. In Nakamura, the shiromiso zoni, which is a dish that requires a lot of time and talent to produce, is legendary. The chewy mochi in the center was bursting with rich toasted rice scents, and the overall smoothness of the dish was balanced off by a faint biting undertone of karashi (a Japanese pickled cucumber) (Japanese mustard).
Nakamura Kyoto miso shiromiso zoni (white miso shiromiso zoni)
Following our hot soup of white miso, a platter of sashimi was served to refresh our palates. There’s enough for everyone on this plate, which includes maguro, sea bream, and pike hamo (conger pike Eel), all of which are complemented with silky shreds of myoga () ginger, kaisou seaweed, and shiso blossoms for good measure. Everything, but especially the hamo, was wonderfully fresh and crisp on the taste, and I must single out that dish for particular mention.
Kyoto’s most valued fish, the hamo is an extraordinarily powerful but unsightly fish that travels from the island of Awaji in live saltwater-filled baskets for many days before reaching its destination. The fish is also exceedingly bony, with the bones being placed in such a manner that they are difficult to remove from the body. As a result, the knife talents of well-known Japanese chefs are called upon. As an alternative to removing the bones, chefs actually chop the bones to a fine enough texture that it merges in with the flesh. When a professional Japanese chef slices through the bones and flesh of a fish without breaking the skin of the fish, each slice is around 1mm wide! That’s some impressive knife work there!
In addition to the soy sauce and vinegar that were given with our sashimi trio, it was advised that we dip the sea bream in vinegar rather than soy sauce. The vinegar’s acidity, I discovered, brought out the sweetness of the fish’s flavor.
kyoto nakamura nakamura kyoto
Next, a baked salt dome was unveiled to reveal an abundance of soft abalone, uni, and scallop, all wrapped in wakame (sea kelp). This meal was bursting with umami flavors. The texture and flavor of the steamed uni reminded me of crab roe, which was something I’d never eaten before. The abalone was prepared to perfection, but since I am not a fan of this mollusk, I was unable to completely enjoy this meal.
Kyoto-style baked abalone uni from Nakamura.
Following that, a varied demonstration of culinary prowess was shown. There were a variety of tasty morsels on the intricate platter, including ebi (shrimp) rolled in tamago (egg), toasted gingko, ikura (salmon roe), taro, aburi barracuda, creamy yuba in ginger juice, matsutake mushroom, mushrooms and vegetables simmered in bonito broth, and a chestnut cooked in vanilla and honey. Fish loaded with tiny fish eggs, cooked in a sweet soy dashi for hours and finished with fragrant Sichuan peppercorns is one of my all-time favorite dishes.
Kyoto kaiseki is performed by Nakamura.
Kyoto kaiseki is performed by Nakamura.
We were offered a bowl of maitake and donko shiitake (superior shiitake) broth, which was covered with thin rolls of creamy, buttery yuba (beancurd) and hamo tempura to warm our palates before the main course. When it comes to the golden hamo tempura, rice meal powder was used instead of tempura powder to give it a grainy texture and to ensure that it retained its crispiness even after being immersed in the broth. The gentle citrus aromas from the fried yuzu peels provided a nice counterpoint to the smoky mushroom broth.
Nakamura Kyoto hamo eel tempura soup with maitake mushrooms
Our dinner was gifted with another another highly coveted fish. Cooked in a transparent broth with a hint of sweet mirin, a lovely fillet of Amadai fish (tilefish) with rose skin appeared, its meaty, rich flesh greatly sought after for its meaty, rich texture. Despite the fact that the skin itself was very resistant, there was plenty of collagen-rich collagen beneath the skin.
Amadai fish from Nakamura, Japan
Then we discovered that the skin of the fish should be saved to use as a scenting agent in the broth after it has been cooked! Our fish-skin bowl was filled with a delicious dashi that had been seasoned just with kombu and no salt, and it was served from an old pure silver kettle. The soup had a mild savoury flavor, but it was also really umami. The flavor of the soup was enhanced by the rich fat from the fish skin.
Amadai fish from Nakamura Kyoto
When it came to carbohydrates, we were given a cold dish of hiyamugi noodles in dashi broth, which was topped with a fillet of finely diced hamo, some red ume, and some green onions (plum). This was a light and refreshing way to finish off our savoury choices, and it left our palates feeling clean and invigorated.
Nakamura Udon eel from Kyoto, served cold
Our dessert, which consisted of handmade fig ice cream topped with nashi pear, grape, and yellow peach slices and drizzled with white wine jelly, was delicious. Fruits that were out of this world delicious. Japanese fruit has a certain allure about it that is hard to describe. It’s as if the flavors of each piece of fruit have been amplified by a factor of a hundred. The pione grape was sweet and reminded me of dessert wine, which was a pleasant surprise. The fig ice cream provided a delightful touch to bring everything together perfectly.
Japanese fruit from the Nakamura Kyoto region
Verdict: In my opinion, there are just a few dinners that can change your life, and Nakamura is absolutely one of them. An explosion of exquisite, seasonal dishes that were so wonderfully presented that we could only compare them to works of art was the highlight of our evening. This time of year brings the matsutake mushroom and the delicate feathery light eel, both of which were featured prominently throughout our supper. Chef Motokazu and his wife, who led us all the way to the gates and waited there waiting until we rounded the corner, brought our supper to a close with their heartfelt bows. Mrs. Motokazu informed us that their son, who is 18 years old, is presently apprenticing under his father’s supervision and would bring fresh ideas to the famous company once he takes over the helm. It is with great anticipation that we look forward to testing out the meal created by the 7th generation of Nakamura chefs. Nakamura is a Kyoto gem that should not be missed.
Cuisine Type: Japanese
Address: 136 Matsushitacho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto, 604-8093, Japan
Phone: +81 75-221-5511
Website: Isshisoden Nakamura Official Site
Michelin Stars: 3