In the sprawling grounds of Maruyama Park, nestled on a hillside just outside of Kyoto’s central area and across the bridge from the historic geisha neighborhood of Gion, Mizai is a tranquil retreat. To get there, keep in mind that a cab will only take you to the temple/park gate and not any further, meaning you will have to walk up a little hill to reach the restaurant, which is located in a lush setting. Our hotel concierge was concerned that we might have difficulty finding the building (there are several restaurants within the park grounds) and called ahead to the restaurant to let them know that we were on our way; when our taxi arrived, one of the chefs from the restaurant greeted us and escorted us to the door of Mizai, which was a wonderful example of Japanese hospitality. I’m going to suppose that this isn’t something that has occurred to you lately in a city like London or New York, for example.
An first waiting area (in which all customers eat at the same time) is reached by an inconspicuous entrance before entering the dining room through another entrance. Despite the small number of seats (eleven), the setting is centered on the bar, and I could see more than a half-dozen cooks laboring to service this number of guests. Before you, the head chef and an assistant finish the final preparations of the meals in front of you, and then they pass each plate to you one by one. This is kaiseki kappo cooking, which is the same cuisine as kaiseki but served at a counter rather than in a private room, as opposed to kaiseki dining. The counter was made of a really nice lacquered wood, and the plates and dishes themselves were quite appealing, with each course’s presentation differing somewhat. Every detail was meticulously attended to, as seen by the use of one white linen napkin for each diner of extraordinary quality – the feel of the napkin in my hand was itself astounding, as good a quality as I have ever experienced. Unfortunately, photographs are not permitted in the restaurant, so you will have to depend on my descriptions (oddly, they relaxed at the end and the chef happily posed for a photo; however the one photo was I able to take of the food will give you an idea of how much effort goes into presentation).
After a short wait, two large, white lacquered bowls were brought out to us, each containing a bowl of strikingly white polished rice (the Japanese grow over 500 different types of rice), wasabi soup, and pickled vegetables; the wasabi on this occasion was the real deal, the wasabi root being grated gently in front of us by one of the chefs. This was a straightforward meal that was executed quite well (17/20). An outstanding dish of Japanese pear that had been marinated in a flavourful sauce followed immediately after. In this dish, the contrast between sweet and spicy flavors worked quite well, and the chunks of pear itself were excellent (18/20).
My only regret is that I did not have the opportunity to photograph the sashimi course, which was presented nicely on a porcelain plate. Because it was a variant on the traditional soy sauce accompaniment, the soy sauce was served here in the shape of little black cubes of jelly. It was hard to choose a preferred dish from the sashimi selection since the horse mackerel was among the best I’d ever had, and the raw scallop slices were also of exceptional quality. In addition, a little portion of toro tuna was provided chilled with a small dip of vinegar laced with salt on the side. A condiment made of fish liver paste was served on the side. I was perplexed by slices of bream that were distinctly chewy; given the high quality of the ingredients on display, it was unlikely that they would have a bad batch, so I assume that this particular bream was intended to have this textural quality; this is a Japanese thing, I believe, and I will investigate further. I was particularly taken with the quality of the pickled ginger, which was a world away from the level of quality that we are accustomed to in the west, as well as the little yellow cubes of pickled pumpkin served as a garnish, which had a depth of flavor that I had not previously encountered in pumpkin. Overall, the sushi was excellent, scoring between 17 and 18 points out of 20. (I think there is a limit to the score that can reasonably given to a piece of raw fish).
Following that, we were treated to a mushroom soup prepared in front of us in a pan, complete with some amazing matsutake mushrooms (which are quite expensive, costing up to $2,000 per kg). With a delicate dumpling floating in the broth, the soup was garnished with slivers of lime zest that had dazzling flavor; I know it is hard to imagine getting excited about lime zest, but I have never tasted a lime with this flavor, and the acidity of the lime zest provided a nice counterpoint to the earthy taste of the mushrooms. Very good dish that was simple yet stunning (19/20). I liked it very much.
Then there came the black wagyu beef, which was presented with a Japanese pepper sauce and each piece had been carefully scored to make it simpler to eat. This was not Kobe beef, but rather wagyu from another prefecture; it was a shimane (there are four strains of wagyu, which are Tottori, Tajima, Shimane, and Okayama), which nonetheless tasted very much like beef; some wagyu may be so buttery that you forget you’re eating meat. A little salad with mild green chilies was served on the side as an accompaniment. This was another straightforward yet difficult to criticize (20/20). This was the moment at which my wife was served an excellent piece of grilled fish that had a nice touch of charcoal grill flavor; after eating this, I really dispute the Japanese concept that raw fish is the finest way to serve fish, with this exquisite specimen acting as a great illustration (19/20). Following that came a meal of sea urchin with ginger, which was served in an aubergine jelly. This meal was not much to my liking, but it was definitely beautifully prepared, and the sea urchin was of excellent quality (16/20 on my scale).
Following that came a plate of different components that was quite well presented. In addition to a little portion of high-quality caviar, a small roll of cooked beef served cold, and excellent pieces of raw octopus with pickled cucumber presented in a hollowed-out vegetable shell, there were many more dishes. What I found to be the best dish was a truly exquisite (cooked) sardine served with a creamy sauce that I believe was made with mirin – I have never tasted a sardine of this caliber before. This course is easily a 19/20 on the scale. Afterwards, we had a really fine conger eel that was presented on a foundation of wax gourd and garnished with a Japanese pepper leaf that provided an amazing contrast to the richness of the conger (18/20). With the grilled barracuda entrée that followed, which was served with a delicious lemon dip and crab, the fish was unmistakably fresh and cooked to perfection (18/20). The savoury portion of the meal concluded with many pickles, which were arranged on a little rock and served with a soup of cereal and also rice (see picture). I suppose this is a classic meal, but objectively speaking, it didn’t strike me as very appetizing (14/20).
A trio of sweet pastes that were not named served as a type of pre-dessert. I suppose one could call this a fruit salad, as it contained a variety of seriously excellent fruits, ranging from melon and grapes to Sharon fruit/persimmon, dragon fruit, and guava; I realize this was essentially a bowl of fruit, but every individual piece of fruit was of exceptionally high quality (easily 18/20). At this moment, a cup of green tea was provided, which was brewed using water sourced from a nearby spring, according to the server.
I had assumed the dinner was over, so I was delighted to see a fig sorbet topped with a single, delicious fig at the end of the meal. The sorbet had the correct texture and depth of flavor, and it could easily compete with anything that came out of a top French kitchen (20/20). Only cash is accepted as payment for this bill (no credit cards). The lunch itself was 25,000 yen per person, but we then had some (exorbitantly expensive) beer, which brought the total to 28,500 yen each person. As we walked out of the restaurant, we were struck by how kind the staff had been. Remember that we were in the midst of what was effectively a park in the middle of the night, and that there were a few stairs and a slope to traverse, and I had worried how difficult this would be before. While leaving, we were welcomed by two young lads with lights, who guided us down the walkway in front of us to our waiting cab. We were really grateful for their assistance.
Overall, this lunch left a lasting impression on me. I’ve eaten kaiseki a number of times in Japan, and I’ve found it difficult to really enjoy it on each occasion. However, in this case, the quality of the ingredients, as well as the presentation, but also the balance of the meals, which included a skilled combination of flavor components, stood out. If you’ve ever wanted to experience a kaiseki lunch, this could be the best spot to do it in the city.
Cuisine Type: Japanese
Address: 613 Maruyamacho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto, 605-0071, Japan
Phone: +81 75-551-3310
Website: Mizai Official Site
Hours: Closed: lunch : Monday-Tuesday, Wednesday, lunch : Thursday-Sunday
Michelin Stars: 3