We recently enjoyed a kaiseki meal in Tokyo, at one of the hardest restaurants to book in the world.
One day, I finally got my lunch reservation at Kyoaji, a Kyoto-style restaurant that serves some of the finest traditional kaiseki cuisine in Japan. Kyoaji operates out of a sliver of a grey building in a very nondescript neighborhood in Shimbashi. Shimbashi is one of Tokyo’s old geisha districts. I felt like I had just won the lottery.
In a way, snagging two seats at Kyoaji’s counter for nine was better than winning a lottery. The odds of winning a lottery are probably slightly higher. Kyoaji is ranked as one of Japan’s top five kaiseki restaurants, and some people consider it the hardest restaurant to book in the world.
THE PRICE ISN’T RIGHT
If you manage to get a reservation for a kaiseki meal at Kyoaji, be prepared for steep prices. Kyoaji’s lunch is perhaps the most expensive lunch in Tokyo.
A 12-course kaiseki meal here is approximately 30 times an average lunch in Tokyo. In spite of its high prices, this little restaurant is perpetually full of local diners.
And, unlike many of the other top restaurants in Tokyo, Kyoaji has not quite benefited from international publicity in food guides and lists of the world’s best restaurants. In fact, Kyoaji is not quite a restaurant for foreigners, although many have tried to book it. And some occasionally do manage to get a seat.
The chef of Kyoaji is an elderly man with smiling eyes who hobbled around on wooden clogs. Apparently, he had a bad foot on the day we were there.
He has become quite famous in Tokyo gourmet circles because he reportedly turned down three stars from the Michelin Guide, you see. This snub may have inadvertently turned into a marketing coup, because he ended up with some kind of cult status among serious foodies. Serious foodies are always on the lookout for talent, you see; and, better yet, for talented maverick chefs.
BARRIER TO ENTRY IN SHIMBASHI
Then there’s the pretty high barrier to entry here. And I’m not talking about the bill at the end of the two-and-a-half hour meal. This bill is enough to pay for a holiday in Bali or Cebu for two, by the way. To get your seats confirmed at Kyoaji in Shimbashi, word has gone around that you actually need an introduction from a regular client of good standing.
I never directly asked them about this. But when I contacted them to reserve, I decided not to take any chances for rejection. I promptly did some due diligence among my Tokyo foodie friends for the needed introduction to Kyoaji.
Tokyo is a great and large metropolis, but within certain circles, it’s actually a small town where everyone knows each other. A few phone calls netted me the introduction I required.
SMALL KITCHEN, BIG REPUTATION
Considering all the hype surrounding it, Kyoaji itself is literally a cramped operation with an extraordinary chef-to-diner ratio. There is approximately one chef per 1.5 diners, when we counted.
The open kitchen itself is a narrow affair with workstations on both sides, lined wall to wall with chefs. Only five chefs can work on one side at any given time.
Almost all the food is prepared here in real-time, too. So diners get a fascinating insight into the meticulous preparations that go into a Japanese meal worthy of three stars.
CHANGE OF HEART
As for the food, I loved every single dish including two I usually never touch. There was a plate with two slimy sacks of shirako (fish sperm). These were served piping hot with only a slice of Japanese green lemon as seasoning.
And then we had six small river fish. These were grilled and then brushed with sweet sauce and sprinkled with aromatic Japanese pepper. These were a heady mix of sensations and flavors when we popped them whole into our mouths.
Kyoaji is also famous for its rice bowls at the end. The rice bowls are topped with slices of the fresh fish of the season. That day, we were given grilled salmon, deliberately chopped up roughly. The end result was a pretty mangle of fish belly, flesh and charred skin on top of piping hot white rice. It was so good I simply had to have seconds.
And so did the couple seated next to me, apparently. They finished their meal ahead of us. Then I overheard the gentleman, who was an aristocratic-looking young-ish man who seemed to know his food and his restaurants, make another booking even before they stood up from the counter. It was January, but the next available date for this regular customer was the second week of September. Without hesitation he booked Kyoaji in Shimbashi once more.
Overhearing this prompted me to recheck the date that day, in case six months had actually passed by without my noticing. For me, September seemed a very long way from January to book for a meal. But it seems not a few people are only too happy to wait (and to pay) for a such a delicious opportunity in Tokyo.
Read more about restaurants in Tokyo in Travelife Magazine.