It is possible to have fabulous sushi in Paris, and by the transitive property, equally delightful French cuisine in Kyoto. This bistro specializes in classic French comfort food, and attracts an international clientele seeking a break from traditional Japanese cuisine, as well as top chefs in the city (Kazuomi Nakamura of Nakajin says Bistro Cerisier is his personal favorite). The plate takes center stage, as the atmosphere is bare and Spartan, with white walls, simple wooden tables and a wood-burning fireplace that crackles all winter.
New York chef David Chang lived in Japan before launching his Momofuku empire, and considers this Kyoto kaiseke restaurant one of his world-wide favorites. There are two branches in Kyoto, run by the Murata family for three generations. This is the main location, near the Keomis Temple, a 10-minute taxi from central Kyoto. The restaurant is housed in a traditional Japanese home with a dry garden. Traditional kaiseke is the celebratory multi-course meal relying on seasonal ingredients served in advance of a tea ceremony, a tradition that dates to the 17th century.
For over three hundred years the same family has served homemade soba noodles, attracting generations of patrons to revel in this warm comfort food. Misoka-an Kawamichiya is around the corner from Tawaraya Ryokan, and offers a short menu of hot and cold noodle dishes, and a specialty of the house called hokoro—which is a hot pot of chicken, vegetables and fish stock served for two with noodles on the side. Locals giggle and brag that Steve Jobs declared this to be the noodle experience of his life. Reservations are not required, and this is a great choice for a quick lunch.
My favorite meal in Japan was from the hands of soba and tempura master, Kazuomi Nakamura, at his intimate 10-seat restaurant. Generally I don’t like tempura, though my guide suggested we visit Kazuomi son for lunch, and was thrilled when our request was accepted (even though we were two of five patrons). Highly regarded among the soba masters of Kyoto, the chef hails from the nearby mountain region of Takayma, which is famous for pure buckwheat noodles. Organic vegetables are hand-selected; the rice is from his friend’s organic farm; the miso paste is made in the mountains by a friend of his father; and even the ceramic service is handmade by friends (and by the chef himself). There is no English menu, although it is possible to select your set menu choices via your hotel concierge prior to arrival (or allow the chef to choose, the route I recommend).
This is the inner-Kyoto branch of the famed Kikunoi kaiseke restaurant, a third-generation eatery steeped in tradition. Its ten bar seats and few small tables are almost always full, and reservations are required. In comparison to its more famous sister restaurant Kikunoi, this location is more relaxed in its delivery—but remains strict in its execution.
True connoisseurs of Japanese cuisine (who have likely made many trips to the island nation) will arrange a reservation here before booking their flight. This highly-regarded two Michelin-starred kaiseke-style restaurant is located in a residential area of Kyoto near the Robert Yellin Gallery. The owner-chef is known to forage for ingredients every morning in the mountains outside of Kyoto. With only twelve seats, dining here is an experience not recommended for rookies.
Sushi Gion Matsudaya
Tempura Endo Yasaka
Lovers of tempura will have some of the best deep-fried dishes of their life here. The batter is light and perfectly crisp, and it’s served kaiseki-style, meaning you will only have one or two of a particular item that’s spaced out in courses. Reserve a seat at the 10-seat bar to see the maestro at work in this restaurant that’s renowned as the best tempura restaurant in Kyoto. Yoshikawa is a ryokan, or a traditional inn, and its century-old restaurant is perhaps more famous than the inn itself.