“Kaiseki” is a type of Japanese haute cuisine consisting of multiple dishes, often ranging from 7 all the way up to 14 dishes. Having a kaiseki meal was something I knew I had to do while in Japan so I had to research quite a bit on restaurants that serve kaiseki. I actually made a blunder while trying to make reservations for another restaurant but long story short, we ended up dropping by Gion Karyo in the town of Gion after visiting Fushimi-Inari shrine in Kyoto. We didn’t have reservations here so I hesitantly walked into the restaurant and passed through its long corridor. It didn’t seem like much from the outside, but the inside was actually quite nice. I got a peek at the bar where you can watch the chefs prepare your meal.
There wasn’t a reception/greeting area and there weren’t any servers around so I just yelled out, “sumimasen!” (excuse me). Someone came by shortly after and with my basic Japanese, I asked if they had seats available for the 6 of us. Luckily, they did! I was so surprised because you usually need reservations for kaiseki.
They seated us upstairs in one of their private rooms and our server presented us with an English menu of their kaiseki course for the day. It was an 8 course meal and ¥5000 per person for lunch.
The tea they provided us with was very refreshing and we also got some cold sake to share. It had a bit of sweetness to it. Really great!
1. Sakizuke – Appetizer: pike conger, prawn, stem of taro, okra, green soybeans, corn
This first dish really impressed me. It was served on a leaf on top of a bed of salt and it just looked so peculiar. I had never had pike conger before so I didn’t know what to expect. After looking it up, I learned that it’s actually a type of eel and a popular dish in Kyoto. It had a unique texture — kind of minced/grainy and had a very delicate flavour. Every component of this dish was so simple yet very refined and the ingredients complemented each other so well. The cream corn sauce was super tasty and brought everything together. I almost licked the leaf clean.
2. Wakamono – Japanese Soup: pike conger, green beans, winter melon, citron
This next dish was also pike conger but in a soup. To be honest, it didn’t look very exciting but we were pleasantly surprised with how it tasted. Again, really delicate and refined flavours. It wasn’t anything like the soups we have here that are full of MSG and salt but it wasn’t bland or lacking flavour either. It was perfect. The pike conger was soft and quite fun to eat. There were distinct citrusy, lemony notes as well which I enjoyed.
3. Mukozuke – Sashimi: sea bream, scallop
The third dish was their fresh catch of the day (sea bream and scallop) served as sashimi. The scallop was excellent and had the perfect texture. It was still firm so it didn’t feel like it was raw. It was SO fresh and yummy. (Even DC who never eats raw fish enjoyed the scallop sashimi!) The sea bream was interesting too but it had a really chewy texture and I didn’t enjoy it as much.
4. Oshinogi – Small Dish: eggplant, sea urchin, soymilk skin, lotus root, ginger
The “oshinogi” small dish was incredible. At first glance, I thought the texture would be weird since it had a thick consistency and looked slimy and goopy. However, once I tasted it, it was actually smooth and enjoyable to eat. The sea urchin was rich and creamy, almost like a custard — that was the best part. There were also noticeable hints of ginger but it wasn’t overpowering at all and gave the dish a nice kick.
5. Yakihassun – Assorted Dishes: sea bass, sweet plum, sweetfish, fried corn, walnut tofu, egg cake, water shield
This assortment of little items was arranged and served nicely on a long tray. I had lots of fun eating everything on here. The sweet plum, in particular, was really interesting to me. I don’t know what kind of plum it was exactly, but it’s the one with the orange bulb-like shell/skin. It was green inside and very soft and sweet. It wasn’t very large or juicy, but it was definitely sweet. The water shield was also unique. They looked like little, thin, brown sticks. It didn’t have a very strong taste, just more of a woody kind of texture and a slight saltiness to it. My favourite item here was the fried corn. It was so simple, yet so fresh and fried to perfection with a good amount of crunch. The corn was very sweet as well.
6. Takiawase – Steamed Dish: eggplant, duck, wintermelon, red pepper, citron
This was yet another interesting dish. Although steamed, it was actually a cold dish! The duck was just lightly steamed, making it quite tender. However, it didn’t have as much flavour as I’m used to with duck — I think I much prefer it roasted. Otherwise, the dish as a whole was wonderful and very refreshing. The citrusy notes added a nice aroma and flavour to the whole dish.
7. Gohan – Hearth-cooked rice
The nice thing about the rice is that it was served in a wooden pot and our server filled our bowls. There were also 2 flavours of the rice. One was just plain white rice meant to eat with the Japanese pickles and the other flavour had shishamo (small, salty fish) with ginger. Both flavours were good. It was also served with akadashi (red miso soup).
8. Dessert – Gion Karyo’s Original Dessert: Mango Cheesecake, Raspberry Sorbet
Our last dish was the mango cheesecake with raspberry sorbet. Oh my gosh, it was so good that I wanted to devour it but at the same time, savour it. The cheesecake was sublime. It was rich, tart from the mango, and had a nice crunch. The fresh fruits on the side were a nice addition too. I could eat this every day.
After our dessert, we had a choice of tea, coffee, or juice. I opted for iced tea with milk to end the meal.
The whole dining experience was incredible. This was the first time I felt that my whole meal from start to finish was so carefully thought out and executed. Each dish was like a present and I was excited to open up the lids to find out what was inside. It gave me a cozy feeling eating these simple ingredients that made up such refined dishes. I could tell that the chefs put a lot of thought into preparing the food and making sure that the natural flavours of the ingredients stood out.
If you haven’t tried kaiseki dining yet or you’re still on the fence about it, I definitely recommend doing it if you ever get the chance to go to Japan. There were some mixed reviews of Gion Karyo on TripAdvisor but based on my experience here, I have no complaints at all. It was truly spectacular and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I hope to have a kaiseki meal again in the future!