There’s nothing quite like going to one of the most famous places in the world for your first taste of a particular type of cuisine.
Nakamura-Ro is reputed as possibly being the oldest restaurant in all of Japan. The house specialty, as it is in much of Kyoto, is tofu, but also served is the traditional cuisine known as Kaiseki. This formal meal is unique to Japan, and consists of between five and 12 courses of food. There are also two main formats of kaiseki. One is tea kaiseki: a version we have not tried (and gives us an excellent reason to return to the country). The other form, the one we managed to have three times over the course of our trip, is restaurant kaiseki. A more filling, if only slightly less elaborate version of tea Kaiseki. This meal consisted of seven courses plus a dessert. Each course was a combination of delicious seasonal food, a beautiful plate, and an artful progression from course to course. Some of this is more or less mandated. For example, various soups play a major role, and rice is almost always served at one point. The interesting thing about restaurant kaiseki is that it does not have to follow a rigid order of courses as is the case with tea kaiseki. Below are the courses we enjoyed at Nakamura-Ro.
Hassun: mountain and sea. This is the first course, and has very deep traditional roots. The fish selections were both tasty, with the kombu fish sandwich possibly being the more preferred item, and the rapeseed plant, egg custard, and fried lotus root, were from the mountains. We agreed that our favorite from this dish was the lotus. It had a combination of soft yielding sweetness with a salty and crispy flavor.
Sashimi course: not our best picture, but the reddish pieces were like lovely little rubies, and the white fish was a bit chewy. Sashimi is, in my opinion, all about texture, and not the taste of the fish as so many people assume. So even though the chewiness was not much to our preferences, I appreciated the concept of varied textures on the plate.
This might be the mushi-mono course although we are not 100% certain if this was what was intended (mushi-mono means steamed “thing”, but it often ends up in a broth). In this soup were both unagi (eel) and a type of root tuber, possibly simple potatoes. The balance of the miso and the green vegetables was perfect with the slightly more oily texture of the unagi.
Yakimono #1: This particular restaurant is known for its tofu, dengaku, and it is said that historically this dish is basically what Nakamura-Ro was known for serving. The tofu is spread with a type of miso produced in Kyoto, and set on a charcoal flame to broil. The tofu is handmade and incredibly delicious and creamy on its own, with a slightly sweet, delicate flavor that was very pleasant.
Between the two grilled items, was a tempura course with little fish and a selection of vegetables. Unfortunately we forgot to take a picture before we all dove in and enjoyed, so we don’t have a picture for this course. We will have pictures from a similar course served elsewhere that will help to illustrate what we had at Nakamura-Ro.
Yakimono #2: This fish was served to us multiple times on our trip. Luckily each time it had been grilled as I am not a big fan of sashimi from this fish. Sawara is Spanish Mackerel, and this had basically been marinated in a sauce that I am quite fond of, known as sa-shi-su-se-so, combining sugar, salt, rice vinegar, sake (mirin) and soy sauce for a rich, subtly sweet flavor.
Gohan and tsukemono: Wow, it’s rice, it seems like not a big deal, but really good rice that is correctly cooked is incredibly flavorful and tasty. The small brown-red container on the left had miso soup with nameko, a small but very rich mushroom (see photo below). The tsukemono (pickles) were excellent and made the perfect accompaniment to this course. For some folks (traditionally) this would be a whole meal.
Not sure of the title of this course, it could either be takiawase or wanmori. The pouch in the middle is a sort of fried tofu skin that contained another single deliciously rich mushroom. The noodles were good, but the soft, delicate flavors of the broth blended very nicely with the earthy mushrooms and fried tofu.
This course is easy to identify because it’s dessert. This was something like cheesecake, but very dense and not quite as rich. The caramelized sugar was a very nice touch. In the bottom crust were kuromame, or sweet black beans. An excellent end to a very good meal.
The ambiance of the restaurant was a nice balance of sleek and modern but traditional, as you can see from the photo below of the scenery through the full-length glass windows.
If you would like to experience a true kaiseki experience in Japan, try Nakamura-Ro for lunch, as it is a pleasant setting with amazing food for a more reasonable price.
Kaiseki for one person: around 6000 yen
You can find Nakamura-Ro on the grounds of Yasaka Jinja, just off of Higashiyama-dori.
Here are some other blogs about kaiseki: