What is it? Traditional Kyoto kaiseki. One of the most difficult cuisines to replicate in the world, and as far as we know, this is the only one doing it completely authentically outside of Japan. Although there are plenty of restaurants that serve meals in the spirit of this ceremonial dining style, none have gone to this level of dedicated adherence to kaiseki, which through food, plating and ceremony pays homage to the changing seasons and the balance that exists in nature and can only be described as a culinary art form.
The place: From the moment the elevator doors open, you are in Kyoto. From the kneeling kimonoed servers who delicately gesture for you to remove your shoes, to the low tables encased in a tatami private room with clay walls, shoji paper doors and windows, antique samurai swords and a Japanese zen garden. Thirty-Eight only houses three rooms, two with seats for five and one that can accommodate up to ten. In kaiseki, the tableware is as important as the ingredients and the décor. Thirty-Eight uses priceless antiques to serve each course and every element of the meal hails from Japan, with the vast majority coming directly from Kyoto itself. The décor changes monthly, as is custom, the fish served is only line caught, never net, and they use the best raw materials from Japan and prepared by kaiseki chefs who have never worked outside of Kyoto before so they truly adhere to the traditional methods of cooking.
The food: We started with a cherry blossom tea cured in salt water served with a formal kneeling bow by our attendant. An appetizer of eggplant and tomato soaked in bullion served in an elegant glass pot with a taste of sake from a red lacquered cup before the Myoga ginger chicken soup followed by wonderfully fresh and flavourful Toro, halfbeak and shinshu salmon sashimi. An exquisite platter arrived with a light scent of spring from the cherry blossom branches decoratively assembled to look like a scene from a Japanese illustration. It was like a story on a plate. With boiled conger, fried octopus, taro, komatsuna and shrimp mixed with salted mullet roe. Ohmi beefsteak with foie gras in miso sauce followed to the delight of all at our table with its decorative pink salt brick and cured banana leaf serving as a platform for the exquisite dish. Next came the delicate flavours of Dagger-tooth pike pot of eel and vegetables and the Koshihikari rice. Our fruit course was served in a stunning turn of the century crystal bowl filled with muskmelon and Dekopon orange.
The price: A meal at Thirty-Eight is not cheap, nor should it be. Kaiseki is known for being expensive and this level of consideration to authenticity doesn’t come cheap; their produce and seafood are all flown in from Japan as is the equipment to keep the fish fresh, so that it is never kept for more than two days and it is killed and prepared an hour before you eat it, is all achieved at considerable cost. For around five courses with tea ceremony, lunch will set you back $1,500 and will take around three hours to fully enjoy. For the evening meals, depending on what’s featured on the menu, an 11 course meal will range from $4,000–$6,000.
The verdict: Cheaper than flying to Japan to try true Kyoto kaiseki and yet you’ll absolutely feel as if you have.
1/F, Gramercy, 38 Caine Road, Central, 2798 9989