Loved and praised as “Sasaki Theater,” this one-and-only Japanese restaurant has become a long-run hit on the old strip of Gion. With charisma and passion, Chef Hiroshi Sasaki has transformed his kitchen into a stage where he performs a new kind of culinary entertainment, packed with fun and surprises.
Perhaps one of the most difficult Kyoto restaurants to get a reservation at, Gion Sasaki is located on a quiet street just a few blocks from Kennin-ji, one of the oldest zen temples in the historic capital. Renovating a 90-year old wooden house, this is where Sasaki weds old Japanese traditions with extraordinary ideas. It’s this kind of creative and flexible thinking that has kept him ahead of the game.
As you walk by the beautiful Mahogany counter, you wonder if you mistakenly walked into an Italian pizzeria, spotting the huge brick oven behind the chef. The idea of installing a western oven into a Japanese kitchen came to him when he and a group of gourmands took a trip to a dairy farm in Okayama to try out their lovely cheeses and fresh-baked pizzas.
The crew, including Kiyomi Mikuni, one of Japan's most famous chefs for French cooking, and food writer Takeshi Kadokami, decided to do a tasty experiment with everyone bringing a special ingredient to bake in the brick oven. Despite some beautiful pieces of meats, the abalone that Sasaki brought was the surprise winner. It was so delicious it pushed him to move his restaurant to a new property in 2006 where he could install a brick oven.
While the core of Sasaki’s cuisine is traditionally Japanese, his final product is creative and experimental, incorporating new ideas from various cultures.
The appetizer, served in a breathtaking mosaic bowl, are pieces of kuruma shrimp, Japanese clams, and urui leaves, moistened in flavorful dashi that brings about deep aromas of the sea. He coats the surface of the broth with umami-packed froth, making the dish resemble a bowl of French bisque.
Owan, the soup, is at the heart of traditional Kyoto—and also Sasaki’s—cuisine. Using carefully-brewed dashi broth, he curates a gorgeous bowl by selecting the best combination of seasonal ingredients. The day’s soup features blanched pieces of fat greenling with homemade yomogi tofu, sprinkled with heaps of aromatic Japanese myoga ginger. Enjoy the beautiful wisteria flower drawn on the inside of the lid as you open the smooth black lacquer bowl.
Sasaki never forgets to add an element of fun to his dishes. For sushi, instead of serving single pieces to each guest, he puts together a platter of fresh shrimp, squid, fatty tuna and other seasonal white fish. Next to the sushi is a piece of hake, Japanese wash brush with a long flat handle, inviting guests to dress the pieces themselves with soy sauce.
Next, the oven takes centerstage. Sasaki has experimented and perfected cooking all varieties of foods in the oven, including roast beef, abalone, eel, crab and vegetables. All roasts are made in big portions and shared family style with all guests.
“I love throwing in some potatoes or pumpkins in the oven overnight,” Sasaki says. “The residual heat cooks them beautifully by the morning. It’s so good.”
For the final rice course, the offerings are diverse and all sorts. Sometimes he serves takikomi gohan mixed rice, infused with aromas of herbs and vegetables. On other days, it could be porridge, sushi, Chinese fried rice or Korean bibimbap. The day’s rice was a bowl of sweet whitebait and grated daikon radish. Squeeze some sudachi citrus for a refreshing finish.
Sasaki selects every ingredient, deals with the producers himself, and isn’t afraid to pay for the best produce. “Why on earth would I bargain if I want the best?” he says, rather plainly.
For fish, he buys from a range of fishermen in Nishiki Market and Central Market as well as some regional ports. His extensive network often brings him to incredible produce. For example, the fisherman in Hokkaido he buys sea urchins from was recommended by Alain Ducasse, the famous French-born Monégasque chef.
The restaurant’s fresh vegetables come from Akashi, an experienced vendor Sasaki has known for more than 30 years. He also have selected two vendors for all his meats, and a rice farmer, his best friend from high school, that grows excellent Hinohikari. Dried in direct sun, the grains have perfect texture and sweetest aroma.
While seeking for the best ingredients, Sasaki seldom cares about prestige. For example, he buys his whitebaits from a fisherman in Muromune port, an area not known for whitebaits, because he knows the family through his staff and the catch is very good.
Sasaki Theater can’t run without its brilliant staff. The team is young and passionate, welcoming the guests with great energy and enthusiasm. He often moves them around between Gion Sasaki and his chic izakaya, Gionrakumi, in order to have them learn from the different set up and clientele. “I want them to understand what it takes to run a business,” Sasaki says, reiterating his passion to raise the next generation of top Kyoto chefs.
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥4,000
- The price includes our booking fee of ￥4,000