The complexity of Japanese simplicity, subtle flavors and artistry, in a setting that peaks the senses: CHIHANA epitomises the kaiseki dining experience and leaves you with the sense that now you have encountered true Kyoto hospitality.
Despite a location in the middle of the popular Gion geisha district, CHIHANA is incredibly challenging to find. Walking up Shijo Street approaching Yasaka Shrine, countless narrow alleyways branch off into the darkness. With each step, you tread deeper into a different, quieter world. The glow of the red lantern makes your heart beat with expectation. Slender young bamboo and an ecru noren hanging with the soft brush strokes of the characters for ‘one thousand’ and ‘flower’ – you have made it to CHIHANA.
Once inside, you are surrounded by tea house aesthetics of the kind you saw in magazines before your journey began. The minimalist yet purposeful design is overflowing with authenticity. Led by the chef’s warm smile, you take a seat at the eight-seat counter or in a private room. Hundreds of little plates and sake cups with different personalities, colors and motifs, are on display and waiting to be chosen to present one of the chef’s delicious dishes.
Enjoy the traditionalism of Kyoto
CHIHANA offers classic Kyoto cuisine, closely guarding the tenets of seasonality and drawing out the very best of each ingredient’s innate flavors. Opened by the present chef’s father and loved by literary masters and politicians alike, the second-generation chef at CHIHANA has the weight of expectation on his shoulders. Three signature dishes are unchanged since his father’s time: fresh yuba – the layer that develops on the surface of gently boiled soy milk; the rice course using sticky rice; and a glass of freshly squeezed juice to complete your meal. Every other dish has been created by Chef Katsuyoshi Nagata, striving to surpass even his father’s famed cuisine.
Kaiseki is often enjoyed in a private room with your server quietly shuffling in and out, each time appearing with new elaborate dishes. At CHIHANA, while private rooms are available, the kaiseki experience can be enjoyed at the counter, in full view of the chef’s swift hands at work, allowing for pleasant interaction and better understanding of the details behind each dish.
The delicate and intricately prepared dishes begin to appear, and every course has a flash of green, reminding you that you partake in the goodness of nature with each bite. In early summer, a golden-edged glass dish has a sunset-like glow and holds shrimp, lily bulb, grilled conger eel, sweet potato and okra in a translucent golden gelée. Sashimi of flounder from the Seto Inland Sea is accompanied by umami-rich julienned strips of dried kelp, followed by escabeche of succulent fat greenling fish served with junsai watershield plant, prized for its unique texture and cooling effect. The hassun course follows with its array of seasonal foods in many small dishes, including fresh yuba with firefly squid, sea bream roe, blood clam with vinegar miso and green onion topping and Kyoto Manganji peppers. Next, a sumptuous yuba dumpling filled with fresh green soybeans, followed by salt-grilled ocean trout. Then, the pop of flavors from pickles and freshly sliced shiso perilla leaves served with sticky rice completes the meal. The only thing left to savor is a refreshing glass of freshly squeezed mixed orange and apple juice.
There is an extensive selection of sake for pairing with your dinner, but the wine selection is exceptional. The chef has gathered many personal favorites, and the collection has gradually grown with his customer base and their preferences too.
Chef Nagata sources his ingredients each morning at the Central and Nishiki markets, which buzz with the energy of chefs, locals and tourists, all seeking the best ingredients. He also talks to fisherman and farmers regularly, sourcing freshly harvested produce which is sent straight to the restaurant. He is very keen to stress that his focus is not simply on the origin of the items; the key is in the flavor.
For the most part, Nagata uses the tableware collection created by his father, who was particularly fond of pieces created in climbing kilns known as noborigama. Tableware is selected not simply to enhance the appearance of the food, but to emphasize the seasonal theme of the meal. Centered in the design of one colorful plate is the yin and yang symbol, reminding us of nature’s cycle of change and how seemingly opposing forces can be interwoven harmoniously. Lacquerware bowls show heavy heads of rice ready for harvest, and the dynamic design of a fan-shaped dish makes it appear as though it is being flicked through the air, perhaps by a dancing Geisha. Besides a collection of breathtaking pieces by Rosanjin and other prominent artists, there are many unsigned pieces: as with ingredients, the name is not as important as the quality of the item itself.