Sunday, July 12, 2015

Kaiseki Lunch at Gion Maruyama

We concluded our brief stay in Kyoto with lunch at a kaiseki restaurant called Gion Maruyama (祇園丸山), which came highly recommended by a few food loving friends of ours.

As we had a train to catch shortly after lunch, we did the unthinkable of dragging our suitcases cross the classy Hamamikoji-dori (花見小路通), a popular sightseeing street near Gion known for the common sight of geisha strolling past. There are actually two Maruyama restaurants, both owned by Chef Yoshio Maruyama and both awarded 2 Michelin stars, and the one we went was the honten, or the original branch, located just a couple blocks off Hamamikoji-dori inside an old traditional Japanese house.

Gion Maruyama specialized Kyo kaiseki ryori (京会席料理), the delicate style of centuries-old fine Japanese cuisine with deep roots from Kyoto back when the city was the nation's capital. As we arrived by the door, we were led into one of the 5 private rooms on the upper floor, where the table has already been set up for us, completed with English menu and all, so we knew exactly what we were having in each of the 10 courses being presented. Here, no small details were overlooked to make everyone felt comfortable and the meal enjoyable.

During day time they serve a simplified version of the kaiseki set at a fraction of the price as their dinner with a few less courses. While I am sure the dinner would be exquisite and even more exciting, we were still mind-blown by what we had at lunch and thought it provided tremendous value for money. Our first course of gomatofu, a cold bowl of sesame tofu, has subtle aromatic sesame flavor and sensational soft texture. Next was a soup with hamo served in a lidded lacquer bowl with water drops splashed on the lid, as it's done traditionally. We had hamo - or pike conger eel - a few times in the past few days already but this is hands down the best we had. The eel - served in a consomme thickened with kudzu starch with maitake mushroom and togan (wax gourd/winter melon) - has a firm texture and delicate flavor accented by the little plum paste on top.

The soup was quickly followed by the sashimi course - with the tai (sea bream) having a good bite and well balanced, while the katsuo (skipjack tuna) has a mild charcoaled taste and also very tasty. Our yakimono (the grilled/roasted course) was sawara (Spanish Mackerel), served with a rich tare sauce brushed on top with sudori-renkon, pickled lotus root. The sauce complemented well with the fresh fish flavor rather than overwhelming it and the pickles give the dish a crunchy bite and a hint of acidity to balance the sweetness.

In between the main courses, an O-shinogi course of Yomogi-men was served as palate cleanser. The green-color Yomogi-men, noodles made of mugwort with an al dente consistency, was served cold with a mild but flavorful sauce garnished with hari-myoga, Japanese needle ginger, and sesame, both giving it a refreshing kick. Afterwards it's a bowl of hearty simmered course with Tainoko (egg of sea bream), awafu (wheat gluten), negaimo (yam), shiitake, hachiku (bamboo shoot) and more. I thought the combination of tainoko and hachiku was magical for a sea match forest umami taste.

Towards the end of the meal was the soup and rice. I love the strong sansho after-taste in the soup made with different kinds of miso, and the rice was so good that I had an extra bowl just on its own after having the first bowl with the pickles. And we were at awe with the pickles too, admiring the flawless jabara-cut of the cucumber which made it extra crunchy and flavored well-infused. Dessert was a lovely plate of honey jelly, laichi, kiwi and strawberry sherbet with peppermint.

Our best meal in Kyoto this time no doubt, just as we were ready to head out to Europe the next morning. We felt like we were sent away on a high note for our next destination, as we slowly looked back from our taxi with our waitress bowing us farewell. 

More pictures on my Flickr page at

When? June 22 2015
Where? Gion Maruyama, Gion-machi-minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
祇園丸山 京都東山区祇園町南側
Menu Highlights? Hamo-yoshino-uchi - soup of pike conger eel, and Sawara-yuanyaki - grilled Spanish mackerel
Drinks? Maruyama Junmai Daiginjo (a house brand served in a bamboo canister)

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