My visit to Mizai was in September of 2007, the city still sweltering from the residual heat of the summer. I didn't know what to expect when I made the reservation; Mizai simply happened to be one of the restaurants my husband had listed as places to try. En route we find out from our cab driver how lucky we are to have gotten a reservation in such short notice: three days in advance.
What I find out throughout the course of the night is that I am in for a night of spectacular performance by legendary Chef Ishihara in the form of a dinner. He is a well-known prodigy in the kaiseki world, appointed as the youngest executive chef at Kiccho in Arashiyama, Kyoto, where he worked for some thirty years until he opened Mizai, his first solo restaurant in 2005. He has a fiery aura, exuding passion and monitored tenderness toward food and service.
Chef Ishihara's show begins at 6 pm sharp. When you make the reservation you are reminded to be at the restaurant 15 minutes earlier. As a ten-seat counter kaiseki restaurant serving only that many people a night, all the diners start at the same time for the one and only seating of the evening.
We arrive exactly at 5:45 pm. After being greeted by one of Chef Ishihara's apprentices, we sit in a porch-like area outside and are served machi-cha, literally "waiting tea." Only when the restaurant is ready to welcome the guests, are we invited to enter, one party at a time.
We sit toward the middle of the counter. The disciple who brought us machi-cha asks our beverage preference and I ask for chilled sake with the dinner. Here, as in other traditional counter kaiseki and sushi restaurants, there are no female servers; one of the all-male disciples works the front-of-house as a part of his apprenticeship. At several places run this way, I have felt a lack of finesse in atmosphere, secretly wondering to my feminist self maybe there is such a thing as a woman's touch. Not here; in its impeccable hospitality style is a certain masculine glamour.
The dinner begins with an aperitif of chrysanthemum sake, a visual delight of pale yellow petals floating in clear liquid, poured to our cups by the chef himself. Following the tradition of cha kaiseki (tea kaiseki), the first course is a small portion of steamed white rice and two small plates of seasonal vegetables. The rice is to prepare the stomach to make the drinking experience more pleasurable. What a bright idea, I think, being that person who often enjoys sake too much with a good meal. The vegetable dishes are chilled grilled eggplant with mustard and slender pieces of sweet potato and Asian pear with goji berries and grapes. The savoriness and spiciness of the first dish and the sweetness and mild acidity of the second open up my palate.
And here it comes, a dazzling plate of sashimi for two: oh-toro, tai, yariika (spear squid), aji (jack mackerel), and hirame engawa (fluke fin) served with grated daikon, julienned scallions, grated ginger, tamari soy gelee and sudachi juice mixed with nigari (reduced natural salt water). The presenation of the beautifully cut pieces of fish on a dynamic pottery oeuvre draws out gasps and sighs from the guests.
The following Hassun plate is a world of its own, representative of the wealth of land and sea: baby hamo (pike eel) with its own liver, ikura and salmon with grated daikon, simmered sanma (saury), a piece of deep-fried chestnut, braised baby octopus, sliced roast duck with whole-grain mustard and pickled hot pepper leaves.
My husband pours me yet another cup of sake.
While we make our way through the platter with sips of sake in between, Chef Ishihara starts on the soup course. It is a clear broth with suppon maru-dofu (quenelle of sea turtle meat and tofu binded with egg), matsutake mushrooms and yuzu. Served in a red lacquered bowl, this fragrant and flavorful dish announces the approaching autumn with its ingredients and color.
Pieces of seared Wagyu with sansho pepper and pickled zuchinni are followed by a palate cleansing sorbet of sweet black beans and kabocha pumpkin. Julienned myoga adds a little pep to the delicately warm braised dish of anago (sea eel), winter melon and suguki (pickled radish particular to Kyoto). I enjoy the remainder of my sake with generous cuts of steamed abalone, flash-cooked okra and seared kamasu (barracuda).
Because we were served steamed rice at the beginning of the meal, Chef Ishihara changes up the final course with yuto, rice soup flavored only with the rice itself and hot water and, if any, the faintest hint of broth to bring out the taste of rice. Home-pickeled vegetables served aside provide a savory crunch. My husband has a second helping of the yuto.
I think, I don't want this to end. And my wish is granted.
The first of three desserts is a traditional Japanese confectionery made with chestnuts, sweet white bean paste and sweet red beans with a sprinkle of roasted buckwheat. Following the cha kaiseki tradition, matcha in a graceful tea bowl is served. A fruit plate flaunts the harvest of the season to come (autumn) and season to end (summer); pieces of white peach, fig and Asian pear, Pione grapes and strawberries are covered in a light blueberry sauce. The final dessert of red shiso granite with plum wine gelee caps off the night with an alcoholic buzz.
Surrounding the counter, we are all beaming with satisfaction; it is not unlike the atmosphere in a concert hall at the end of a glorious performance where the audience feels connected with one another for having experienced something spectacular together. Chef Ishihara and his assistants also glow inside the counter, taking in our contentment as a standing ovation.
I can confidently say that my dinner at Mizai that September evening is one of the most enjoyable meals I have ever had. More than any other kaiseki or French restaurants I have been to, Mizai not only has a dazzling quality to its every dish and presentation, but also to how they are carried out throughout the course of the evening. Chef Ishihara's serene passion charges the room with a sort of electricity that makes this place truly special.
(Note: The restaurant only takes reservations from party of two. Find yourself a good food-loving companion, if you are in Kyoto solo. Or come find me; I'll go any time).
Kyoto City, Higashiyama-ku, Yasaka Torii Mae Higashi Hairu, Maruyama Machi 620-1 (Inside Maruyama Park)
Budget: 25,000 yen
No credit cards accepted
No credit cards accepted