Idiosyncratic kaiseki

Tucked away in a small alley in Kyoto’s Gion area, Chihana enjoys a tremendous reputation. The three Michelin-star restaurant’s cuisine is unusual when compared to similar establishments’ in Japan.

What is striking in a meal at Chihana is the variety and idiosyncrasy of flavour-pairings. The menu might kick-off with horse mackerel and kiwi. The odd combination turns out to be surprisingly delicious: the kiwi sauce is savoury/sweet/sour, and the richness of the fish creates a lovely contrast. Another odd pairing is a rice dish that comes topped with a heap of thinly sliced shiso leaf and pickles. This dish is marked by an almost electric flavour profile; hardly savoury, it is herbal, high-pitched and sour. Whilst the mackerel and kiwi combination is an example of a successful marriage of flavours, this particular rice dish is merely interesting.

Apart from the unusually conceived dishes, Chihana stands out for its disregard of the traditional Japanese luxury products. Don’t come here expecting wagyu beef and amadai. Rather, the chefs tend to favour an array of less commonly used produce that make the dishes here so unique, if not always pleasant.

Whilst the food at Chihana is certainly not easy to like, the absence of the chef is perhaps even more striking. During most of our lunch at the restaurant, only a commis stood behind the counter, whilst the chef appeared once or twice to see how things were going. As a result, the atmosphere in the restaurant is entirely different to that of Nakahigashi, Ogata or Matsu for instance, where a much closer connection between the diner and the cooks enlivens the meal.

With its unusual food and somewhat cold atmosphere, eating at Chihana is not really pleasurable. Whilst intellectually stimulating, the dining experience here doesn’t feel as natural and warm as it does at a lot of Kyoto’s other top restaurants.


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