The taxi dropped us on a deserted street corner. The driver pointed down a dimly lit lane, and peeled off into the night.
It was Kyoto, after all, but the silent prospect was just a tiny bit menacing.
Still, when we pushed open a door in the middle of the block, it was as if we’d crashed a raucous party. Four young chefs and a dishwasher whirled around to shout, “Welcome!” Their hair—purple and red, shaggy and spiked, plus one blond-streaked pony tail—and the slightly manic gleam in their eyes, suggested that the dinner rules had just been thrown out the window.
Giro Giro Hitashino is a popular Japanese-French eatery (there’s one in Paris and another in Honolulu) that gets raves for its “modern” or “punk” version of kaiseki-ryori. But what exactly does that mean?
To begin, expect the unexpected…
Traditional kaiseki, which developed about 500 years ago in Kyoto, is an elaborate, multi-course dinner that, as Wikipedia says, “balances the taste, texture, appearance and colors of food.” Each course, served individually, aims to show off the chef’s culinary skills in techniques such as simmering, frying or grilling, and may include mini-portions of several dishes. Very haute and usually high-priced, it is considered the pinnacle of Japanese cooking.
Seasonality is key. In October, for instance, golden chrysanthemum petals might be scattered over an autumnal dish such as simmered turnip and conger eel, served in a delicate porcelain bowl resembling the fall flower. All the elements–ingredients, cooking method, garnishes and china–coalesce to create a culinary “meditation” on the time of year.
Incidentally, when such a dish is presented by a kimono-clad “geisha” kneeling at your table, the word “exquisite” is likely to float into your mind.
For gaijin like B and me, however, it was a bit much. We endured several kaiseki dinners while traveling in Japan: I use the word endured deliberately, because to appreciate the effort that has gone into these stunning presentations and to consume even a modest portion of the food that is served can take hours. Many, many hours.
By dessert, we were about to lose our minds.
Mercifully Giro Giro has not only pared its set menu to a mere eight or nine courses, but has also turned the notion of kaiseki inside out. The cross-cultural dishes that flow from this tiny kitchen are inventive, unconventional and occasionally downright wacky. They may not be as artistically presented as traditional kaiseki, but they are simply delicious.
The staff works in a small open kitchen bordered by a U-shaped counter that can accommodate perhaps 15 or 16 diners. Miraculously their movements are so expertly choreographed that the space never seems cramped. After we squeezed into our chairs at the end of the counter, only a couple of feet separated us from the red-haired chef, giving us a close up view as he prepared our food.
We were still savoring the first of many glasses of shochu, when the chef handed us our first course: white fish roe blackened in a toaster oven, served on a charred piece of kombu, or seaweed, atop a bed of singed pine needles. Though it must be said that the fish eggs resembled plump white worms, the contrast of the roe’s soft, creamy texture with the burnt ingredients was fantastic, especially when dipped into the citrusy ponzu sauce that came alongside.
We quickly learned, however, that there’s no point in trying to identify all the unknown ingredients. B and I don’t speak more than a few words of Japanese, and the chefs, eager as they were to explain, used mostly simple words like “fish” and “mushroom.” More than that, we had to guess.
So when the hassun course was plunked in front of us, we just sat back and enjoyed the mystery. Traditionally, hassun is a platter of small, seasonal dishes from the seas and mountains, or from the fields and streams, that are designed to complement each other.
Giro Giro’s October hassun included a slice of lightly grilled mackerel with a sweet soy glaze, and a thin strip of chilled cucumber wrapped around a warm, dusky-tasting mushroom-sesame paste filling. (Sort of a summer-into-fall dish.) There was a slice of Japanese omelet stuffed with who-knows-what, a chunk of fried mackerel in a creamy, tartar-like sauce and a tiny square of tofu. All the food was served on autumn leaves that might have been raked up in someone’s garden.
At this point a blonde at the end of the counter began to pontificate, rather loudly, about ethical dog breeding. Fortunately, plates of squid sashimi, its smooth white surface scored in a neat cross-hatch pattern, appeared before us. The sashimi was accompanied by enoki mushrooms, braised in soy until they were almost black—another contrast, this time of light and dark, color as well as flavor.
I noticed that the counter was filled with English- and Spanish-speaking visitors of many nations, while the Japanese guests seemed to have comandeered the upstairs dining room. Hmmm… But my thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of a rosy pink bowl filled with tile fish, a strip of vegetable and frothy egg white simmered in broth that offered yet another contrast, this time of textures.
This was followed by a fabulous riff on takoyaki or grilled octopus: Morsels of the softest, most toothsome octopus I have ever eaten, laden with a rich green paste (unknown) and molten fois gras. The garnish? Unknown, as well.
Kill me now, I thought. I’ll die happy.
But no, this was followed by a selection of tempura-fried veggies—sweet potato, lotus root and maitake mushroom, amongst others—all wonderfully crunchy and served with a dipping sauce sprinkled with green onion.
My infatuation came to an abrupt halt, however, with the seventh course. A gleaming sardine-like fish with sliced root vegetables was too finny and strong-tasting for me–but not for B who reveled in his unexpected dividend.
After a simple side dish of mushroom rice, dinner ended with a pair of macarons unceremoniously plunked on a gold-streaked platter. The macarons would never make it out of Pierre Herme’s kitchen—one (quelle horreur!) was badly cracked—but they were delicious in a weirdly wonderful way. The first was filled with red bean paste and jasmine-scented crème, the other with a truffle-infused crème, and I ate every crumb.
The bill was the final surprise of the evening. In a country known for its exorbitant tabs, especially for kaiseki, this one totaled just a bit over $100, many glasses of shochu included.
Giro Giro Hitashino, 420-7 Nanba-cho, Nishi Kiya-machi-dori, Higashigawa, Matsubarashita, Shimogyo-ku, 81-75-343-7070, www.guiloguilo.com.