Soujiki Nakahigashi

My second visit to Soujiki Nakahigashi was a very different experience to the first. I hadn’t been throwing up for 24 hours prior for one thing (a prelude like that was bound to result in some mixed feelings about imbibing fermented sushi with the flavour and texture of a thick but ripe blue cheese….) and the issue of cost, which, in a less financially-flush moment had been niggling at me, was pleasantly alleviated when I learned that lunch would be a little more gentle on the pocket.

The noren (split curtain) of the moment was rather impactful

Although initially reluctant to return I knew I had to give it another shot…it wasn’t fair to judge it based on my own inability to keep food down for long – or even look at it for more than a few seconds without feeling ill… So I took a deep breath and showed up for an end of Winter/early Spring lunch.

And what a momentous comeback it was. The entire experience was almost overwhelming –  due in part to the beauty and execution of this very fine meal but made all the more enticing by the information provided by a Japanese foodie friend who was able to explain so much more about the ingredients and the symbolism of each course than we would ever have gleaned having dined there as foreigners.  Deciphering my own scribbled notes has not done justice to our friend’s kind interpreting skills but it should give you a general idea of how things rolled….

The Hassun (officially the 2nd course in Kaiseki but in this case the first) was a elegant ode to setsubun (parting of the seasons and for this particular one, being situated at the beginning of February, the official start of Spring or Risshun). Spiky holly and (sweetly smoked) sardines – the official deterrents to oni (demons) formed the base of the dish and garnish – alongside was daikon and buri (yellowtail) sashimi, very young bamboo shoots (deep fried) and nanohana (canola) spriglets and shigore – oyster slow cooked in soy with sansho. Inside the pink radish camelia was dried persimmon paste with yuzu and finely minced cooked egg yolk.  This dish is served on a square plate to represent a masu – a wooden measuring cup  – this cup is filled with roatsed soy beans then placed in the tokonoma (spiritual alter) before scattering during Setsubun  – scaring off the aforementioned Oni and basically blessing your abode. **Find out more about Setsubun ritual from my friend’s site “Kyoto Foodie”

Above is the next course – inside out inari zushi filled with rice and dried warabi (bracken)- the rough, pale texture representing snow on the mountains and the green pine needle is shaped into a “horse” to represent horse day which coincided with spring this setsubun. For extra bean reference the pine needle is bound by daitokuji natto – a dark, marmite flavoured, fermented bean product from Kyoto’s famous daitokuji temple. Very different from how most of us know Natto! Garnished with slightly bitter spring green known as tsukushi or horsetail…

So simple but with flavour complexity – a “dashi” or essence of daikon with finely shredded daikon and kinome – the tiny, aromatic and astringent leaves of the sansho plant.

Watching our fishy little parcels over the grill… Sawara (spanish mackerel) is first marinated in sweet saikyo miso

The fish was served with a sprinkling of freeze-dried mochi powder, katsuobushi,  red daikon and perfumed with some leaf used in french cooking which none of us could work out – but its famously sour apparently. The brownish bits on the camelia leaf are takuan – a daikon pickle  – however this has been soaked to remove the salt and then simmered in soy and mirin to soften and sweeten – to make it more luxurious (zetaku).

hmmm… I seem to have eaten this before grabbing a snap. Its not because I was excited to get into it – more the opposite. I was very keen to swallow it before I thought about it… just a personal preference but I do find it difficult to down raw carp (koi)  – it has a particularly chewy texture for sashimi and a relatively strong flavour – some people love it of course but I prefer my sashimi more melting.  It was served with a carp skin jelly…. but also a dressing of ponzu and a light dusting of licorice and bitter dandelion which, I will admit, helped things along.

Next came a robust and delicious simmered local inoshishi or wild boar  – its fat sweet from a diet high in acorns. Served with mizuna, carrot and kabura (a special round daikon available for a short time in winter) and mashed then a dumpling-like round of fried ko-imo and kashira imo –  types of local potato/yam.  This dish is apparently eaten by the master or head of family during setsubun.

Speaking of masters – here is Nakahigashi san chatting Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine) with my lovely friend and fellow Foodie Tad. OK he’s not just another foodie – he’s seriously well versed on Japanese cuisine, his many reason for moving to Kyoto many moons ago and he has taught me so very much. And also responsible for arranging our outings to this restaurant which is extremely difficult to get into. Arigatou Taddo san! x

The next course was a choice of fish or duck – the latter flown in from France, sadly it’s significantly more delicious than the local variety which tends to be a little tough and strongly flavoured.

An impressive frenzy to quickly extract the spine from the fish to throw back on the grill until crisp

et voila!

Succulent grilled duck with sweet Kyoto red carrot and fresh sansho pepper puree and black daikon – an heirloom variety. Dried ground sansho was sprinkled over the top cutting through the rich meat.

Local mushrooms and mustard greens ohitashi (drenched in dashi with a little soy and mirin) – very refreshing with clean, well rounded flavours.

Broccoli with saikyo miso was one of the dishes on the next course which included crisp fish, pickles and okara (tofu lees) and spring onions

Deep fried carp scales toffeed and scented with sansho… fantastic!

the customary way to end the meal – tea

and a little dessert of course – sweet strawberries from Kamigamo area in northern Kyoto, sake kasu (lees) sorbet, Kinkan (a tiny cumquat like citrus), buntan berries and pomelo “jam” sans sugar

Satisfied customers….

**Soujiki Nakahigashi is situated about halfway up the street that leads from Shirakawa dori to Ginkakuji temple – I think it is Ginkakuji michi. It is on the south side of the street – opposite the canal.  You cannot get in without booking well in advance … however the best way to book is to turn up in person on the first of the month – first thing in the morning.  And book your next visit while you are there – although last time we were told it was approximately an 8 month wait for a Sunday lunch so… good luck!

Keep reading to find out about my first visit to Soujiki Nakahigahshi !

I have one regret about my dinner at ‘Nakahigashi’ and that is that I’d been very unwell for about 12 hours beforehand…  Consequently some of the dishes did not sit well on my all too queasy stomach.

Even though I was feeling pretty horrendous my dining experience was only just less than fabulous and my partners-in-crime loved it so much they immediately booked again. Yes, I could have pulled out of the dinner but when the next available booking was 6 months down the track it didn’t seem sensible to take the risk.  As it was my friends had woken early on the first of the month and pedalled their bikes over the mountain’s black ice in the frosty morning air to wait outside the restaurant’s door until they were allowed to enter and make the booking in person.  I think Nakahigashi san took pity on them because we scored a sitting for just one month afterwards….

The master at work plating our first course

Being nauseous and exhausted I did not take in the details of everything we ate that night so the pictures will have to tell the story themselves except for where I can recall some scant bit of info…. apologies.

As you can see, the food was presented so very beautifully – a daikon and roe “camellia” forming the centrepiece of our first course – signalling an end to winter and nodding gracefully towards spring.  Note the tiny baby leeks – just having sprouted  – aw kawaii!

first course from behind…  duck and leek rolls and fish stuffed with its own liver. Below is shira-ae of bitter plants hand-picked by the master as they grew wild by the roadside, river, mountain etc. Super bitter. But the next part of the ride was a sweet, smooth saikyo miso shiru with micro turnip. The theatre of the two dishes was something to behold. They required each other to work within the meal… I have never experienced anything quite like that particular dance.  Clever and mildly frightening at the same time.

Sakura trout marinated in miso before being cooked over the grill in its elegant wooden packaging. It was accompanied by a crunchy burdock “spine” and crisp, caramelised carp scales.  A very fine dish indeed. Who knew carp scales had the capacity to become a tasty snackette…? only the Japanese.

Grilled Moroko (small fish) with tempura fuuki buds and  fuuki leaf in vinegar as the dipping sauce

sashimi of koi (carp) with raw carp skin and grated pink daikon

 Yuba hiding beneath the green… aromatic yuzu skin diamond.

Oh, the most challenging course for me that night was the mackerel sushi below – it looks innocent enough but was in fact, fermented. Not just the fish – the whole thing – rendering it with a funky flavour not dissimilar to an overripe blue cheese laced with fish sauce and the texture was like a thick, chewy rice gruel. An acquired taste perhaps. I wasn’t the only one struggling with it that night. Even one of the Japanese women seated close to us, who had earlier, somewhat condescendingly, commented  “aw you gaijin can never really understand this kind of cuisine can you  – poor things….”  through a pitying smile – was having trouble and gave it to her hubby to finish off.

You will note that I managed to clean my plate. I basically shoved the offending sushi in my mouth (pretending it was cheese) and used the sake from this stunning lacquerware vessel above to flush it down.  I really don’t want to sound like I am complaining about the wonderful meal but it is fair to say that some others may find this particular dish a bit difficult to consume and I feel it my duty to give some warning to the unsuspecting. There were people here LOVING this course so perhaps our condescending neighbour was correct in her assessment. Having said that Tad could have eaten seconds so not all gaijin as as uncouth as moi clearly….

The bamboo shoots below were so young, sweet and silken  I would have believed it was oddly shaped corn had I not known better. divine.

An interesting dish that seemed a little disconnected from the rest of the meal with the inclusion of  ponzu foam and dehydrated soy sprinkled on top… There were plum seeds coloured pink by cooking with red daikon  – they tasted like young almonds – superb. The contents of the bowl, including a type of raw clam and warabi shoots, were mixed together before eating.

a refreshing ohitashi of mixed baby spring greens and dried yuba skin

sensational tsukemono (pickles)

The “main course” as the chef likes to joke…there is some story about the cloud plate they had specially commissioned for this course but I couldn’t catch it…  by that stage I was pretty delirious and could barely even put this near my mouth let alone join in the banter….

okage – the crisp rice from the bottom of the pot… mmmm

Kumamoto strawberries with sake kasu sorbet

seriously good cold coffee with black sugar kompeito (a Kyoto speciality sweet of organically forming sugar crystals) and “not cheese” but hard milk? tasting like solidified milk powder in a whey.. er way…

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