People often ask me for my restaurant recommendations in Kyoto. There are so many worth a visit that I sometimes find it difficult to even start responding but one place that repeatedly and easily springs to mind is Kezako in Gion (in the street that runs east from the entrance to Kenninji temple that sits right at the end of hanami koji - note this as there are several entrances to Kenninji). I can't find a website but you can call on 075 533 6801 and here's a link to a map. Open for lunch and dinner most days.
Chef Stephan Pantel has been residing in Japan around 10 years and cooked at some very prestigious restaurants but opened Kezako around 5 or 6 years ago - if memory serves me correctly.
Stephan's food is heavily influenced by Japan and her native ingredients but has a strong base in classic french methods. Some of the flavour combinations may sound a little curious at first but he has a knack for successfully teaming some seemingly incongruous mates. He is certainly well respected by his Japanese peers - if I am ever in a flash restaurant in Japan the chef inevitably asks me if I know Kezako - and continues on to tell me how much they love it. People travel from far and wide to dine at Kezako and as a result it is now quite difficult to get a booking unless you are prepared in advance - particularly in the high seasons of Spring and Autumn - but if you are here in Winter you can sometimes grab a same day booking. As far as I am concerned the best seats are at the counter where you can witness all the action - but there are a couple of small private dining rooms upstairs too if you prefer something more intimate. I have eaten here several times and plan to go back when the next special occasion arises...
Stephan is really charming and lovingly explains each dish in English, French or Japanese.
Its not the cheapest joint in town at around 6000 yen for lunch ( including a couple of glasses of wine and coffee) but it is absolute value for money. There are a few wines by the glass on the menu and I really enjoyed the drop below - hand selected by the chef himself.
Kezako's signature dish is this starter below of foie gras wrapped in narauzuke (Nara style pickled daikon made with sake kasu or lees) and refrigerated for a week for the flavours to meld - it is then served with a tropical fruit sauce - sounds bizarre but it works. I love this dish.
Our second dish was this silky chestnut soup with cafe au lait mousse and shiitake from the northern mountains in Kyoto and toasted hazelnuts -autumnal bliss.
I ate here with my mum as she was in town for my birthday (and hers) and as she doesn't eat fish she was served the prawns below with a butternut puree and a spiced red wine shellfish reduction - the prawns were sprinkled with candied, dried and ground orange zest.
Veal cooked with the sous vide method after being stuffed and rolled with a tiny bit of heshiko ( a fermented fish speciality - this one made from saba/mackeral I believe). The sauce was a veal demi glace topped with a foamy emulsion made from stock of saba bones , kombu and cream. Served over polenta and fresh girolles (seasonal french mushroom). Topped with a grilled manganji pepper which had just come into season.
Dessert was an insanely good pain perdu (french toast) - this version made with house made brioche. Poached and grilled pear. Liquorice ice cream with shio kombu (salted kombu strips) on top and soy and butter caramel and walnuts - to die for.
We were the last to leave - didn't want to....!
By the by - this is one of the most spotless open kitchens ever - I don't know how they do it as there is so much prep in every course but Stephan clearly runs a tight ship!
Please visit Kezako if you get a chance to when in Kyoto - it is a unique experience and most enjoyable - very Japanese, very French... it just works.