Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Return to Soujiki Nakahigashi  そうじき なかひがし

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.... see post here) 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. 
(Today's noren ( split curtain)  - simply stunning)

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 type of 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 Tad. 
A very happy Tad!
The next course was a choice of fish or duck - the latter flown in from France, sadly its 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!

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