April 29th, 2010
No stay in Kyoto would be compete without a kaiseki-ryori meal. However, my previous encounters of this highly esteemed cuisine have been disappointing to say the least. Thus far my experience has been beautifully plated morsels of luke warm, micromanaged fare, served in impersonal and overly formal environs. Other than an expense account – am I missing something? The morning we arrived in Kyoto, my reticence was weakened on the strength of a NY Times review of Giro-Giro, and I promptly made a reservation for BooBoo and I the next evening – at ¥3,600 for a 7 course meal, we could afford to take the risk.
Later the same evening, as we wandered down the canal that stretches from Pontocho down to Shichi-dori, on route to our accommodation, I spied a brightly lit machiya, which was brimming with activity. This walk is part of my regular routine when in Kyoto (this being my 11th trip), and I had often taken note of this establishment – then immediately forgotten about it. On closer inspection, I could just make out the name from across the canal, ‘Giro-Giro’ – Shazam! How is that for synchronicity?
The next night, after asking the hotel staff to call and confirm that one of the guests would not be eating red meat or chicken (yours truly), and that counter seats were reserved, we arrived at Giro-Giro’s doors at our appointed time.
The restaurant is a converted traditional Kyoto townhouse, which has had its back wall replaced with glass panels to provide a pleasing view of the sleepy canal below. The open kitchen on the first floor, is surrounded by a U-shaped counter, and the second floor is available for larger groups – or the poor sods who couldn’t secure a seat downstairs. The rooms have a modern wabi-sabi charm, and the motley-crew of chefs, with their day-glo mohawks (punk kaiseki?) create a hip vibe, which no doubt makes it popular with a younger demographic.
Greeted and seated, it was time to get some drinks ordered. I quickly dispensed with the English menu I was offered, when I realized, as so often the case is, that the Japanese menu had a more comprehensive sake list. In due course a tokkuri of Biwa-no-chouju Junmaiginjou (琵琶の長寿 純米吟醸), appeared before us, and was dispatched with gusto.
The 7 course meal started with a sampler plate of shirasu sushi, smoked salmon, butter grilled scallop, yamamomo, and some other pleasing tidbits.
Followed by a morsel of tempura hamo (pike) – which was served at that dread luke-warm temperature I despise. It quickly found its way to Boo-Boo, who must have thought all of her picnic baskets had come at once.
The third course revealed itself to be a moreish edamame soup with poached hamo (again) for me, and poached chicken, for the meat-eaters.The fresh wasabi at the bottom of the bowl provided a pleasant kick.
Our chokko were replenished with Dassai junmaiginjou, just as the the sashimi course arrived. Is it me, the booze, or are they serving the food out of order?
By now, I was losing track of the courses, as the chefs had enlisted me to translate the dishes to the other foreigners around us. My photos tell me it was grilled snapper with miso sauce and momiji-oroshi (grated daikon and chili), garnished with mushroom and lemon peel.
A small respite then followed in the form of a biwa (loquat) sorbet.
By the penultimate course of takenoko gohan and tsukemono (dashi was poured over the rice to make ochazuke), the counter was buzzing, as guests bantered with their neighbours and regaled each other with their Lost in Translation moments.
There was a little head-scratching between the chef and myself over the ingredients of the dessert, but we finally settled on the translation of banana sorbet, pannacotta, わらびもち Japanese bracken jelly and toasted soybean flour and a caramel macaroon on a banana foam. Phew!
We rolled out of Giro Giro into a balmy spring evening, sated and well pleased with our experience. While this was not Michelin standard kaiseki, the food was a creative and fun interpretation of a traditional cuisine. Giro Giro may well find itself on the itinerary for a 12th visit to my favourite place on Earth.
They have shops in Paris and Hawaii, too.
Giro Giro Hiroshina