Giro Giro Hitoshina by Risa Sekiguchi
Steve here: I invited my friend, Risa Sekiguchi, to post the following about one of Kyoto’s hottest restaurants.
Risa: Several years ago as I was walking with friends along the Takase canal in the quiet, mostly residential neighborhood south of Gojo, we noticed a matchbox-sized restaurant occupying one of the old apartments across the canal. There, a large picture window revealed a group of three young chefs in punk hair-dos busily cooking and preparing food and drinks for customers surrounding a small U-shaped counter. We stopped and stared in amazement at this wondrous and delightful scene — like children transfixed by a pop-up puppet theater — for a few minutes while darkness descended upon us.
Above: The head chef at Giro Giro Hitoshina sports an eye-catching hairdo.
This was Giro Giro, which we later found out was a rather famous restaurant, written up in guidebooks and the New York Times, with a branch in Paris and (soon) Honolulu. When we finally made it there last May, we were sorry it took so long. The experience was delightful, just as we pictured it would be from that first glimpse.
The evening was full of surprises, the first being that the restaurant was even smaller than it looked from outside. The dining chairs had barely enough room to slide into— they had to be backed up to the wall in order to be seated. The second floor was accessed by a steep traditional staircase that one server bounded up and down in a few steps. The tiny kitchen was a rubix cube of efficiency— every bowl and container had its place, and the chefs had mastered the art of moving through the maze-like space with efficiency and skill.
Above, from left to right and top to bottom: Hamo rolled in kaki no tane and deep fried, covered with matcha cream sauce; the May hassun platter; bamboo and chicken terrine in a creamed pea soup with fried wakame topping; carp sashimi; Grilled tai (sea bream); Simmered biwa on gobo (burdoack) sauce; Rice with katsuo (bonito); jasmine and banana ice cream with passionfruit macaron.
The second surprise was the extreme value: ¥3,680. Even at today’s unfavorable exchange rate, that is only about $44 for an authentic, multi-course kaiseki dinner. Such a price is unheard of, as it’s hard to find a decent meal for under $100, and $150-$200 is more the norm. As each inventive, tasty and beautiful course arrived, we kept wondering how in the world they could manage such a feat? Yes, the staff was small and the rent, probably cheap, but the ingredients alone must have cost almost as much.
Head chef Femini (who often shaves or dyes Japanese character and designs into his hair) explained that the founder Eiichi Edakuni (who now runs Giro Giro Paris) believes in bringing kaiseki to a new generation of diners, and his philosophy and commitment keeps the price affordable. His cooking style also makes kaiseki modern and relevant for today. While most kaiseki chefs also invent new dishes (Yoshihiro Murata and Kunio Tokuoka come to mind), Giro Giro’s food tends to push the envelope farther, mixing low-brow elements and references to popular culture.
And here is where the third surprise came in: the food. Not in a conceptual, science experiment style — like so much avant-garde cooking these days — but whimsical and with a sense of humor. Sure, the sakizuke (first course) featured hamo, as traditionally Kyoto as you can get, but have you ever seen it rolled in crushed kaki no tane (crunchy rice crackers shaped like seeds) and deep fried? Or soramame (broad bean) gyoza (dumplings)? Raw caramel infused with hojicha (roasted green tea) flavor? From the light and airy pea mousse to the tiny passionfruit macaron, each bite had an element of surprise and whimsy.
Giro Giro’s fans are many, and seated next to us was a young gentlemen from Nagano who made it a point to dine there every month (the menu changes monthly or bi-weekly, as most kaiseki restaurants do) during his excursions to Kyoto. We can see why. We’ll be back too, and hopefully soon.
Reservations are a must at this popular place, as loved by locals and regulars as tourists and the occasional (very) lucky walk-in. English is not spoken, but as it is a set menu and the atmosphere is relaxed and friendly, it isn’t really necessary.
Risa Sekiguchi was born in Japan but has lived in the US since childhood. She has been building bridges between the two countries her entire life. Visit Risa’s website at http://www.savoryjapan.com/