Kyoto’s ancient Gion district is famous for its geishas. Full of theaters, where geishas perform, the Gion also offers some of Kyoto’s best, and judging by the hoards of tourists who visit, worst dining. This is where my friend and guide Tomo and I had our first dinner in Kyoto – at Ifuki, a one Michelin-starred kaiseki restaurant owned by chef Norio Yamamato (where, as it turns out, we shared the counter with three businessmen and their geishas*).
Despite the hushed formality of the restaurant, intensified for me by the fact that no one spoke English, Yamamoto’s warm smile and cheerful mood put me at ease.
Following the traditional kaiseki philosophy, Yamamoto’s multi-course meal celebrated the season by showcasing its best ingredients; highlighting their texture, flavor, and color; and presenting it all artfully on beautiful plates. But, unique to Ifuki was Yamamoto’s use of live fire. Almost everything he served had, in some way, passed over the open flame that flickered on the grill all night. On top of excellent ingredients and simple, confident cooking, Yamamoto’s subtle use of smoke and char made this meal stand out. Of the dozens of meals I had in Japan on this trip, high and low, this one was my favorite.