A visit to Kyoto during autumn is perhaps one of the most memorable experiences in all of Japan. As the season progresses, the local landscape jumps to life with an explosion of vibrant fall colors. In the setting of ancient temples and meticulously manicured gardens, Kyoto in autumn presents travelers with marvelous sights to behold.
Gastronomically, Kyo-ryori (Kyoto cuisine) is renowned for its delicate flairs, dedication to seasonality and locality, and thoughtful presentation. Though Kyoto is not located near the ocean, the sushi here is thought to be among the best in Japan. Sushi Kappo Nakaichi was recommended to me by a good friend. Though I’ve enjoyed Kyoto-style kaiseki (traditional set meals) in the past, this would be my first foray into eating sushi omakase, Kyo-ryori style. Let’s go!!!
The restaurant is located on a nondescript neighborhood in the Gion district, just east of the Yasaka Shrine.
Beautiful clean lines and a gorgeously sanded Japanese hinoki cypress sushi counter greet the diner. There are 8 seats at the L-shaped bar, a 4-top table, an 8-top table, as well as a private partitioned tatami room available for seating.
Kirin birru (beer)… “Kanpai!” and “Itadakimasu!”
Goma-ae (vegetables with sesame sauce): Shimeji mushroom, spinach and yuzu rind… A brilliant appetite opener!
Tempura: Satsuma imo (Japanese sweet potato) fried with lotus root panko with salt sprinkling, and fried kuruma ebi (Japanese tiger prawn) tail… No traces of greasiness at all! Perfect frying technique is on display here.
Ikura (roe) of Biwa masu (Lake Biwa salmon trout): Local sourcing allows us to enjoy this rare treat. Biwa masu ikura tastes very much like salmon roe. Our serving is undeniably fresh, with each firm fish egg “popping” forth with savory flavor in the mouth!
Sashimi: Tai (red bream), seared hamo (pike conger eel, which is a famous Kyoto specialty item), kuruma ebi tail and chu-toro (medium fatty tuna), served with freshly grated wasabi and ginger… The plate was visually spectacular, and equally delicious to boot. Look at the gorgeous colors on that kuruma ebi tail!
Kuruma ebi head was then presented, after slight grilling… The ebi miso (shrimp innards) was extremely fresh with briny, excellent essence!
Seiko gani (queen snow crab)… This was definitely a highlight of the entire meal. The crab meat and roe were painstakingly extracted and beautifully prepared. The kani miso (crab innards) was thoroughly fragrant as it was eaten. Simply sublime.
Suppon nabe (soft-shelled turtle soup), with mochi and grilled shimonita negi (bunching scallion) bulb… This is another rare Kyoto specialty dish. Served bubbling hot from the fire, the soup was delicate yet full of hearty flavor, with generous pieces of turtle meat (and a few bits of bone!) - A perfect soup for the chilly autumn weather!
Gari (sweet pickled ginger)… Time for nigiri!
Sumi ika (Japanese spineless cuttlefish)… Perfect texture. Each grain of the shari (sushi rice) at Nakaichi were little pearls of heaven - Packed just right, with satisfying bite, and served at optimal temperature.
Honmaguro akami (lean Bluefin tuna)… Slightly aged to bring out even more complexity, this was one delicious bite of tuna!
Tai with dried hijiki (sea vegetable)… Yum.
Saba battera (cured mackerel with pressed sushi rice)… Another specialty of the Kansai region, it was so great eating battera in its region of origin!
Our shokunin prepares the next nigiri course…
Amadai (Japanese tilefish)… Amadai is served at the height of its season…
Hamo with ume (sour plum) sauce… Devilishly hard to prepare (lots of tiny eel bones!), the hamo at Nakaichi was utterly fluffy soft, with the sourness from the plum accenting it perfectly.
Murasaki uni (purple sea urchin roe), served with nikiri (sweet soy)… This was also locally sourced from nearby Osaka Bay. Very delicate and mildly sweet, much akin to the murasaki uni from San Diego!
Kohada (gizzard shad)… Note the outstanding knifework!
Hamaguri (common hard clam)… Slightly sweet, this once common (but now hard-to-find) clam is a treat!
Seared honmaguro o-toro (Bluefin fatty belly)… Words do not do justice to how scrumptious this bite was!
Hirame (flounder) with shiso… Great!
Anago (sea eel) with nitsume (sweet eel sauce)… Pillowy in texture, and oishi!
Toro takuan maki (fatty tuna and preserved daikon radish cut roll)… My favorite combination!
Tamagoyaki, kasutera-style (Castella-style egg cake)… Nakaichi’s version of this omakase coda is dense, with a slight tinge of shrimp paste. Incredibly satisfying!
Our itamae shows us his collection of sushi knives.
Both blades are custom-forged from Japanese tamahagane steel!
Dessert: Sake-candied fuyu (Japanese persimmon)… Again, we taste a wonderful local ingredient at the height of its seasonality. The natural sugars of the persimmon were pleasurable to all those sweet spots on the palate.
Our experience at Sushi Kappo Nakaichi was just terrific. This meal provided us with a much better perspective on Kyo-ryori, while being thoroughly flavorful in its sensibilities. Gochisosama deshita!
As we stumble out into the Gion night, we catch a maiko (apprentice geisha) sighting! Ah, the fleeting pleasures of the floating world of Gion…
Sushi Kappo Nakaichi ( 鮨割烹 なか一 )
570-196 Gionmachi Minamigawa, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto
( 京都府 京都市東山区 祇園町南側 570-196 )