Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — When one thinks of Japan, immediately there are thoughts of sushi. Sashimi. Miso ramen. Or tempura, crisp to the bite. Rarely does one think of kaiseki: a multiple course meal made with ingredients in season, thought to reflect the philosophical soul of Japan as the highest expression of its gastronomy.
In Kyo-to, a small restaurant along Carlos Palanca St. in Makati’s Legaspi Village, kaiseki finds a vessel through Chef Ryohei Kawamoto, whose experience working as a cook in Osaka’s Kitcho (one of Japan’s most illustrious restaurants) and as a buyer’s assistant in Tokyo’s Tsukiji Market taught him how best to bring kaiseki miles away from home.
The first requirement: a sense of shun, or seasonality, characteristic of authentic Japanese cuisine. It’s the understanding that a meal is only as good as its ingredients, which vary from season to season.
Chef Kawamoto is at the kappo, the “chef’s kitchen,” where he prepares the appetizer for Kyo-to’s kaiseki menu: Hokkaido crab with cucumber vinegar jelly and salmon konbu, served on a crabshell dotted with golden spots. The confection is sweet and light. He serves it with soft sesame tofu with uni.
Chef Kawamoto is not fluent in English — and thus, asking him questions about the menu requires a translator or the added effort to make yourself understood — but he makes his intentions known with his dishes, which already speak for themselves. And the language they speak is universally understood: fresh, individual flavors that come out gently and gracefully. Aside from Hokkaido, Chef Kawamoto sources his ingredients from local sources. He makes sure to shop for them only when needed, ensuring that each dish is as fresh as it gets.
Kyo-to opens for dinner service, which also speaks of the amount of attention that Chef Kawamoto and his team devotes for preparing the kaiseki menu. If they open at lunch, preparation time is cut short, thus sacrificing the thought and detail that goes into each set meal. Dinner time is best: his team goes in before lunch, preparing for the 30-or-so patrons who will grace his restaurant at any given day.
Shun — aside from referring to seasonality — also means patience, in this sense. Good food takes time and does not hurry. Chef Kawamoto, in fact, prefers that he serve only a small number of people, so as not to sacrifice the quality of his kaiseki.
After the appetizers, Chef Kawamoto serves delicate somen noodles with saba, followed by toro (tuna) and hotate (scallop) sashimi with seaweed on a narrow plate. He follows with a wagyu steak, prepared from ohmi sirloin.
In between the demands of a fast-paced urban lifestyle, Kyo-to seeks a return to the forgotten art of sitting down with one’s food, simultaneously enjoying its tastes and appreciating the effort taken by the chef to accomplish them, in accordance with ichigo ichie: another Japanese cultural concept observed inside the restaurant. It means “one time, one meeting,” or “one opportunity, one encounter,” a reminder that the kaiseki is essentially a conversation involving the senses, one that needs to be cherished as a singular opportunity.
For such an experience, the restaurant provides a fitting backdrop. A sliding door outside leads you inside the narrow hallways, simply decorated with beams of blonde stained wood and circular windows. In a corner, a display of artful bowls and jars; adorning the walls, several kabuki portraits by wood brick print artist Tsuruya Kokei. One thing is missing: Kyo-to’s icon, the bronze “Rabbit in Kyoto,” momentarily absent from its place in the restaurant’s front door.
The warm and clean interiors provide an overwhelming sense of rare serenity. It’s easy to imagine hearing the satisfying buzz of idle conversation pervading the restaurant, even as it is filled with a handful of guests. The atmosphere follows the principle of wabi-sabi: a Japanese aesthetic, inspired by nature, where one finds beauty in imperfection and impermanence.
The kaiseki meal is capped off with ice cream with kinako (roasted soybean flour) and mochi. The kinako covers almost all of the mochi and ice cream, making the dessert less photogenic, but nonetheless still enjoyable. Again, wabi-sabi: beauty in imperfection.
To dine in Kyo-to is to partake not only in kaiseki but also in what makes Japanese culture what it is, as embodied in some of its most cherished values: seasonality and patience, enjoying a single moment, and finding beauty in imperfection. It may be difficult to imbibe these outside the sliding doors of Kyo-to, but inside, the menu is only as constant as what the seasons have to offer, and what Chef Kawamoto deems timely to serve for his kaiseki. Meanwhile the world turns, but within a small 30-seater nestled somewhere in Makati, time is at standstill, and your food is light, satisfying, and intricate, as if someone took the time to ensure you’ll have nothing less but an inspired and graceful communion with what you eat.
Kyo-to is located at G/F Coyiuto House, 119 C. Palanca Jr. St., Legaspi Village, Makati City. They are open Tuesdays to Sundays, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Dining is by reservation only. The seasonal menu costs ₱5,200, but will change when the menu changes next season. For more information, visit their website or Facebook page.