WHAT WE ATE IN KYOTO
Naturally, when it comes to eating in Kyoto, we were spoilt for choice. One thing I have to say was, we were surprised to find that tatami mat restaurants became a problem for us. You would think that tatami mats were the perfect solution to dining out with kids!
So the first tatami mat restaurant we went to was a complete eye-opener. It was our first proper Japanese lunch in Japan with Mr E on our first day in Kyoto. For some reason, Mr E went NUTS. It was a whole new experience for him – having adults sit on the floor with him, he just went insane. If you know him, you’d know he’s a pretty well-behaved kid, especially at the dining table. So we were shocked when suddenly he went crazy, He was running around the room, grabbing everything he could get his hands on – spare chopsticks, napkins, decorative stones, slippers, umbrellas… We then realised that having a child sit on a tatami mat gives the child a false (or perhaps true) sense of freedom. The only reason he is so well-behaved at other restaurants back home in Singapore is because he’s literally constrained in a high chair, he can’t escape. So #TravellinginKyotowithaToddler Tip 4: If your child is like mine, inquisitive, try your very best to avoid restaurants with tatami mats, where possible. Or just ask to sit at a table with chairs rather than on a tatami mat. OR if all else fails, just ask for a private room with a tatami mat – they normally agree because it’s always safer for everyone that an over-enthusiastic child be kept inside a private room than running wild outside disturbing the other patrons.
As you can imagine, it was almost impossible to avoid restaurants with tatami mats in Kyoto – so after a few meals, we improvised. Some restaurants provided these little wooden chairs that kids would sit on on top of the tatami mat. The next day, we had lunch at this very famous 600-year-old udon shop, Honke Owariya near the Imperial Palace. Before going in, we gave him a stern lecture about how he had to respect the restaurant, its owners, its workers and the other patrons by behaving. He seemed to understand.
Actually, I’m not sure how much he cared about embarrassing us and himself, but he was pretty well-behaved in the restaurant because we decided to restrain him in the little wooden chair they offered children. We used his belt and created a makeshift safety buckle so that he thought that he was constrained to the chair (just like in high chairs where they have the safety buckle). That kind of worked for a while. It also helped that he was and IS obsessed with udon. So he just sat there quietly devouring up his udon.
To be honest, the udon at Honke Owariya wasn’t as life changing as we expected it to be. I guess that really is the true burden of being a 600-year-old udon shop: the extremely high expectations. The udon we had was undeniably springy and soft, but the soup just wasn’t as tasty as we expected it to be. It was nonetheless very cool to have eaten at 600-year-old restaurant. Given that my nation is only JUST turning 50, I don’t think I’m in any way qualified to comment about the cuisine of a restaurant and culture thousands of years older than mine.
ANYWAY, since we are on the topic of food, I am so thankful that Mr E is truly in love with Japanese food. It made feeding him SO easy. Japan has some of the freshest produce in the world so all of us, not only Mr E, were spoiled for choice. Almost everyday, my dear mother would go to the grocery store to buy fresh cherry tomatoes, fresh cherries, straw berries and one day, we even enjoyed super sweet Japanese grapes with the extra crunch inside and were just at the verge of fermentation. Oh my, DELICIOUS.
Ok, to round off this food section, I guess there were THREE standout restaurants for us that impressed me because of the quality of their food and their service toward families with kids.
If I had to rate the restaurant with the best cost to quality ratio, it would definitely be Chojiro, a sashimi and sushi restaurant we had on our first night in Kyoto. It is a casual dining restaurant located right in the heart of city, near Gion. Luckily, we asked the ryokan staff to make a reservation for us because when we got there at about 7:30 pm, the queue extended out the door. Luckily we got a booth seat with a high chair for Mr E. We ordered via an iPad which made communication very easy. The prices were at least HALF the prices of restaurants in Singapore so we were going nuts. We just kept ordering and ordering. The staff were so very very friendly and kept playing and talking to Mr E. It really was a very family friendly restaurant but with excellent food. You see, I normally don’t like unagi in Singapore, maybe because the ones I have tried in SIngapore are not as fresh and a bit chewy, but when I bit into the unagi at Chojiro, I could not believe it. It was sweet and so soft that it literally melted in my mouth like butter. The unagi I have had in Singapore has been rubbery and fishy, a complete opposite to the unagi I tried at Chojiro. The rest of the sushi and sashimi we ordered were no less incredible. And to top it all off, the cost of the whole dinner, where we were literally ordering without control, was only S$100. My father commented it would cost at least three times more in Singapore. Oh and please don’t ask me about food photos – I don’t think I have the capacity or restraint to be a food blogger because I can’t bear wasting time taking photos of food.
The next restaurant I would definitely go back to in Kyoto is Hiro Yakiniku Restaurant also in the heart of Gion. Sorry, again, I really don’t have photos of the food because I really wasn’t setting out to blog about my meals. But trust me, it was INCREDIBLE. It came recommended by a very discerning luxury magazine editor friend of mine so we were assured the quality of the meat was amazing. The restaurant put us in a private room which gave Mr E freedom to run around the room as fast as he could ignoring our shouts of, “Don’t go near the fire!!! Don’t go near the window!!! Don’t touch that!!” But otherwise, it was a lot of fun and the beef was, as I shared earlier, INCREDIBLE.
I believe there were three yakiniku sets we could choose from OR we could choose from the a la carte. The glutton in me ordered the set dinner, but in retrospect, maybe we should have ordered a la carte simply because when you order the set menu you can’t choose the meat they will give you. So while the restaurant was discerning with the quality of the meat they served, they were undiscerning with the part of the cow they served. So we were presented with beef heart, beef liver, beef stomach, alongside the more palatable parts. My father was in gizzard heaven because he normally doesn’t get the chance to eat all these innards, so he was eating them up! During dinner, i mustered up enough courage to try beef liver and surprisingly it wasn’t as strong tasting or awful as I thought it would be.
[I AM CURRENTLY SEARCHING HIGH AND LOW FOR THE NAME OF THIS RESTAURANT!]
Finally, the last restaurant I’d like to mention is one that we happened upon by chance. We decided to spend our second last day in Kyoto walking through Gion again – we decided it was too much trouble to go to Kobe just to eat Kobe beef. Although we didn’t go to Kobe, we were still bent on eating Kobe beef and after getting rejected by a few top restaurants because we didn’t have reservations, we dejectedly trudged through the streets looking for a restaurant that had good food. Note to self and #TravellingwithaToddlerinKyoto Tip 5: ALWAYS make a lunch / dinner reservation before you head out for the day. Get your concierge or hotel staff to do it. You do NOT want to be pushing a stroller around Kyoto looking for food. Not only is it a waste of your precious holiday time, it is tiring and demoralising. So after about 20-minutes of walking around, my father gestured for us to go into this small restaurant by the street corner. Tired, hungry and cranky and that was me, not the baby – we went into this tiny restaurant that literally only sits about 20 people max. There was only ONE guy manning the whole restaurant. We secretly suspected he was the chef, waiter, dishwasher and proprietor all rolled into one. We also guessed he probably inherited the shop from his father and had decided to follow his fathers footsteps. Apparently, Kyoto people hardly sell their landed property, especially the old-style houses. It’s really unheard of in Kyoto to sell the house that your parents left you. Back to the nice chef proprietor, he was also one of the nicest guys we’d met in Kyoto. Seriously. SOOOO NICE. He graciously allowed Mr E to run around the restaurant, walked us upstairs to show us where the bathrooms were – which amazingly included a baby changing station, filled up our teacups, washing plates, cutting vegetables, cooking noodles… All with a big smile on his face.
Ok, so maybe we also made his day because if we didn’t walk in, there would only be two other people for lunch that day.
So, before I get ahead of myself, I must go back to why my father chose this restaurant. He said he saw a big picture of marbled beef outside the restaurant. So we assumed it was a steak house / restaurant selling grilled beef. We were so excited, but also starving so at that point would eat anything. So when we went in, we expected to be hit with pages and pages of beef in his menu. Unfortunately, the only menu he had in English was a typed-out A4 sheet that said something vaguely about a set lunch with fish, leeks and green soba soup. Imagine our disappointment. Fish and leeks? And green soba soup. So with much confusion and feeling extremely disappointed, we ordered four bowls of green soba noodle soup. He graciously took our orders and started work.
It was an hour into the meal preparation that we realised our tragic mistake. Things take a bit longer when you are the restaurant owner, dish washer, waiter all rolled into one. We were running after Mr E on the second floor when we stumbled upon this beautiful menu in Japanese with glossy pages of deliciously marbled beef. It was like a hallelujah moment. I felt as though a light switch went on, or some hallowed stage light suddenly turned towards us. The same marbled beef we saw outside the shop. YES, it was true! This really was a yakiniku or steak house. It wasn’t a mirage we saw out there in the wilderness where people without lunch reservations go to wander! It was just unfortunate that his English menu was a bit confusing and wasn’t clear! And also because he couldn’t speak English. This poor man so kindly prepared this crazy stupid tourists leek and green soba noodle soup when they were in a premium steak house!!! He was probably thinking, “These poor poor Chinese tourists. They have no money and are so desperate that all they can afford to eat is leak and green soba noodle soup.” So we quickly ran downstairs and pointed to this brochure, “Is this true?? Do you really serve beef??” And he nodded and said yes. And we said, “Yes! Please prepare this for us!” Unfortunately, we only ordered one set because if we got him to prepare four sets, we were afraid we would be there until dinner. Anyway, my point is, the beef set that finally came was AMAZING. It was made from Kyoto beef (not Kobe) and prepared on hot charcoal – a traditional Kyoto style of cooking on a hoe. It was amazing and such a cultural experience. Apparently Kyoto beef is rarer and finer than Kobe beef, it certainly tasted ambrosial! I felt SO UPSET that we didn’t realise our mistake one hour earlier, otherwise we would all have our own charcoal Kyoto beef set, instead of crowding round my father’s. Lesson learnt. It was a great experience, one we are likely to remember for some time to come!
Unfortunately, the only evidence we have of this restaurant is this matchbox that we collected as a souvenir. So, your mission, if you choose to accept it, is to read the words on this matchbox and tell me the name of this restaurant so I know that it is much more than a wonderful desert mirage!
[EDIT: I just realised the matchbox I initially put up was for Honke Owariya. I am looking for another clue and will put it up when I can find it.]