My favourite dining memories happened under the noses of the best chefs I knew. They were my grandmother and my mother.
I remember them hushing every comment I’ve ever said about their food. Mostly because they didn’t take cooking notes from a greedy eight-year-old.
“Look at how fat you are,” my grandma would hiss in Cantonese, “that’s where all my beef and potatoes went.”
And people ask where my thick skin comes from.
She’s right though. I was quite beefy and potato-ey. Growing up, I had the fat content of a mature Peking Duck. I was rich in simple carbohydrates, sodium and sugars. I had cankles — calves that swallowed my ankles — the pride of every pubescent boy.
Ahh, the pleasures of growing up before #bodyshaming became a thing.
Today, I look for the same honesty, intimacy and access in my dining adventures. I found it recently in a repurposed townhouse by a sleepy little canal in Kyoto, Japan.
The restaurant is Giro Giro, and without over-selling it, I’ll say it’s one of my Top 10 experiences. There was a deep connection because I saw a Saké collection and a deep-fryer.
The place looked homely, and I was thinking, “How cool would it be if I could get an air mattress and make the attic my home?”
There’s a U-shaped counter which seats about 10 people. The counter frames an open kitchen, where four young chefs with bright, dyed hair worked.
I didn’t try guessing the ages of the chefs because, as you’d know, Japanese people look the same between 20 and 50. They are freshly scrubbed and clean, like the food they handle.
You can picture them as a retired boyband, or excellent hosts in a women-only private club.
Most people think of hearty Japanese cuisine as sushi, ramen or teriyaki, which is perfect. Those are some of the best comfort foods in the Japanese lexicon. They are all delicious.
But to enjoy Kaiseki, you’d have to witness it.
It’s a traditional, multi-course Japanese dining experience that leans heavily on seasonal produce, subtle flavours and modest portions. The freshest ingredients are nipped, tucked and manicured in each artful plate. All the ingredients come together like notes to an Adele song. No note is wasted.
That makes Kaiseki a 500-year-old art form you can actually taste.
You can’t hurry Kaiseki. It’s not flashy, or annoying PR-savvy, like a three-starred kitchen. There are no Facebook pages or Instagram hashtags on the menu. Hell, there’s no menu. It’s not run by a militant chef with the gloomy demeanour of a four-fingered Yakuza member.
The Giro Giro chefs prep and cook with the elegance of a poetic recital. Their moves are precise and meditative, honed by years of ritual.
They work two feet across the counter from you, and you notice their feminine fingers as they peel, dice and shred the meats and vegetables. They’re definitely not what I’ll call chatty.
They engage in polite banter with inquisitive diners, but it’s obvious they’d prefer to focus on the food. The soundtrack is a mid-90s acid jazz playlist. It’s not overly hipster, but I was very glad there was no Bieber or The Chainsmokers.
The photos here should illustrate the meal in Technicolour detail.
So I’ll say this: Watching a Kaiseki chef work your meal is toe-curling pleasure. It’s an indulgence, like seeing an artist sketch your portrait by hand. It’s a heart-warming, thoughtful process that ends with you tasting flavours that memories are made of.
Giro Giro Hitoshina, Kyoto
Opening hours: 5.30pm – midnight (Every day except the last Monday of the month)
Reservations: A MUST.
Price point: 3,800 Yen for dinner (about S$50 per pax)
Address: 420-7 Nambacho Nishikiyamachidori Matsubara Sagaru, Shimogyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 600-8027, Japan
Website: www.guiloguilo.com (Japanese)