Gion Sasaki is considered one of the most difficult restaurants to get a reservation in Kyoto. Located in an iconic machiya in Gion, the head chef and owner, Hiroshi Sasaki, believes not only in offering the most exquisite kaiseki menu, but to provide a complete dining experience for the sixteen customers who sit at his counter, which he refers to as “Sasaki Theatre”.
One course of a kaiseki meal is known as the wanmono 椀物, a seasonal offering served in a lidded dish, called a ‘wan’. The following is a translation of the description of Gion Sasaki’s wanmono course for November.
November Wanmono: “Medley”
In November, Kyoto gradually becomes tinted with the colours of autumn. The trees in Ohara and other places to the north of Kyoto are so lovely as they gradually change from yellow to red.
Chef Sasaki says, “For my November wan course, I want to reflect this sense of nature found in Kyoto in a dish I call a ‘medley’.”
By ‘medley’ Chef Sasaki means highlighting the array of colors of the ingredients, which are beautifully arranged using a variety of autumn vegetables, such as scallions, pumpkin, carrot, mushrooms, little turnips, and so on.
These vegetables are baked in the pizza oven, which is behind the counter at Gion Sasaki. Rather than having the heat source coming from the top and bottom, in the pizza oven the heat is all-surrounding. So, due to that enveloping heat, the sweetness and bitterness of the vegetables become concentrated.
“I want to be able to simultaneously savor the umami of the duck and the flavor of the vegetables,” comments Chef Sasaki.
Challandais duck has plenty of fat. Using a charcoal brazier, the duck is grilled on the skin side, and as the duck fat drips into the charcoal, the fire flares up and the duck meat also becomes cooked.
The vegetables and duck are placed in dashi and lightly simmered.
Chef Sasaki enthuses, that his dashi “has a rich umami flavor, which creates a medley of utter deliciousness.”
At first, you savor the dashi. At the same time as tasting the richness of the broth, there is a coalescing of umami flavors, creating the impression of a dance of flavors in your mouth. This is followed by biting into the duck, which provides an earthy sense of the wild, that flows on through to the inherent sweetness of the vegetables.
Through this combination of sensations and flavors, you can fully appreciate why this dish is called a ‘medley’. Chef Sasaki’s ‘medley’ is the quintessential expression of the glorious colors of Kyoto in fall.
From the outside appearance of the bowl itself, you don’t get any particular impression. However, on the inside of the lid you will see an illustration of the renowned autumn foliage of Arashiyama and the Togetsukyō Bridge.
In this typically imaginative way, Chef Sasaki really wants you to enjoy this meal. And so it is that just one bowl is filled with so many stories and realms of experience.
Translated by Cate Pearce from Gion Sasaki