Looking back at these pictures makes me hungry and want to go back home for another onsen trip! I'm continuing tonight with more pictures and more description of our kaiseki meal at Benkei in the outskirts of Kyoto.
Our sashimi selection was plated on a bamboo mat, resting on a bed of ice. The amaebi (sweet raw shrimp) was surprisingly good. Too often, amaebi has that mushy, squishy, sticky texture, but this shrimp was so fresh and so clean with a natural sweetness and no stickiness. The consistency and texture was similar to lychee and I enjoyed it every bit. The rest of the sashimi plate (uni, squid, seared tuna) was not memorable, except the 'hamo', the shredded white fish you see in the front. Hamo is usually a summer fish, so I was a bit surprised by its early appearance. This is a technical piece, since the Chef has to chop the hamo bones into pieces while not damaging the skin underneath or totally butchering the meat through a process called 'honegiri' or bone-cutting. The hamo is then blanched and served cold. I love the texture of the hamo skin against the soft and delicate flesh.
Speaking of blanching, that is exactly what shabu shabu is, and did I tell you I love it? And shabu shabu doesn't necessarily have to be done with beef. A common alternative is snapper or tai, and tai-shabu is served in many upscale Japanese eateries. In typical ryokan fashion, we each got individual clay pots and candle-based pot heaters for our tai shabu course. This was yummy, yummy, yummy. We waited patiently until the broth inside was boiling and then added our vegetables to cook. When the pot came back to a boil again, we dipped our snapper sashimi slices in there just until it was white on the outside, heated yet raw in the inside. The hot surroundings with the melt-in-your-mouth soft sweetness of the snapper was highlighted by the tangy ponzu sauce.
Although the tai shabu was delicious, my number one favorite dish from my dinner at Benkei was this unagi sakuramochi-style. Just like a sakuramochi, inside the fragrant cherry leaf was a ball of mochi-gome, the super sticky rice that the Chinese and the Vietnamese in the Bay Area call 'Sweet Rice'. This is somewhat misleading since the rice is not any sweeter than regular Japanese rice. This dish was not sweet either, as my sakuramochi title might indicate. This was a warm, savory dish with a nourishing quality beyond description. There was a slice of unagi between the cherry leaf and the rice, adding a plesant richness to the dish. The sauce was a thick, rich fish-based dashi and the perfect accompaniment to the rice ball. The saltiness of the cherry leaf worked so well with the warm and comforting broth.
We had an interesting take on the common 'sunomono' (vinegered item) dish, where we were served sashimi with a dipping sauce of vinegar and mirin (super-sweet sake, used only for cooking). I had never thought about sunomono that way and I appreciated the creativity very much. The idea was executed very well, and the mirin-vinegar was wonderful with the clam sashimi. I think I will do a variation of this at a sushi dinner party I am planning next (after this weekend's Kyoto Feast).
The final dish of Benkei and my kaiseki posts is a Japanese beef steak, cooked and kept warm by the same individual heaters that were once holding our tai shabu clay pot. Our server came by about three times to clear empty plates and bring us new courses, and in one of her visits, she took our tai shabu pots away and brought us these steaks. She wasn't sure what kind of wagyu it was, but it sure was tender and juicy, just as wagyu is supposed to be!
We finished the meal off with a soup and rice. I think we had dessert, but I was SOOOOO sleepy, I don't remember it. Half dead from jet-lag and a bad case of some nasty virus, I didn't even make it to the post-dinner soak that I was looking so forward to enjoying. I rolled over after dinner and relaxed in the second room while the ryokan ladies came and set up our traditional Japanese futons in the other room. And within 30 min of my epicurean debauchery, I was blissfully asleep, wondering how I managed to be so fortunate - a tummy full of fabulous food and resting so peacefully, surrounded by wonderful scents of tatami and wood.
I woke up promptly at 6 AM the next day for my soak and yoga in the outdoor bath again. I sure am a lucky one!