When you think about food in Kyoto, kaiseki - meticulously prepared and painstakingly presented multi-course meals showcasing seasonal ingredients - immediately comes to mind. Since fine dining Japanese food is (to us) prohibitively expensive in Singapore, we decided to try our fill in Kyoto.
Kikunoi has been endorsed in almost every Kyoto food guide. For us, it also helps that it's been featured in numerous foodie shows and books, including Lucky Peach and The Mind Of A Chef.
There's no doubt that it's quite an experience. From the minute you arrive and are ushered to your own private tatami room to the time you leave and they bow till you're out of sight, you're treated as a special guest. They thoughtfully even prepared an English menu for us, knowing we were tourists.
The presentation of the food was spectacular and, having read Chef Murata's cookbook beforehand, the time and effort that went into each component was mindblowing.
What fascinated me about the soup was the paper thin sliver of daikon radish that covered the surface of the bowl. Because it was winter, that was supposed to evoke images of a pond that had frozen over.
Some of the other dishes weren't quite suitable for our palate, like the fugu sashimi, and the wild boar hotpot using a broth of sake lees. I'm sure only the best ingredients were used, but it's just a matter of not quite being used to the flavours and textures.
Our second kaiseki experience was at the ryokan where we stayed - a cheaper, more casual sister property of the more lauded and expensive Hiiragiya. We had 2 very good meals there - a kaiseki dinner, and a pretty good breakfast.
While it wasn't as fancy or elaborate as Kikunoi, the food was very tasty, and probably a bit more comforting too. They served their eel lightly aburi-ed, which really brought out the flavours.
Kyoto is known for its tofu, and we had some really fresh tofu here, simply steamed with a bit of dashi and yuzu. The best part of kaiseki is how they just let the freshness and seasonality of the ingredients speak for themselves.
While I'm glad we've tried authentic kaiseki in Kyoto, I think we still prefer more casual dining experiences, especially in a place like Japan, where good food can be had at almost every turn.
Imho, I found that once you get to a higher level of kaiseki (moderately expensive to very expensive), it's just all very good seasonal product. So the only difference is the prettiness of the presentation and the formality of service. So it really depends on what you're after, just the food, or more of the experience. Having tried both, I'll stick with the more affordable option in the future.