By Sarah Noorbakhsh
Posh teppanyaki restaurants are no rare beast. They feel exclusive and mildly elitist, but a visit to one is arguably like taking a seat at the vast majority of them—sleek wooden countertops tucked away inside high-profile real estate. It is with this in mind that Gion Kahala, the new kid on the chopping block, sticks out from the crowd for both its location (a hike away from the nearest station) and its curious Kyoto theme.
The restaurant has an unintentional quirkiness, an echo of retro harking back to the bubble era’s showy luxury. Then there is Kyoto, a city known from the outside as the quiet, spiritual center of Japan, home of gods and freckled with Zen gardens and teahouses. But when night falls, the mask comes loose, with maiko tumbling out in throngs onto cobblestone streets, lit by paper lanterns, and drunken men dancing to shamisen tunes.
This is the Kyoto that Kahala brings to Tokyo. Its sophisticated and simple ritzy glamor is found in the plush red sofa surrounding a backlit bar, stained glass windows, frosted glass and swathes of cloth embellished with imperial designs draped from the ceiling. One envisions a Kyoto of simple lines coated in luscious excess, more Sakuran than Sayuri.
The menu suitably reflects the décor with an arrangement of dishes that exude flair with a subdued demeanor. Teppanyaki is rightly the focus, with fine selections from both land and sea. The horsd’oeuvres play the fusion card, mixing fois gras with crispy fried tofu in one dish and whipping up a matsutake mushroom flan in another. The flavors play well against each other, and the food feels innovative but rarely “un-Japanese.”
Kyoto veggies are the stars of the show at Kahala. Raw, steamed, fried, boiled; take your pick, but veggie haters beware. Diners may at one time find themselves staring down at a bowl of sliced vegetables such as green peppers, radishes or cauliflower— whatever’s in season. It’s easy to sneer, “All this presentation leading up to a salad?” But this is Kahala’s way of telling the diner, “Hey, I respect you; you deserve only the best,” because to truly know the quality of a food is to eat it raw, with no seasoning to disguise the scent and processing to change the texture. That’s why Kahala’s veggie plate is such a treat. While customers may be anxious to move on to a slice of juicy beef or saffron- accented seafood, the satisfying crunch of winter melon will leave the memory of this simple dish lingering long after dessert.
Even still, halfway through a course dinner all those veggie-ful creations may leave some with rumbling tummies. But then, that meat comes out: elegantly sliced in cubes or strips seared to that perfect combination of crispy brown and succulent pink. While some steaks are all talk and no walk, this Kyoto beef is a marathon runner with a tenderness that truly needs to be experienced. As a personal aside, my fillet included a number of condiments including black pepper, a tangy sauce, Wakayama miso, sautéed garlic slices and powdered wasabi—five flavors in total to accompany only four pieces of beef. A puzzling dilemma for us gluttons who insist upon always trying “one of each,” but I neatly bit into one wasabi-dusted cube and met the most tender and succulent piece of meat I had ever encountered. This meat could be nibbled on it was so soft, and I double-dipped to my heart’s content.
The sparseness of some of the dishes at Kahala make both white and red wine feel a little heavy on the palate, and though some may disagree, wine may best be reserved for what comes off the grill. The impressive wine list advertises mainly French whites, reds and rosés with a few Japanese selections for good measure, and it’s easy to find pairings for a variety of seafood and meat dishes. The downside was that the pace of each meal moves so quickly between sashimi, vegetables and steaks, and one dish of carpaccio may not warrant opening an entire bottle of Meursault Chateau De La Velle. Unfortunately, the selection of wines being dealt out by the glass or decanter is limited to say the least, and although the restaurant is perfect for a dinner date or quiet celebration, wine is best imbibed in larger numbers.