Editor's note: a fire destroyed much of the premises on May 12th 2018, so check locally regarding the status of the restaurant before planning a trip.
Chihana is tucked away down an alleyway in the geisha district of Gion, its history here dating back to 1946, with the head chef Katsuyoshi Nagata having taken over from his late father in 2006. There is a counter with seven seats and a private room seating a similar number. On the shelves behind the counter were arrayed a wide range of pretty serving dishes. The chefs work in front of you to finish the dishes, and are attentive to your particular needs e.g. this evening I was quite full from a larger than intended lunch, and the portion sizes became smaller as they observed that I was struggling to finish some of the dishes in the middle of the meal. In theory this is what Japanese chefs are supposed to do in this counter setting, but I have rarely seen it so clearly demonstrated as tonight.
We began with sea eel with grapes and ginko beans; the eel had excellent flavour and the acidity of the grapes cut nicely through the richness of the eel (17/20). Next was a paste of soy beans, served cold but with plenty of soy and seasoning: this dish was presumably intended to showcase the savoury taste element umami, and the seasoning was certainly precise (16/20).
This was followed by scallops and miso sauce, with crunchy green beans. This was a lovely dish, the scallops, though raw, having tremendous sweetness of flavour, the beans providing a texture contrast. The sauce, which was made with egg yolk, soy, mustard and mirin, really complemented the scallops (18/20), Next was sea eel roe with lotus root and chopped chives. This didn't do much for me, though it was well made (14/20).
Next were udon noodles, served hot, with mixed vegetables including enoki mushrooms, leek and peppers; the vegetables were of very good quality and again well seasoned (17/20). This was followed by prawn and Japanese pear tempura, with a little lime and salt on the side as seasoning. This was excellent, with light tempura batter and lovely prawns, while the acidity of the pear balanced the richness of the batter (18/20). Next was a cold dish of lotus root and okra, with chicken, burdock root and aroma root, which was quite spicy, and again highlighted very high quality ingredients (17/20). The next dish was soup of fish ball and mushrooms, which had excellent quality mushrooms and a well seasoned stock (17/20).
At this stage sashimi of tuna arrived. This was simply some of the best tuna I have ever eaten, with silky texture and dazzling flavour (only that at Sushi Saito has been better for me). I think there is a limit to the score that is appropriate for something which the kitchen has done relatively little with apart from astute sourcing and, in this case, careful preparation, but this was special (18/20 only because I struggle to score higher for something of this nature). This was accompanied by excellent dried kelp.
The sashimi was followed by a small dish of fried ginko nuts, and a dish of wheat gluten pickled cucumber and a dish of tiny fish that I don't know the English name of. The pickled cucumber was particularly impressive (16/20). The main course was grilled Spanish mackerel with soy vinegar and mild green chilli pepper. The fish was superb, having lovely flavour and texture; the mild green chiili just lifted the dish (18/20).
I was really impressed with a very simple dish of grilled aubergine egg that followed, served just with sesame soy vinegar. This had exceptionally good texture and flavour; I do not know the cooking process that went on behind the scenes, but to make aubergine taste this good was impressive (18/20). Next was a vinegar dish of fig, green beans and ginger, which worked well; the ginger having lovely flavour (17/20). The savoury dishes now concluded with the traditional offering of rice, in this case with pickles and freshly chopped mint; there is a limit to what you can do with boiled rice and pickles (14/20).
By now I was very full, and I was relieved to finish on a very light note of a glass of apple and orange juice. The bill was ¥44,005 yen for two (£167 a head). The service throughout was exceptional, even by Japanese standards. The chefs and waitresses paid great attention to us and came across as genuinely enthusiastic about the food and the desire for us to enjoy ourselves. We felt incredibly welcome.