Iida is tucked away in a quiet side street in central Kyoto. Chef Shinichi Iida has been cooking at this restaurant since 2010, and has quickly established its reputation for kaiseki dining. The head chef trained in Wakuden and Gion Maruyama and has a deep interest in ceramic ware. He often uses antiques and items from famous artists like Rosanjin and Eiraku, which are usually museum collection pieces, though his favourite period is early twentieth century Japanese ceramics. We had one dish served on a 180 year old dish. The Japanese couple next to us were served one dish on 400 year old plates but they did not trust us pesky gaijin (foreigners) with those, probably wisely.
Iida was promoted to three stars in the 2018 Michelin guide, and also won a coveted 2018 Gold award in the popular Japanese website Tabelog. The restaurant has a counter seating up to six people plus a private dining room. The counter has sunken seating (horigotatsu) that you have to clamber in and out of, so bear this in mind if any of your party have mobility issues.
The meal began with a welcoming sip of sake and an appetiser of sea urchin and trio of balls of lily bulb. The latter hint at the moon, this being a month when moon-watching is traditional here. This was an example of style over substance for me though, as the lily bulb “moons” were bland and starchy, bringing little in the way of flavour. Fortunately the sea urchin was excellent (14/20). The next dish kept to the tenuous moon theme, with a bowl whose lid had a crescent pattern. This contained yuba (milk skin) and soy milk with matsutake mushrooms in a clear broth and a ball of tofu. The latter was quite silky in texture and the matsutake mushrooms nicely flavoured the broth (15/20).
The sashimi course was stonefish, which was rather chewy in texture, served with its own liver and skin mixed with a green vegetable that defied translation. On the side was a condiment of radish and yuzu, which in itself was excellent, the acidity of the citrus cutting nicely through the liver richness. This made up for the rather dull fish (14/20). This was followed by samna, or Pacific soury, served with soy sauce and a nori roll with a little bud of ginger, a sort of do-it-yourself sushi roll. The fish had good flavour and the ginger was excellent, even the roll itself being more delicate than many I have encountered (17/20).
The dish that followed in the 180 year-old bowl was ichijiku, a common fig that had been cooked and served in a sesame sauce. This was unusual but worked quite nicely, the sesame working well with the fig (15/20). Next was hamo or pike conger, which is extremely fiddly to prepare due to its boniness, but rewards all the work with a pleasing, mild flavour that works well with condiments, in this case a plum sauce accompanied by a sauce made from the liver of the fish along mixed with soy. This was served with excellent freshly grated wasabi root, which is unrecognisable from the sad little pile of green coloured mustard and horseradish that most Japanese restaurants in the UK try to pass off as wasabi. This was a very enjoyable dish (16/20).
This was followed by another fish that was new to me called belt fish, which had been roasted and was accompanied by a cold dish of crab with more matsutake mushrooms. This was very pleasant (15/20) and more interesting than the dish that followed. This was a trio of vegetables, with a dried tofu roll, which was decent enough but a little dull, a ball of sweet potato that had very limited flavour and finally the saving grace of the dish, a pepper called manganji, a large and mild chilli pepper grown around Kyoto. This in itself was fine, but this trio of vegetables was hardly inspiring (13/20). This was followed by the traditional bowl of rice to complete the savoury stage of the meal, offered here with some salmon roe and pickled aubergine and cucumber, the latter being oddly lacking in vinegar flavour to my taste.
The meal finished with a grape jelly with plum sauce, and this was genuinely good, the jelly carefully made and the grapes having lovely flavour (16/20). This was more successful than a rather odd concoction of candy floss made from adzuki beans, covering a ball of red bean paste. This must be something designed for a Japanese palate rather than this particular western one.
Service from our waitress was charming, and she patiently answered my geeky questions about ingredients. The bill came to ¥34,800 (£238) per person with beer to drink. Overall this was a pleasant enough experience, though it did not compare favourably to quite a few other kaiseki meals I have eaten. Sure, the meal was well composed in terms of structure, and I understand that this is about "simplicity", but then the ingredients need to shine, and a trio of boiled vegetables just does not. For me the best of the Kyoto kaiseki restaurants, Kitcho and Mizai, are in an a vastly higher league. Still, a lot of work clearly went into the food, presentation was good and the exquisite ceramics used as plates and bowls added to the experience. However this was an expensive evening and I was hoping for some culinary fireworks at this price.