Tsuruya serves traditional kaiseki cuisine in various private dining rooms. The building was originally a large private residence built round 1912, and was converted to a restaurant in 1964, but the restaurant owners moved here from Osaka, the original restaurant being opened in 1908 by Desaki Tsurukichi. The dining rooms looks out over very pretty gardens, themselves designed by a noted Japanese garden designer called Kato Kumakichi. A waterfall fed by a nearby lake trickles down the artificial hillside, and is illuminated at night. According to tradition the ideal setting for a kaiseki meal is overlooking a garden where the only sound is that of running water, and that is exactly the effect achieved here. Tsuruya has entertained many famous guests over the years, including Queen Elizabeth II and George Bush senior.
The traditional private room that we ate in had a low, black table and sunken seating, with screens opened out to overlook the garden, with a view across to the waterfall. Service is from kimono-clad waitresses, and was impeccable.
We began with a dish with a base of thickened egg yolk, on which were pieces of crab meat, cucumber and prawn, with a seaweed garnish, and a lotus root at the bottom of the dish; this was served cold. The seafood was of good quality and this was an enjoyable enough dish (15/20). Next was sashimi, comprising sea bream and toro tuna, garnished with an edible flower. The sea bream had a slightly chewy consistency but was decent, the toro tuna good but not one of the best versions I have eaten (15/20).
Next a little kettle appeared in which was a clear mushroom broth with dipping sauce for the mushrooms and a little lime to provide acidity. The broth itself was flavoured with matsutake mushrooms but also conger eel and a little chicken. The soup was very nice, but the mushrooms themselves (which are a phenomenally expensive) were let down by being undercooked, resulting in a surprisingly chewy texture, while the chicken achieved the same effect by being slightly overcooked (14/20).
The next course was grilled sea bream with soy sauce and pickled wild ginger, garnished with buds of yam. The ginger had lovely flavour but the fish was slightly overcooked, though it had good flavour (14/20). This was followed by a dish of cooked turnip, soya bean curd and spinach, with a garnish of grated lime. The turnip was actually lovely, very tender and with good flavour, while the spinach also had unusually good flavour, though I found the bean curd uninteresting (16/20).
Next was tempura of prawns, aubergine, onion and mild green chilli pepper tempura, as well as a local fish. There was also a soy-based dipping sauce, grated radish and ginger. This was very nice, the components cooked well and the batter light and not greasy, but for me the batter was not as good as that at some of the best specialist tempura places in Tokyo I have visited (16/20). As is traditional, the savoury sequence was finished with rice, in this case cooked with little cubes of yam, served with pleasant miso and pickled vegetables. This was unremarkable.
We finished with a melon slice, which was perfectly ripe and had completely unblemished skin; the Japanese are very fond of melons, and go to great lengths to select particularly fine ones. As this is shopping rather than cooking I am not quite sure how to score it, but it was certainly a good piece of melon (though not the best I had on this trip to Kyoto).
With just a few beers the bill came to a crushing 79,632 yen for two people (£302 a head). Of course you are paying for the fact you are sitting in a private room, overlooking a lovely garden, and served by attentive staff, but objectively this is an awful lot of money when you consider the standard of the food, which was capable but far from outstanding.
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