More than 40 summers ago, my husband and I were in Japan. My husband, a violinist, was touring with the New York Philharmonic, and I was accompanying him as “wife.” We’d asked the guest conductor, Seiji Ozawa, where we might eat in Kyoto, and he suggested a restaurant called Kitcho.
We had to be driven into the suburbs—very undistinguished suburbs at that. The car stopped on a street with wooden houses jammed against one another. We climbed a flight of stairs and were led to a tatami-floored private dining room with a low table. As the sliding doors closed behind us, the world changed.
It started with the window, the sole point of focus. Like the work of an inspired photographer, it was framed to show only the bucolic—a part of a stream, a part of a tree. All ugliness had been banished.
The doors opened, kimonos rustled, and two waitresses glided in bearing frosty cups filled with pink plum wine. They withdrew. We sipped, contemplating our flowing stream in ecstatic silence.
The doors slid open again. A waitress carried…was it a vase? An epergne? It was a tray with a built-in stand, long stalks of green rice rising from its four corners. Were we to imagine a field? Perhaps, for on the tray was a ceramic bamboo stalk. Its top, once removed, revealed three sections, each containing a different type of caviar. Next to it was a pair of limes, standing on end, their tops lopped off and replaced like caps. We removed the caps. Inside was the most succulent abalone in a mustard sauce. We scraped down to the bottom with our chopsticks. We licked the chopsticks.
The next course brought two bowls filled with ice. Chilling there were layers of raw salmon slivers topped with equally thin lemon slices. We ate them as we sipped cold sake.
For the fourth dish, the waitresses, resting on their shins, uncovered two lacquer bowls. Fragrant wisps of steam rose into the air. It was the only time I have had turtle soup. It was clear, ethereal, with just a few bits of bobbing meat. We sighed one too many times.
The next act required participation. In front of us were fire-hot tiles and pieces of raw beef and vegetables. We placed some meat on the tiles. Hssss! Smoke rose in violent spurts. The room was perfumed with beef.
The finale came in two parts: first, green “snow”—crushed ice with green tea syrup and sweet red beans—followed by plates holding a whole orange and a bunch of grapes. As we touched the skin of the orange it came away in a spiral to reveal peeled, seeded, and reassembled segments. The grapes, too, had first been separated and seeded. Then a knife had been slipped in between the skin and flesh, so that when we lifted a grape to our mouths we could slurp its sweet goodness, leaving the skin behind.
Even as we walked to our car, we wondered if the meal had been an illusion. But we were clapping with silent hands. —Madhur Jaffrey, author of At Home with Madhur Jaffrey (Knopf, 2010) and star of the films Hiding Divya (2010) and Today’s Special (2009)
Recipe: Tai Kabura (Sea Bream and Turnip Hot Pot)
See all of the 25 Greatest Meals Ever