The door is almost hidden from view, a piece of unassuming wood that bears no glaring sign and no neon lights. But on this quieter end of C. Palanca Jr. Street in Legazpi Village, that door slides back into a proverbial culinary Narnia called Kyo-to.
Kyo-to specializes in kaiseki, or Japanese degustation style cuisine, its menu laden with multiple courses thoughtfully curated to provide an experience beyond just the palate. This menu is the conceptualization of Chef Ryohei Kawamoto, who was trained in classic Japanese tradition.
Kawamoto spent eight years at Kitcho in Osaka, beginning as a dishwasher for three years, before moving on to become a prep cook and to further acquire the skills of a trained chef. He then moved to Tokyo, where he worked as a buyer’s assistant in Tsukiji Market. The aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami in 2011, however, suddenly set Kawamoto on a path to the Philippines. He would work as a private chef for the Japanese ambassador for three and a half years, before private investors made him an offer to put up what is now known as Kyo-to.
This 30-seater restaurant practices an execution of space that is integral to the dining experience. While it is clearly roomy, the space is sectioned off by well-placed partitions that create enclaves so that not all diners are seated together en masse. This creates quite a conscientious dining atmosphere, wherein a few small tables dining side-by-side lends itself to more muted and intimate conversation and quick, respectful service. This also allows the focus to stay on what people are here for: the food.
Marinated salmon starter
When we sit down in Kawamoto’s Kyo-to, we are welcomed with an appetizer of marinated salmon, lightly pickled cucumber, and a delicately mild vinegar jelly. We believe this to be a promising start, being that this early into the meal, we are already resisting the urge to lick the bowl clean. (This is, after all, quite the classy joint.)
Soup with Saba mackerel and somen noodles
The next course is a flavorful soup, punctuated with a generous portion of Saba mackerel and beautifully cooked somen noodles. It is served in a lovely ceramic bowl, which we are told is from Kawamoto’s personal collection that he uses to serve all of Kyo-to’s dishes.
What then follows is a thrilling sashimi trio of toro, scallop, and hamachi abalone. This is what distinguishes the men from the boys in terms of culinary ability, and where the painstaking tradition of Japanese training comes into play. The sheer quality of the seafood is further enhanced by the manner in which each piece is cut. This is seen especially in the toro, sliced just thick enough and just large enough to allow the sampling of its perfect marbling without being overwhelming. But the true golden child here is the scallop, so impossibly sweet and fresh that a couple of us momentarily forgot our names.
Wagyu Ohmi Sirloin
The meal approaches a beautiful climax with Kyo-to’s grill selection. It starts with a gorgeous wagyu ohmi sirloin grilled to medium rare perfection, seasoned just enough to let the beauty and tenderness of the meat shine through. In its accompaniment is an unspeakably mouthwatering hamachi kama; the jaw of the fish cooked so that the outside is finely crisp, and the inside so exquisitely soft that its flesh resembles freshly-made tofu. These rich textures are balanced out by a serving of pearly, steamed Japanese rice.
Kinako ice cream, mochi, and red bean
In a delicious culinary dénouement, the kaiseki experience comes to an end with kinako ice cream, delectably opalescent mochi, and a touch of red bean. We look at our waitress gratefully as she offers us hot tea, a warming punctuation to such an excellent meal that’s left us satisfied beyond all belief.
The magic of dining at Kyo-to is the refinement in its simplicity and restraint. None of these dishes are attention-starved or laden with fanfare; it is simply ingredients of incredible quality cooked and handled just enough to feature each at its absolute best. Kawamoto, in his menu, brings forth both unassuming and elegant cuisine in what can only be described as quiet, edible excellence.
Kyo-to is at 119 C. Palanca Jr. Street in Legazpi Village, Makati; open from Tuesday to Sunday; 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.