The best unexpected meal I’ve ever had

serendipity |serendipite|

noun
the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way

In a happy or beneficial way. That’s for sure.

And when the occurrence and development of those events pertains to food – even better. Let me tell you about one such serendipitous food “event”.

One fine evening in Kyoto, my travelling companions and I went off in search of a
restaurant that had come recommended by one of the guidebooks. I don’t remember any of the details about that restaurant, but I do remember what happened when we couldn’t find it.

We were just about to head back to a busier street, in the direction of our ryokan
(traditional Japanese inn), when we saw a door open and a Japanese gentleman exited a storefront while the proprietor stood in the doorway and bid the other man farewell. With great reverence, both men bowed and said thank you to each other, the former walking away, the latter still standing in the doorway.

Judging by the apron he was wearing, the man at the door was a chef. Our first thought was that if a Japanese person was leaving this restaurant, it must be good. We had a brief verbal exchange with the chef and despite no common language, determined that the restaurant did not have any English-language menus. We were hungry, so we decided to go in anyway.

As soon as we did I thought we’d made a big mistake. There wasn’t a soul in the place! No
other diners. In a town as busy as Kyoto, during the cherry blossom season, this place should have been packed. It was too late; we were through the door and into the restaurant, and to leave now would have been very inconsiderate, not to mention
embarrassing.

The chef quickly seated us in the neat, but spartan restaurant and we were able to place a
drink order without any trouble. The first few orders were pretty easy to communicate as well. We had a limited Japanese vocabulary for menu items and our host had a limited English vocabulary of menu items but we found some overlap and a few meals were ordered that way.

When it came time for me to order I held out my hands, palms up, bowing my head slightly and gesturing to the chef that my dining fate was in his hands. One of my dining companions also ordered this way. The chef seemed very pleased at this and perhaps even honoured. It was obvious that he was the owner of the place and together with his wife they started to prepare our meals.

At one point during the meal I turned to my friend and suggested that I may have to cut my trip to Japan short after getting the bill for this dinner. I had heard that multi-course meals in Japan can run into the hundreds of dollars per person. As the dishes continued to come I was starting to get a little nervous. We should have asked what this was going to cost, but there was no going back now.

I can’t remember exactly what we were served, but there was a very delicate consommé, exquisite sashimi, the most sublime tempura you can imagine and a dish of simmered vegetables and fish that I ate as slowly as I could in order to prolong the experience. Each course was presented in a different dish or bowl made of lacquerware, wood and porcelain. There were amuse-bouches and palate cleansers along the way, each so carefully crafted as to be a work of art.

If fine food is all about the presentation, then this was very fine food indeed. The hours slipped past as we enjoyed everything our host brought to us. I also noticed that the restaurant had started to fill up. Not surprising. Maybe we had just arrived too early.

As for the price, I’ve paid more for a mediocre meal in Toronto. But it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. It was worth it.

When we were finished and had had some creatively prepared fresh fruit for dessert and a piping hot Japanese green tea, our host walked us to the door and bade us farewell in the same way that he had the gentleman we saw leaving the restaurant when we arrived; he bowed his head to us and we were afforded the same respect and reverence. I can only hope that we honoured him in the same way by eating at his restaurant and enjoying it as much as we did and by allowing him to decide the menu for the evening.

As we tried to find our way back to the ryokan, we weren’t stuffed or even full. But we were blissfully satisfied and very, very happy that we had stumbled into this place. What was so satisfying about it is that it wasn’t what we were looking for but it is what we wanted.

A serendipitous Japanese experience.

Karl

CLICK HERE To learn everything about our Japan
Cherry Blossom Trip from April 2 to April 18, 2011
and book your spot to accompany me.

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