One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had has got to be one of Mino’s best kept secrets. Less than an hour by train away from bustling Osaka, Ichijunisai Ueno has two branches. The more acclaimed of which currently holds two Michelin stars and is nestled amid the stunning Mino Park. Just look at the gorgeous fall foliage and those wonderfully-preserved old houses. I fell instantly in love with the place. What a perfect setting for a spectacular meal! Mom said this was the best meal she had ever had in her life and it made me so incredibly happy to hear that.
We were led into our own private dining room for our kaiseki meal where we had the most breathtaking view of the autumn trees outside. Instantly, we were filled with a deep peace, and we were excited to begin our meal. Everything was perfectly-paced and Mom and I had such a great time over the 3.5 hours we were there chatting away and tucking into such delicate, exquisite food. The lovely staff began by serving us a portion of rare green tea in a small cup to whet our appetite.
So, let’s begin! First up, we had this Cod Milt with Mushroom Vinegar Jelly.
I do enjoy milt, although I rarely finish the portion I’m given. But there was something about it being served with a slightly savoury and tangy umami jelly that really cut through the rich creaminess of its texture. Wonderfully refreshing! I cleaned out the entire plate for the first time.
Another appetiser was the Three Kinds of Sashimi, each served with its own accompanying sauce and condiments.
The Tai (sea bream) went with a tangy ponzu sauce, the Hamachi (yellowtail) with soy sauce and the fresh, firm and slightly sweet Ika (cuttlefish) went perfectly with the lime salt.
We had also ordered some delicious Osmanthus Wine to accompany the meal. Mom and I are huge fans of Osmanthus-infused teas, desserts and wines. And this was a real treat!
Next up, a relatively basic Yuba ( chilled beancurd skin) with some freshly-grated wasabi.
Nothing special about this dish, but it was well-executed. Wonderful smooth texture, and with a rich soybean flavour. Great way to get the appetite going. And speaking of which, since we eat with our eyes first, I must mention how absolutely exquisite their serving bowls and cutlery were! Each was like a work of art. Truly. And it really enhanced the look and feel of the dishes.
This next one was particularly beautiful — Clear Broth with Shrimp Ball, White Fungus and Orange Peel.
This dish is so simple, but really hit all the right spots. That succulent sweetness in the fresh handmade shrimp ball, the firm and slightly crunch white fungus (apparently good for the skin!) and that hint of zest that just brings all the flavours together nicely. Sometimes, it’s the dishes that seem most unassuming that take great skill to pull off with such precision. And isn’t this lacquered lid just absolutely stunning? Lined with gold and encrusted with tiny gems.
The super friendly staff told us to place it beside the bowl face up after we removed the lid so we can admire it while drinking the broth. I loved these small touches. The devil truly is in the details.
Mom couldn’t eat raw food because of her chemotherapy, but they very kindly switched some dishes up for her and served up this Grilled Sawara for her.
The meat was juicy, moist and tender, while the skin was grilled to crispy perfection. I loved how they decorated it with leaves they’d harvested from their small garden. It felt so personal!
This next dish wasn’t part of the kaiseki course but was a bit of special surprise from the chef. It’s called Sekihan which is made of sticky red glutinous rice, and is usually served up on birthdays and special occasions.
Again, look at the adorable serving dishes! Inside, we found a mouthful of sekihan along with some egg custard topped with nori. This was such a delight!
Just look at the super interesting texture in that egg custard! All that effort into a small bite sized morsel.
And onward with the rest of our kaiseki meal — this was a medley of Lotus Root Chip, Duck with Mustard Seeds, Cured Anago (sea eel) Sushi, Horenso (spinach) Mushroom Ikura (salmon roe), and Popped Barley.
This was literally an edible playground. I especially enjoyed the anago sushi which was prepared in the traditional Kyoto style. Also, this super fragrant and delicious popped barley!
Loved how unexpected this was. It literally tasted like warm popped cereal and had this lovely toasty, nutty flavour.
And then, we were served what could possibly be the best Tempura Moriawase i’d had.
The batter was barely-there, letting the freshness of the ingredients and produce really shine through. Most of the time, we get tempura coated in so much batter we can barely taste whatever it encompasses. But this, this was next level tempura.
There was a great selection of fresh prawn, Nasu (eggplant), fish, sweet potato, Daikon (radish), and what the chef informs us is Pakistan salt that they specially imported for this dish. I’m not sure how different it actually tastes, but apparently, salt in Pakistan is still mined the old-fashioned way which I suppose adds to the intrigue.
Speaking of something unexpected, is this very unique preparation of Steamed Eel with Vegetables.
I think it is an extremely bold move for a chef to steam an eel. Usually, it’s grilled, charred and then doused in copious amounts of sweet sauce to mask its somewhat fishy, pungent odour. But the chef worked some serious magic with this dish. Not only were the tiny bones nonexistent, but the eel actually tasted super fresh with barely any whiff of fishiness at all! Amazing. In fact, what really ended up coming through was the incredibly smooth texture of the eel, with the sweet, crunchiness of the vegetables. Amazing!
And finally, just as we were starting to get really stuffed, came the main course — Claypot Rice with Red Snapper, Miso Paste and Vegetables.
I loved that it was served in a traditional pot, and there were generous chunks of well-seasoned red snapper in there. The rice was also well-seasoned, fluffy and very tasty. Coupled with the fresh pickled cucumber and radish on the side, this was a super satisfying end to the kaiseki meal.
But what’s a great meal without a sweet ending? I’d expected some fresh fruit or simple matcha ice-cream. But our dessert was a unique Coconut Sherbet w/ Chestnut Soup, Mochi, Chestnut Cubes and accompanied by Roasted Rice Tea.
I loved how unexpected this dessert was. I thought the coconut would be too rich when paired with the chestnut soup, but both went together absolutely perfectly. And that chewy, semi-sweet mochi? Just wow. It was the perfect conclusion to an epic meal.
The think I love so much about Japanese kaiseki meals is how much of a quiet ritual it really is. Everything is carefully planned, measured and prepared with utmost detail.
It feels almost like a conversation between chef and diner, a communion between friends. Food truly connects people, and it was so sweet that the staff there worked so hard to bring us such a memorable meal. We were probably the only travellers there, but i’m sure we won’t be the last.