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Murasakino Wakuden

Part of the famed Wakuden group of stylishly modern Kyo-ryori restaurants, Murasakino (purple) Wakuden serves sparse vegetarian fare with the quiet grace and peaceful spirit of the tea ceremony. It is located in the shadow of Daitoku-ji, Kyoto's most important Zen temple, and the location couldn't be more fitting.

The façade facing busy Kitaoji Dori is practically windowless, and easy to miss. The entrance is hidden on the west side of the building, past a courtyard surrounding a beautifully pruned tree. The first floor houses a tiny shop that sells artisanal Kyoto sweets and elegant bento boxes. We tried on two occasions to have lunch there, but it was fully booked, so we made reservations for dinner.

The restaurant on the second floor was reached via a stunning stairway that overlooked the tree through floor-to-ceiling windows, where we arrived to find the minimal space empty. An L-shaped counter surrounded the cleanest and most elegant work area I have ever seen. Above the counter, a dropped ceiling was papered in the tea-ceremony style (paper on both sides) and hung suspended, with light drifting softly from above. Five lacquer trays were set for us and another party; we sat at the setting for two. Behind the counter, a stack of five rectangular blocks of mochi (rice cakes) were stacked on a shino plate, flecked with black spots that echoed the black beans in the mochi.

The young chef greeted us somberly, placing a delicate cup of gingko leaf tea in front of us. The flavor was so subtle that I hardly could taste anything, but it was slightly floral and very soothing. The chef then picked up a few sticks of charcoal and placed them ceremoniously on the hibachi in front of us. Then, one by one, he carefully placed the mochi on the grill.

While the mochi grilled silently, the appetizers arrived: bite-sized portions of creamy walnut tofu; shimeji mushrooms simmered with shiso flowers; fried konnyaku; kabu (turnip) and dried apricot sunomono. The simple, yet unique preparations of each dish brought out the best features of each ingredient. The chef then poured cold artisanal sake made especially for the restaurant, one by one, from a large bamboo container into freshly cut deep green bamboo cups. The sake was delicious, fragrantly sweet and brightly flavored, so we ordered a serving. We were surprised when he placed a whole container in front of us. I wondered how in the world we would be able to drink a whole bottle, but it turned out to be a normal size portion – it was just the fresh bamboo itself that was heavy.

Despite the free-flowing sake, the evening was as artful, contemplative and quiet as a tea ceremony. The other party, an elderly couple and their grown daughter, hardly said a word. Yet, at no time was the evening awkward. Their arrival was timed just 15 minutes after ours, and the chef patiently described each course to them after having told us, for which I was grateful. Comments were then made by the diners as to the flavor of a certain dish, or the beauty of a serving dish. It was the polite and respectful kind of banter heard in the tea ceremonies I attended with my aunt.

Next, fresh homemade tofu was served cold in a bowl with a beautiful, silky smooth lacquer spoon. The tofu had a very subtle umeboshi flavor (if he had not explained it was such I would not have guessed) and grated yuzu.

Then the wanmori course arrived: simmered daikon, maitake and nameko mushrooms, fried fu (wheat gluten) with a few narrow slivers of green onion in a yuzu-flavored thick soup. This was followed by roasted shiitake mushrooms with carrot greens, topped by a few yellow kiku (chrysanthemum) petals in ponzu sauce.

The mochi was now ready, and was served with a thick, sweet white miso sauce. Then, a sauté of hoshi zuiki (dried yamaimo stems) was served. The springy, crunchy texture was unlike anything else I’ve tried and is hard to describe. Next, tempura arrived in a lovely modern lacquer box, and included nagaimo (mountain potato), cucumber and renkon (lotus root), served simply without sauce or salt.

The rice course included pickles; daikon, baby hyotan (gourd; the first time I had seen it in edible form, as it is used mainly for decorative containers), shibazuke (cucumbers with red shiso) and shiitake with miso. The chef then opened a steamer and placed bundles of rice wrapped in magnolia leaves in front of us. The fragrance was wonderful and the flavor, subtle.

Dessert was renkon jelly made with kuzu and beautifully wrapped in a bamboo leaf. This was served with matcha (powdered green tea).

The entire experience was unique, and I appreciated the exposure to new ingredients and preparations, but I would recommend that diners attend in the right spirit. This is not a place for idle chitchat and boisterous behavior. To my mind, it’s the perfect place to honor the atmosphere of Daitoku-ji’s zen temples. English is not spoken and reservations are highly recommended, and should be made at least a week ahead of time in high season, especially for lunch. The lunch course is ¥2,000, while the vegetarian dinner course is ¥5,000. There is also a more expensive non-vegetarian option available.

Above: Dried apricot and kabu (turnip) sunomono (vinegared salad) are part of the starter course of a late autumn meal at Murasakino Wakuden.
ADDRESS: On the northeast corner of Kitaoji and Daitokuji-dori.
TEL: 075-495-6161
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