If you’re ever in Kumamoto, it’s a crime not to see one of the top three castles of Japan. I’ve already been there three times but it wasn’t until recently that I discovered one of Kumamoto-jo’s coolest secrets – a hidden restaurant on the second floor of the Honmaru Gozen Palace that serves food from the Edo era (1603-1868).
I would have walked by the doorway to the restaurant if the palace staff hadn’t pointed it out. Behind a screen, up steep stairs and out onto a balcony that overlooks the flow of visitors below … though most of them will never know you’re there. The seats are all traditional style so stretch your legs in advance!
There’s only one menu option but it’s an extensive one. A single tray laden with seven or eight exquisitely decorated lacquerware bowls was delivered to our table a few minutes after sitting down. Here are just a few of the offerings:
- An appetizer of sea bream and pickled vegetables, that was dipped into a pre-modern day soy sauce made from sake, dried bonito flakes and the juice of plums.
- A clear broth soup of Portuguese origin (called Kushiito) that contained boiled chicken and vegetables like carrot and green onion.
- A miso paste created with poppy seeds, ginger and cloud ear mushrooms, among other ingredients. I am a passionate (albeit amateur) miso conneisseur but I was blown away by the depth of the flavors here.
- A main plate of at least haf a dozen little bites that included a potent round of karashi renkon (the Kumamoto specialty of lotus root stuffed with spicy mustard) and a tempura of miched fish mixed with ginko fruits.
While the meal was remniscent of a typical kaiseki dinner, the flavors were just tantalizing beyond easy identification. I loved the uniqueness of dining on food that the lords of the prefecture had feasted on two centuries ago. This is one meal you won’t soon forget and one hardly any non-Japanese speaker seems to know about. Had I eaten here a month ago, this definitely would have made the top 100 list!