In pursuit of the perfect meal

BEN GROUNDWATER
Last updated 05:00 06/03/2014
Agiyao

THE PERFECT MEAL: Food at the Michelin-starred Agiyao.

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I have blind faith in the little blue dot. It's currently hovering right over the red arrow, which means I'm in exactly the spot that Google assures me I'm supposed to be. There's no sign that I can see for a restaurant - nor even any sign of a restaurant - but the blue dot never lies.

I spin the phone around in my hands, jiggle it in a figure of eight motion, turn Google Maps over and around, and still the blue dot has me where I'm supposed to be: Agiyao. So the only question that remains is: where is Agiyao?

This is only a small street, one of the network of narrow alleys that blankets the newer parts of Kyoto in a perfect grid. It's lined with small apartment blocks and the odd shopfront. And, as it turns out, Michelin-starred restaurants like Agiyao.

It must be in the building to my left. There is, on closer inspection, a small sign in Japanese just by a doorway, so my partner and I decide to step inside and see what we can find.

It's one of those Wild West moments. We're the strangers, flinging open the saloon doors. There's a pause in conversation as Agiyao's two chefs and four diners all stop their various tasks and stare at the two newcomers to these parts.

One of the chefs, resplendent in shirt, tie and white lab coat, eventually sidles over to us to patiently explain, in halting English and with wringing hands, that we would need a booking to eat at Agiyao tonight. I smile. Tonight, to the surprise of all involved, we have a booking. It's time to eat.

In the past I've hailed the glories of spontaneity during travel, of picking a restaurant or a bar or an attraction at random and giving it a whirl. But this story is different. This is an ode to the opposite. This visit to Agiyao is an experience born of research, of careful planning and the use of a little blue dot.

I've known about Agiyao for weeks, ever since Googling terms like "Kyoto best restaurants" and "Michelin star Kyoto". Just for one meal, for one night, I didn't want to take a punt on one of the city's culinary options. I wanted a sure-fire winner, a place I was prepared to splash out on in search of the perfect meal.

After some careful combing of the internet, Agiyao came up as my version of the perfect night out. A tiny little neighbourhood place, one website told me. A cosy nook with little English spoken and some of the best seafood you'll ever taste. Tick, tick, tick.

And it appears to be all of those things. It's dark and small. There's just a single bar and three tables for diners. There's laughter coming from a few patrons but mostly it's quiet and relaxed.

Officially, Agiyao is an izakaya, one of the millions of casual bar/eateries in Japan that serve up small plates of food and large bottles of sake to the working men and women of this great country. Contradictorily, Agiyao has also been awarded a Michelin star, which means it might like to think of itself as a casual eatery, but its approach to food is anything but.

The specialty here is seafood and it's served degustation style, dish after dish that will be brought to the table as and when the chefs desire, which takes away one problem for us: ordering. This place is such a local favourite that there's no English menu. No worries for us - we won't even have to look at one.

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The sake list, on the other hand, is an issue. It needs a blue dot of its own, a Google Menu Maps pointer to let me know which of these foreign characters my finger should be landing on to inform the waiter of my decision. Do I want vertical line with little dashes? Or the box with swirls?

I opt for the vertical line with dashes, which comes out in the form of a cold, dry sake in a beautifully crafted jug. Then our lab-coated waiter begins to bring the food - a plate of sashimi, with everything from raw squid and kingfish to tiny uncooked shrimp that are velvety and delicious; huge oysters that need several bites to be eaten; delicate tempura; fish roe on rice; and the piece de resistance, a whole fried fish served with a small pyramid of sea salt and a couple of pairs of chopsticks.

It's all incredibly good. Expensive, but incredibly good. It's also a paean to the power of the internet, to the urge to do some research in pursuit of the perfect meal, and to the little blue dot on the maps app of an iPhone. Blind faith has been rewarded.

The writer paid for his own travel.

- FFX Aus

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