Utakata, Kyoto.

May 2016.

Strikes two and three for Michelin in this town. We were staying in the lovely residential North Kyoko neighbourhood of Kita-ku. It’s a grid of small streets, lots of modest but many traditional Japanese homes, and a nice variety of shops and restaurants. Searching the neighbourhood on the Michelin website, we first identified Sara, where we had a very nice overpriced meal, but only after finding that the address Michelin listed didn’t exist, and then tracking down the restaurant 2-3 blocks away from the street Michelin said it was on.

Two other local neighbourhood restaurants in the bib gourmand category didn’t appear to exist: the addresses listed on the Michelin website produced “no such location” on Google maps, and searching the names identified places in the Middle East or Texas.

This time we went looking for another little “bib gourmand” new Michelin protege called Mankawa, walking six blocks north of our AirBnB home in pouring rain to the listed address. Its location, confirmed by the address on the Michelin site transposed onto Google maps, turned out to be a residence. We scoured around the immediate vicinity and found nothing resembling a restaurant.

Now wet and annoyed, we went another block in a random direction and stumbled into a little place marked outside in Japanese, called we eventually discovered Utakata. It was one of those little classy obviously Japanese-only places that feels like authenticity and, when we were welcomed charmingly by staff ladies, appeared to be a genuine random find.

We were alone in the restaurant at about 6:30, and delighted to see it nicely furnished, comfortable, and consisting of a long bar and at least two private rooms. A charming unassuming girl spoke English, was pleased that we were willing to eat raw fish, mentioned several other dishes, and reassured us with pleasant sincere conversation.

We shared about five simple dishes. One of them, sliced seared beef, was delicious. Every one of the others, however, mostly featuring a sort of festival of tofu prepared in various ways, tasted pretty consistently like textured water. Even the tempura somehow managed to arrive with no discernible flavour. Tofu custard, tofu curd, vegetables with tofu, marinated vegetables accompanied by tofu. The relief of the beef was brief (hey that’s an internal rhyme).

After two glasses of beer each and five single courses shared between us, the traditionally-clad middle-aged head server presented us with a bill for about C$135. We kept our cool but were pretty shocked at the discrepancy between quality and price. But imagine our surprise when we found that our little discovery which turned out to be a culinary barking dog was also mentioned in Michelin as one of its bib gourmand darlings.

For years I’ve relied on Michelin to pick winners, although it usually means a doubling of price. It feels like otherwise sensible conservative Michelin operatives maybe got into too much sake and decided to scam their bosses just driving pissed around Kyoto back streets jotting down the addresses of new places that looked interesting from the outside, never leaving the air conditioning of their car. And then in their cups lost their notes in the back seat and just guessed at the addresses. Based on our experience here anyway they look like incredible clowns. Nobody knowledgeable could possibly have taken eating at Utakata seriously. Follow Michelin recommendations in Kyoto and you get a big-city bill with strip-mall value.

Our B&B hostess told us most small restaurants in Kyoto refused to be listed by Michelin because of “what happens afterward”. Understandable. Anyway back to TripAdvisor and Zagat I guess. Food 5.2, ambience 8.2, service 7.5, value 5.0.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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