For many Westerners, the kaiseki meal retains a mythical, and impossible, romanticism – an unwavering reverence for tradition, to-the-day ingredient selection, choreographed service, and a physical proximity with nature 1 – where every piece fits into a symbolic whole. The dearth of English reviews or literature further compounds the legend.2 Hyotei and Kikunoi appear most frequently in the readily accessible Kyoto guides, seemingly straddling two sides of Kyoto cuisine – the traditional and modern3, respectively. There was only time for one supreme kaiseki meal – Exile Kiss’s excellent review4 of Hyotei persuaded me to try it over Luxeat’s uncertain experience at Kikunoi.
The location could be nowhere but Kyoto. Busloads of tourists, temples, hustle, and bustle surround the area but Hyotei is located on a quiet dark street. It has stood there for over three hundred years. Our servers for the evening stood outside waiting, beacons of gustatory delight, reinforcing the restaurant’s reputation for hospitality and welcoming. After entering, you are led down a stone pathway, ducking trees and bushes, amid a Japanese garden. A ninja could jump out at any given moment.5 The tatami room, your ultimate destination, sits on a small creek, where a panel can be opened to reveal the garden. (Exile Kiss’s Hyotei review has day-time photos of the same room and the tranquil setting outside.)