Hyotei (Kyoto, Japan) – Regal Kaiseki

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.)

The service at Hyotei is antithetical to our Western norms. Both of our servers were dressed in kimonos and shuffled in restricted, but poetic, movements. When the (assistant, for lack of a better word) server brought in the first dish, it was placed on the floor in front of us. She was followed by the head server (again, for lack of a better word) who then led an extended kowtowing session. It was not entirely unexpected (since I read Exile Kiss’s review) but it still left one feeling honored and humbled.

The introductory plate of sea bream, soybeans, and ikura featured clean and crisp flavors. The sea bream was of very high quality, equivalent to the sashimi found at Sawa, but it did lack the pulses of flavor found at Ryu-gin later. The ikura was exceptionally clean tasting. Both provided a clarity that mimicked the cool fall evening.

The egg cake with fried tofu symbolized the Rabbit in the Moon – harvest season. This dish encapsulated the kaiseki aesthetic in most obvious terms – food symbolic of a season. The bowl was vibrant and tantalizing – the colors themselves almost plangent – a jolt to life near the beginning of the meal. The pictures do no justice. The cake was silky and quite smooth.

The third course featured egg, sushi, dust-covered fish, and matsutake. The egg, defying the aesthetic that no part should outshine another, was extraordinary. Its yolk was a much deeper orange than the picture suggests, just barely cooked inside, and richer than the best eggs at Mugartiz. It was a stunning piece of cooking, presumably without the help of modern day technology.

The fried hamo was somewhat greasy and over-battered to my liking. If you compare this course to the abalone I had at Koju, and yes, the Japanese frown on such comparisons, there’s a clear divide.

The steamed daikon with jelly was not made for me. I dislike the texture and taste of daikon, and the jelly covering was too mucilaginous for my preferences. This dish probably most exhibited the cultural divide between my tastes and traditional Japanese cooking.

The grilled ayu course would preserve the Buddhist notion that a meal should not be gluttonous. The fish was bursting with its roe, a fall treat, and perhaps another reference to the moon. The fish reflected shades of gold and brown brilliantly against the plate. It was a striking dish in terms of color and artistic composition.

The grape and fig, covered with jelly, fulfilled the to-the-day legend of a kaiseki meal. The peeled grapes were intensely sweet, bursting with an intensity that I’ve never tasted from such a large grape. No fan of figs, this one too was bursting with intense flavor and sweetness – excellent.

The sole, tiny mochi anchored the meal with one of its best bites. Hyotei offers a “sweets” service at the end of the meal for an additional cost and, based on the quality of this fresh piece of mochi, it was a mistake not ordering it in advance. A lot of mochi was consumed in Kyoto and, while many were quite good, this piece was clearly the benchmark.

Matcha always concludes the kaiseki meal.

Where I found Koju minimalist and somewhat obtuse, Hyotei was just foreign to my sensibilities. There were stand-out bites but I feel much of the experience was lost on me. I left feeling disappointed in my limited understanding of the affair – culture, language, and history. The Tokyo kaiseki meals, Koju and Ryu-gin (coming soon), were far more accessible while using higher ingredient quality. If nothing else, those meals provide an entry point to the more traditional restaurants of Kyoto.

This was an educational opportunity and I never expected to grasp all of it. The Exile Kiss meal, from spring, looks more satisfying in both execution and conception. And when compared to the meals at Yagenbori and Takasebune, Hyotei clearly possesses a majesty not found in those meals. I would repeat Hyotei after surveying other kaiseki restaurants and learning more about the form. If the restaurant is not accepted on its own terms, and boxed into Western traditions, it will leave one, ultimately, unsatisfied. Instead, I am left more and more curious.

- chuck

1 – Most kaiseki meals are served in tatami rooms that open up to private gardens. North of Kyoto in the village of Kibune, some restaurants have tables built over river streams. See Diane Durston’s Old Kyoto: A Guide to Traditional Shops, Restaurants, and Inns for Kibune recommendations.

2 – Jonathan Hayes has written a great, but by no means comprehensive, article to Exquisite Dining in Kyoto (which includes a section on Hyotei.)

3 – Modern interpretations of the classics, not molecular gastronomy techniques. I have since bought the beautiful Kikunoi cookbook and its pictures alone could tempt anyone to try a meal there. I have also found these reviews of Kikunoi:

4 – I have since found these other reviews for Hyotei – I would highly suggest reading them, in addition to my review, before making a decision on dining at Hyotei:

5 – My childhood consisted of a steady diet of The Hand, Wolverine, Storm Shadow, Snake Eyes, and too many hours playing Shinobi.

  • http://www.epicures.wordpress.com Michael

    Many thanks for this report. I dined at Hyotei in late November of 1962. It made an enormous impression on us. I was with my college roommate. We were in the last stages of a six-month round-the-world trip just after graduating from college. In those days even 22-year-olds could afford the best restaurants armed with American dollars. We had read up on Japanese art and history, but knew little of the cuisine. Japanese restaurants in California then served sukiyaki, tempura or yakitori. We had arrived in Japan on Thanksgiving a few days before and had gone to a Geisha house in Osaka which had a sign in front “Sukiyaki.” I think every girl in the house took her turn serving us in order to get a look. My recollection is that no one spoke English at Hyotei; I’m not sure of that, but everyone got into the act of taking care of us with formal ceremony. So we frequently didn’t know what we were eating, but enjoyed it and ate it all. We were blown away by the ambience and the presentation. Compared to those in your photos, I think we had many quite old serving plates, bowls etc. There was more pottery, stoneware and wood, less lacquer. They were not as colorful. We could really sense the past of Hyotei. I hope to go back some day soon; thanks for inspiring me.

  • http://www.luxeat.com Luxeat

    Thanks for great review, Chuck. The main reason why i was disappointed by my kaiseki experience is that for me food is often “psychological” and i just can’t force myself to like some ingredients that i am not used to. I guess you have to live in Japan for many years to appreciate kaiseki the way it is. Me too, i found my kaiseki meal more educational, than pleasant.

  • http://iitokorone.blogspot.com/ Jon

    Chuck -
    I read this post, and Luxeat’s post, and a bunch of the others. As someone who’s been actively trying to learn about Japanese food for almost 5 years in Japan, I have to say that this course looks appropriately luxurious. The black tray as well as the plate for the sashimi and the brown lacquer tray for the assorted course are all signs of opulence. And if those sake bottles are hand-cut glass…That ayu is the most perfect ayu I’ve ever seen – the way they cut the stomach so the roe ballooned just so is extraordinary.

    Unfortunately, Luxeat’s post looks similarly good (possibly better since it’s a little more interesting to me). But I wouldn’t much want to pay $200 or $300 for either of these courses, and that made me think of something. I think Japanese food at this level is basically for enthusiasts who don’t have to ask about the price. One needs to appreciate the ingredients when they’re rare. I’ve even learned to appreciate (if not like) sea cucumber, the namako whose eggs Luxeat had, as well as shirako. One also needs to appreciate the plates – I think we all know that we _should_, but it takes some real background knowledge to be willing to pay extra for that (and the garden view). And the service – part of the thrill of maid cafes is supposed to be the way the maids call the customers ‘master’ and use extremely polite language. This sort of thing just doesn’t carry over to English.

    My conclusion here is that the whole experience doesn’t carry over well. I can tell from the pictures why it would be exciting to someone who’s well-informed and unconcerned about the price, but even with a few years understanding, I don’t think I could get sufficient value out of it. Koju on the other hand looks much more accessible to Westerners since it’s not as minimalist and formal (the ingredients, the presentation and the plates all look like it, to me at least), and also price-wise. I’m going to have to go for the discount ‘after-9′ course’ next time I work late. But there are a lot of neat places where you can get much of the same experience for less than $100.

    As for the chocolate, thanks for your comment…and it was your post on Richart that made me want to try them in the first place! And I worked across the street from Chocolate de H for years but never tried it. Too late now.

  • will-smith-but-not-that-guy

    I just appreciate your detailed description and the photos of an experience that would otherwise be mysterious and utterly inaccessible for most of us. The world is a fine, exciting, dynamic and rich place, and so nice that websites like yours allow us to live vicariously!

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  • http://exilekiss.blogspot.com Exile Kiss

    Hi Chuck,

    Great review and pics. :) Thanks for your insight and I can see how it might be disappointing. I’m not very well versed in Kaiseki cuisine and still have a lot to learn, but found enough there to make it a pleasant evening and dining experience. I can’t wait to go back and survey and understand more about it as well.

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  • Zweito

    Or else one can try their breakfast. At $60 per head, it could be the most expensive breakfast you ever had, and worth every penny of it (at least comparing with dining there). The war-lords and wealthy merchants of Edo period played a game of guessing what just served. Here you have a lot guessing to do