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.
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: