Friday, April 25, 2008

Kyoto Kaiseki Mastery: Hyotei (Honten) (瓢亭) (本店)

Having experienced so many flat-out *amazing* styles of food around Japan already, Kyoto's legendary Kaiseki meal was the last type of meal on our trip that I wanted to try. As an FYI, a Kaiseki meal is traditionally a multi-course meal that has a lot of emphasis on all aspects of the dishes, from presentation to colors and textures of the food as each dish is served. After researching out some highly-recommended restaurants, I was lucky enough to get reservations at Hyotei (Honten (Main Branch)) in Kyoto, two weeks before our arrival. In its first foray into Kyoto, the Michelin Guide awarded Hyotei the maximum 3 Michelin Stars for 2010.

I had experienced the amazing Modern Kaiseki-style meal in Tokyo at Ryugin a few days earlier, but nothing could've prepared me for the wonderful treatment, service, food and setting for a traditional Kyoto Kaiseki meal at Hyotei! (I discovered later that Hyotei has been around for over 300 years(!), and that it's being run to this day by the 14th generation of the same family!)

From the moment we arrived, it was apparent that it was going to be a magical evening: Hyotei's front entrance is a beautiful, rustic, in-tune-with-nature structure, and a stately Japanese lady in full kimono was awaiting our arrival, bowing and greeting us. She confirmed our reservations and led us through the left entrance which opened up into a jaw-dropping, gorgeous Japanese Garden walkway. It was as if we were transported to a Japanese forest in the Tokugawa era. It was quiet, calming and peaceful. We continued down the path and made a left at a fork in the garden walkway, and saw a nice, classic Japanese structure (like a private little house with rice paper doors, etc.). We took off our shoes and stepped onto the tatami mat. She knelt and slid the door open to reveal... our own Private Dining Room! (O_o) As if that wasn't enough, she entered after us and slid open the opposite rice paper sliding doors to reveal this:

Our own Private Dining Room *with* a Private Garden & Gorgeous View! Wow. We were speechless.

We confirmed our full Kaiseki Course for the evening, and she left (kneeling to slide open the door, leaving and kneeling to slide and close the door after herself). By this point I was so impressed with their presentation, ambiance and service that I could've just eaten a bowl of rice and would've been happy. (^_^) Within minutes the head waitress / caretaker (a very stately woman in full kimono) appeared with our waitress, and both of them knelt and completely kowtowed to us, thanking us for patronizing their restaurant and giving us a warm greeting. We kowtowed back (not sure what to do) and felt really honored. (^_^)

After a few minutes our first course arrived:

The head waitress waited patiently for us to try a bite of the meal first, and then bowed and thanked us again, before leaving us to our dinner. Note: I was so mesmerized by the whole experience that my memory has failed me as to what each dish was called, apologies (^_^; I'll have to let the pictures do most of the talking.

The first course arrived and the first thing that struck us was the beautiful presentation. Each dish was presented on custom / specialized plates / bowls that had meaning. The first course consisted of wonderfully fragrant and perfectly fried Japanese Mame (Bean). They had a perfect texture, lightly fried and so fragrant! I wish they sold this as a snack. :) In addition, they had fresh seasonal Sashimi - Tai - which had a wonderful texture and no "gristle / tendon." Just very fresh, a good firmness to the meat, but still tender, and served with an edible flower! The chef had fried the stem of the flower so it was crispy and it was naturally floral, so it was a nice start to our meal.

The cold Sake that accompanied the meal (recommended by our server) was wonderful, nice and crisp, complementing our meal throughout the night.

After the first course (and every course), there was a nice little pause that allowed our dinner party to relax and talk and enjoy the spectacular view. Our Suimono (Soup Course) followed soon after:

Just opening up the bowl, and the lid revealed gorgeous artistry that added to the visual enjoyment of the meal itself. The soup was wonderfully rich with flavor, but still *light* (not heavy), consisting of fresh local vegetables, and a special type of Mochi. Visually it looked like some "cream soup," but it was non-dairy and just wonderfully complex, warming, and smooth (like a richer miso soup with a less salty flavor and a mixture of other vegetables and seasonings). The special Mochi paired nicely with the soup.

The next course was a huge and wonderful course celebrating Spring.

We began with the Roasted Tofu with a special Matcha Green Tea sauce:

The Tofu was perfectly cooked, and lightly sweet yet savory. The Matcha Green Tea glaze/sauce was perfect, having a flavor that I've never had before, really unique with the Matcha flavors wonderfully seeping into every bite of the Tofu. It was so simple, but so wonderful.

Next up was the Spring Dango skewer:

Each Dango (Ball) was truly wonderful in texture, visual presentation and taste. My favorite was the middle Dango of Mochi with fresh-ground Green Tea Leaves. The fresh Ginger was also a beautiful and striking part of the presentation and was lightly spicy without being overpowering with the usual ginger flavor.

Next up was a "Hanjyuku Tamago" which I thought represented the sun in this plating. :) Beautiful color, texture and taste. It was perfectly cooked, with a wonderful gel-like center, different from the standard "soft-boiled egg." (Interestingly, Menya Kissou's Hanjyuku Egg exceeded this artistry... simply amazing!)

Next up was a beautiful seafood (a certain type of Cuttlefish(?)) part of this course. It was perfectly cooked, and had a satisfying chewy texture (just slightly) that made it stand out from the Dango and Tamago we just had. And it was impeccably presented adding to the visually striking course as a whole.

After that, our next course appeared: A beautiful stone bowl, with wonderful plating design revealed fresh Octopus, Bamboo and Konbu (Kelp).

I didn't remember what the filling was inside the Octopus, but it was one of the best meals of the evening! The Octopus was perfectly cooked, not chewy or rubbery, but a nice firm, yet pliable texture and the filling was amazing! They both blended nicely with the slices of fresh bamboo that were so tender and had a nice marinade.

The Yakimono (Broiled Course) arrived next: Fresh Suzuki (Japanese Sea Bass), broiled perfectly!

It looked like it might be dry or overcooked, but one bite into the Suzuki and it was sublime! The nice, crispy outer skin and portion of the fish, and the tender, succulent and moist interior was excellent!

Finishing up the savory portion of our dinner was the Gohan / Tome-wan /
Ko no Mono Course, Hyotei's presentation of the classic Japanese Rice / Miso Soup / Pickled Vegetables Course:

Beautiful presentation (again), and each portion was immaculately prepared. The Gohan (Rice) they had was SO good! A high-quality rice grain, with fresh Bamboo steamed together. The pictures don't do it justice, but it was absolutely delectable! So yummy! (^_^)

The soup was a really light vegetable broth, with fresh local vegetables. It included Sakura-flavored Mochi and two other unique dango in the soup. Really savory and it paired well with the Bamboo Rice.

The Ko no Mono (Pickled Vegetables) that they served with the rice were wonderfully fresh! The Daikon was nice and crisp and had great seasoning, not too sour or salty. Ultimately each of the Ko no Mono exuded a clean, fresh taste that enhanced the enjoyment of the Bamboo Rice when eaten together.

And like at Ryugin, our server asked us if we wanted seconds (^_^), but we were so full at this point, we had to pass (although I would've loved some more of that Fresh Bamboo Steamed Rice).

They served a wonderful Green Tea at this time as well, really deep and fragrant (better than the fresh Green Tea I normally get from Kagoshima and Saitama).

Our dessert courses started at this point:

I was stunned by the sheer brilliance in color of the Strawberries and Kiwi! I wasn't sure what kind of jelly it was, but the Strawberries, Kiwi and Jelly truly exuded "Spring," and were really wonderfully sweet and fresh!

Next we were able to get some freshly made Matcha (Green Tea), made in the traditional Tea Ceremonies one sees in films or on TV. It was perfect for the Sakura season, and it was such a powerful (in a good way), distinct and *vibrant* taste, I wanted more afterwards. (^_^)

Finally we had a special Mochi to end the evening:

The Kinako Mochi was really fresh, soft and supple. They powdered the Mochi with peanut-like Kinako (Soybean Flour) powder and it was a perfect complement to the Matcha we just had.

Here are some parting shots as we left Hyotei:

The entrance of Hyotei as we got into our taxi:

Overall, the wonderful Kaiseki meal cost 27,000 Yen (~$270) per person, and I felt it was worth every penny. The wonderfully peaceful quiet tranquility from our own Private Dining Room / Hut, with our own Private Garden was something I would never get to experience in America. The humble, earnest, kowtowing service we received was humbling and touching as well. And then the immaculately prepared food for each course we got, and the quality of the ingredients and sheer beauty in the presentation of each dish was nothing short of *amazing.* Hyotei (Honten (Main Branch)) is truly a shining example of Kyoto Kaiseki cuisine masterfully executed. Simply wonderful.

Rating: 9.7 (out of 10.0)

Hyotei (Honten (Main Branch))
瓢亭 本店
〒606-8437 京都府京都市左京区南禅寺草川町35番地
Tel: 075-771-4116


Peter said...

The food looks exquisite! I am hopefully visiting the Kansai area (namely Osaka and Kyoto) this fall...and I will endeavor to eat at this restaurant. Kaiseki-ryori is truly an experience rather than just a meal.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Peter,

Thanks. Yes, Hyotei's Kaiseki is definitely wonderful, and the setting is something that trumps the food. :) I hope you enjoy your visit to the Kansai area.

Please let me know how it goes! :)

Peter said...

Sure thing. I can honestly say you sharing your experiences on your blog is a wonderful resource for me, given that I share your love of Japanese food in particular. I sincerely thank you for all the time and effort you put into your reviews, although I'm sure it's a labor of love :) Kanshashimasu.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Peter,

Thank you. :) I appreciate your thoughts and feedback as well.

Jennifer said...


Based on your review I have decided to dine at Hyotei. And am fortunate to be able to get a reservation.

I was asked which menu I wanted, and I have chosen the cheapest set of YEN27,000. Did you have this or did you opt for a more expensive menu?

Thank you for sharing your experiences. It has definitely helped in my planning for my trip to Japan.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Jennifer,

When we visited Hyotei, at that time of the season, they were only offering 1 type of Kaiseki, with no alternate versions. I've heard from friends (and now you) that they are offering different Kaiseki menus now (I'll have to go back and try some other ones next time. :) I hope you enjoy your visit!

Michael [KyotoFoodie] said...

Hyotei Honten, that cannot be beaten! It is a legendary restaurant in Kyoto and the building and atmosphere is exquisite.

The food second to none, that is for sure. However on cost performance I think it is a bit overpriced.

My current favorite for authentic Kyoto-style kaiseki cuisine is Kichisen. Kichisen is a bit cheaper than Hyotei, I think, and the food a little better.

I am pretty good friends with Chef Tanigawa, the owner and have written about him on my site, and Unlike a lot of Kyoto snobs, Chef Tanigawa is a very open, friendly and accessible guy.

His culinary skills are surely unsurpassed. On Iron Chef he soundly defeated Iron Chef Morimoto in (I think) an unprecedented clean sweep. The English dubbed video is available from YouTube and you can see it at the link below:

Next time your are in Kyoto please give Kichisen a try, I would love to hear what you think about Chef Tanigawa's kaiseki as compared to Hyotei.

Exile Kiss said...

Hi Michael,

Thanks for your great recommendation. :) I will definitely give them a try the next time I'm in Kyoto. Thanks.

Peter said...

Hyotei was recently awarded (another) 3 star rating by the Michelin guide. Too bad I didn't have a chance to go eat there last autumn. Zannen.

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