Kyoto Kaiseki Mastery: Hyotei (Honten) [Review] w/ Pics!
(Formatted Review with All Pictures here:
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 multi-course meal that has a lot of emphasis on truly 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.
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!
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 (Beans) of some kind. 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 - if I recall correctly, which had a wonderful texture and no "gristle / tendon." Just very fresh 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 next course was a wonderful soup:
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 Green Tea-based sauce:
The Tofu was perfectly cooked, and lightly sweet yet savory. The Green Tea glaze/sauce was perfect, having a flavor that I've never had before (really unique). Next up was the Spring Dango skewer:
Each dango was truly wonderful in texture, visual presentation and taste. My favorite was the middle dango (ball) of a mochi with fresh-grounded Green Tea Leaves. The fresh ginger was also a beautiful and striking part of the presentation and was really tasty (not overpowering on the ginger flavor at all (marinated in some way)).
Next up was a "Hanjyukku 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 Hanjyukku Egg exceeded this artistry... simply amazing!)
Next up was a beautiful seafood (cuttlefish?) dish as part of this course. It was perfectly cooked, and had a nice *good* chewy texture (just slightly) that made it stand out from the Dango and Tamago we just had. And it was so visually striking as well.
After that, our next course appeared: A beautiful stone bowl, with wonderful plating design revealed fresh Octopus and fresh Bamboo and Konbu.
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 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 / flavor.
Next up came another fresh fish, 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!
Next up was their presentation of the classic Japanese Rice / Miso Soup / Tsukemono course:
Beautiful presentation (again), and each portion was immaculately prepared. The Gohan (Rice) bowl 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 positively delectable! So yummy! (^_^)
The soup was a really light vegetable broth, with some fresh local vegetables. It included Sakura-flavored Mochi and two other unique dango in the soup. Really tasty and it paired well with the Bamboo Rice.
The Tsukemono (Pickles) that they served with the rice was wonderfully fresh! The Daikon was nice and crispy and had great seasoning, not too sour or salty.
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 Young Bamboo Steamed Rice).
They served a wonderful green tea at this time as well, really distinct 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 Macha (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:
I wasn't sure what type of Mochi it was, but it was really fresh, soft and supple. They powdered the Mochi with a peanut(?) powder and it was a perfect complement to the Macha 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 got 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 course 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))
thank you for your amazing report and reviews of your trip in japan. Reading through the chowhound blogs on japan is somewhat overwhelming almost to the point of being arresting (at least for my personality). So stumbling across your rankings and reviews was remarkably helpful. We made reservations for 3 at Hontei for tomorrow, I hope our meal is as memorable as yours was. We have never had a kaseki before (and never been to japan either) so we are quite excited and nervous about our experience. There are three of us in the party and none of us speak anything but english. Do you think we will be able to manage here? Are there any tips you might have regarding our experience (for example the kowtowing experience?). Any information you might have would be wonderful. We are going to tokyo next and planning on using your guide as our meal plan. Thanks for all the research and reviews it has truly made our lives much easier. And I suspect that it will make our meals in japan our most memorable yet!
Thank you for the kind words. :) Apologies on not seeing your post until today; I hope you had a great time at Hyotei (Honten (Original Branch)). The staff seems to be very accommodating and my guest (who doesn't speak Japanese) had no problems asking the staff for a few things.
Hope you enjoy your Japan Trip! :)
Hi. No worries about the late reply--the post was last minute, as has been everything on our trip. I enjoyed our experiences in some ways, but not in others. First of all---the room, the garden, and the service is just unbelievable. Even your high praise of it couldn't capture how amazing those aspects were. It really felt like you were transported to a different world--just spectacular. The presentation of the food was also remarkable. Furthermore, they were amazingly accommodating! The woman who was serving us--did everything in japanese but then immeditaley seeing that we did not understand any of it--brought another younger woman in who then translated everything into english. After that, for every course the woman would do the japanese and then the english---all this without making us feel out of place at all--a truly remarkable feat. It truly was one of the most relaxing meals of my life. Having said that--and this maybe just my poor palate--I did not think the food was too amazing. Our meal was slightly different than yours--seasonal I guess---but overall I just didn't think it was stunning. The pricetag came to 881k yen for 3 of us (and 3 carafes of sake). Overall the meal was great on every front--but the food was a bit disappointing for me. But I am very glad I did it. Taking on your other recommendation we are eating at Sushi Mizutani tomorrow and am hoping that will be a spectacular meal. Thanks again.
Thanks for the recommedation of Sushi Mizutani! That was the greatest meal of my life. The food was so incredible--I guess I have never had sushi before. Although its going to be hard to go back to NY sushi after this. Not only was the food was incredible, but the service, the ambiance, and just the generally welcoming feeling was amazing. In the beginning I was quite intimidated given that none of us spoke japanese...and the whole place was quiet in reverence of the master. But soon everyone became a bit more comfortable and more talkative and the jokiningness--the attempts at translation all began. It was quite comical as there was a Parsian at dinner as well who barely spoke any english--so there was quite a bit of three way translations going on...anyway the whole thing was very amusing. After dinner Chef Mizutani walked us out, and noticing that we had a camera bag in our hands asked one of the servers to come out and take a picture of us standing with him. He also amused himself by rubbing by big pot belly after dinner! All in stark contrast to the seriousness of eating the food. It was amazing--a truly memorable experience and one that will likely never be topped again. Thank you so much for your recommendation--I would never have tried this place otherwise. Oh total price--in case people are interested came out to 790k for 3 people sushi and sashimi course with 3 bottles of sake.
Thank you for the detailed report back! :) I'm glad you enjoyed most aspects of the meal at Hyotei (Honten). :) Kaiseki cuisine is definitely an acquired taste. It's not very "big, bold flavors" and really focuses on a more minimalistic approach in celebrating the seasons.
And that's great to hear they had an English-speaking server as well to accommodate you. :)
Great writeup, exile...
Mrs. J.L. & I are headed to Kyoto within the month. We are making reservations for a meal at Hyotei as well. The restaurant offers a $270pp meal, and offers "upgrades" (not in # of dishes, but rather "ingredient upgrades") in increments of $50, up to $500pp.
My questions to you, exile, is this: Based on your experience there, do you think that the quality of the "ingredient upgrade" warrants the price upgrade $500pp? I mean, this would be a $1K meal for the 2 of us, and I just wanna make sure it's a good value.
Thanks in advance!
I only had their original Kaiseki course (no upgrades). I must've missed the upgrade option (not that it mattered too much - we still had a wonderful time :). Can you tell me what the upgrades are during your trip? I'm curious what's in season that they'll be upgrading for you.
Other than that, just relax and soak up the 300 year-old setting and private Tatami Room and Garden. I feel happy just thinking about it... (^_^)
Reporting back: Kyoto was wonderful! We were lucky to hit the city exactly at its height of the cherry blossom season. Just beautiful. Thanks to exilekiss for the Hyotei rec.
Our kaiseki dinner at Hyotei (Honten branch) was excellent, but not outstanding. Mrs. J.L. & I ended up doing the $270pp kaiseki (no upgrades). Yes, we got our own tatami room with garden view. Our kimono-clad server was so gracious and attentive. Using exilekiss' grading system:
Food presentation: 9.7 (out of 10)
Food taste: 9.0* - I thought the flavors were a tad bland in many of the dishes
Food/dish variety, selection & "seasonality": 10
Setting: 9.0 - a loud party of rowdy foreigners in an adjacent room was audible, but hey, that's life...
* = My biggest factor in overall food experience
Overall, I'd give Hyotei a 9.3.
It should be noted that we had an EVEN BETTER Kyoto-style kaiseki the very next night in our ryokan (the Sumiya Ryokan) - this was included as part of our ryokan stay there. It consisted of 20 delectable, unforgettable courses, formally served to us in our own room. This meal received a 9.9 out of 10 from Mrs. J.L. & myself. Undoubtedly, this dinner at Sumiya Ryokan was one of the best Japanese meals/experiences we've ever had. Of course, I'd HIGHLY recommend this ryokan for anyone interested in Kyoto.
Thank you for the detailed report back! :) I would agree that Hyotei's courses are more on the lightly-seasoned side, but it didn't bother me that much.
Thanks for the info on Sumiya Ryokan! :) How were the accommodations compared to a, say, 4 star Western Hotel? Do you have a URL or address?
It's tough to compare a ryokan to a western-style hotel room - it's too "apples & oranges". The first main difference one usually notices is in the schedule of your ryokan stay: Their days run on a rather strict "ryokan time": Check-in is at 1600h, dinner is served in your room around 1900h, your beds are made (yes, they make your bed for you) around 2200h. Breakfast is served in your room is around 0830h. It IS Japan, after all.
But I will say that Sumiya Ryokan was comfortable, spacious yet cozy, and the bathtub (made with Japanese cedar and made to overflow) was decadent to the extreme. Expect 37500yen per person (and up) per night (dinner & breakfast included). By the way, their breakfast was unbelievably good as well.
If you arrive on the 7th or the 17th of each month, they will also perform a traditional tea ceremony for all guests. Service was impeccable all the way through... lots of free hot tea, hot towels, smiles, and bows.
I couldn't find an official website (my Japanese friend recommended this place to me):
431 Shirokabe-cho fuyacho dori sanjo sagaru, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto
15 minutes from JR Kyoto station by car or taxi. The ryokan is very close to the Nishiki Food Market, which is an interesting food walk in Kyoto, should one get tired of all the shrines, temples, & pagodas....
Hey I found Sumiya's Japanese website!!
... and an English version!
p.s. As I'm sure you already know, kanji simply refers to the retained Chinese characters in written Japanese... Ergo, Kanji is only a part of the Japanese language.
I love Hyotei. Their lunch bento is really a work of art. I know people prefer the main building with all the private little rooms in the garden, but I actually prefer the Bekkan with the main tatami room and the central garden. Last time I was there the Bekkan was under renovation, so everybody had to eat in the main building.
Thank you for the review and the photos. I will have to decide whether to do this, or eat at Yoshinoya 80 times during my next trip to Japan.
Did you ever find out about the correct response to the "kowtow"? For some reason kowtowing back to them seems inappropriate to me. Were you already sitting down at this point? This kind of thing tends to stress me out in Japan (and leads me to interact with a lot of vending machines instead).
No problem on the photos; hope it helps! (^_^)
Hai, I asked my tomodachi from Tokyo and since you are the guest, you're being served and taken care of, so all you need to do is just "nod" to acknowledge it.
And "yes," I was sitting already at this point (on the tatami mat). Don't let it stress you out! It was THE most relaxing, beautiful dining experience I had in many ways (w/ the private garden, etc.).
I think you meant "their website seems to be only in Japanese." :)
Hm, that's going to be tough. I really don't know. If you can spare the phone call (or e-mail the hotel you're staying at in Kyoto), that would really be your best bet (unless you have a friend (or friend of a friend) that lives in Japan or can speak Japanese to call for you).
It's a wonderful experience and is definitely worth your time to try it while you're in Kyoto! :)