May 15, 2010
Hyotei has been a restaurant on this spot since 1837 and a tea house for centuries before that. I had the good fortune to dine there in 1962. Years later the two places in Japan that had left the deepest impression on me were Hyotei and the Katsura Imperial Villa. On my other visit to Kyoto, in 1982, I wasn’t able to visit either one so in planning this trip I made sure that we had reservations at both.
It was a damp early evening when Linda arrived for dinner on April 18, 2010. We were greeted warmly; we took our time admiring the garden and buildings as we were escorted back to our room.
It was a lovely room. A cup of light tea was brought. After our hostess/server saw the trouble I was having getting comfortable drinking the tea, they took us to another room which had sunken wells for one’s feet.
That was very considerate of them as it was a room for eight and we were only two. We have no idea how many other diners there were that evening; we neither saw nor heard any evidence of them, but Hyotei is supposed to be a difficult reservation to get so I imagine they were there.
Low tables were put in front of us and black lacquer trays with the first dishes were put on them. Everything in the meal was carefully described to us in Japanese with occasional English words and I tried to note down the names.
A cut-crystal sake decanter was put on the floor between us. We were given cut-crystal sake glasses. I had expected rustic old pottery.
On top is red snapper sashimi. It was not sliced thinly and was quite chewy, but the flavor was good. The soy sauce in front was for it.
The hexagonal little bowl had broad (fava) bean tempura which was surprisingly good.
There was no chopstick rest; one used the edge of the black lacquer tray on which the dishes were served.
Then we were served a wooden plate with hard boiled egg halves; it seemed to me that there was a clear gel on top, but these eggs are always served here and other bloggers imply it is just that the eggs are perfectly cooked and ooze a bit when cut;
tiny black fish;
a wedge of bamboo shoot with grilled green pepper on top;
a roll of cherry blossom flavored rice in a cherry leaf;
a thin, red, hot radish;
a skewer of balls of purée; the pink one was shrimp; I have udine and komo in my notes for the other two, but those words don’t appear in my Japanese Food Dictionary; my notes say they tasted like marzipan and mushrooms.
The plate offered nice textural contrasts and subtle flavors.
When we had finished the course, we could see that the plate had lovely gold lacquer decoration with Hyotei‘s gourd motif.
Tempura: uni, sea urchin, wrapped in fish filet, and vegetables.
The tempura was warm, crisp and good, but it didn’t seem like the best way to prepare uni. (We had the same impression the following week at Ten-ichi.)
Then a bowl with a bamboo shoot slice, peas and a ball of sea bream mousse.
The bamboo shoot and peas were fresh and nicely undercooked in dashi. The dish was delicious, but hard to eat with chopsticks.
These grilled little fish were presented as moroko, but I don’t find that in the food dictionary either. They were served with pickled broccoli and rice wine vinegar which was a strange match as their insides were somewhat bitter.
The last main course of a kaiseki meal: rice, turnip pickles and two other condiments for the rice; soup with a flaky fish and a glutenous rice cake; brown tea. Okay and authentic, but boring.
Two strawberries, a stewed apricot on a gel and something like almond paste.
Our server and the lady in charge escorted us to the front door where we waited for the taxi they had called.
The meal had obviously stuck to all of Hyotei‘s old traditions with no obvious concessions to modernism. That we didn’t always find that to our taste was irrelevant. They were doing well what they were supposed to do. The current chef, Eiichi Takahashi, is the fourteenth generation of his family in the spot; his son, Yoshihiro, is also in the kitchen. This was one of the few restaurants in Japan where we did not meet the chef. He has no English or French language media presence despite his three Michelin stars. I don’t know if he is well known in Japan, but I would guess that he lets Hyotei‘s reputation and tradition speak for itself.
But I had one disappointment.