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Hyotei

35 Kusakawa-cho, Nanzenji, Kyoto, Japan

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Hyotei was originally a tea house for travellers to rest on their way to the Nanzen-ji temple, established well over three hundred year ago. It converted to a restaurant in 1837,and has been in the Takahashi family ownership for sixteen generations. As you go through the discreet entrance you are led along a pretty path beside a stream, past maple trees and lanterns.

Our private room had sunken seating within the floor, essentially a hole in which you rest your feet, with no table; dishes are brought and rested on lacquer trays on the floor in front of you. As usual in such tatami rooms the decoration is limited to a simple flower display and a wall hanging of calligraphy. Service is from traditionally-dressed waitresses, who endeavour to meet all your needs, though in our case the ones we encountered spoke no English at all, so we were not able to get any detail on the dishes; there is no written menu. Apparently in olden times Japanese warlords would play a game where they would try and guess what dishes they had been served in their kaiseki meal, and so this was a tradition that we followed tonight.

The first course was red snapper, served with soy sauce and real wasabi; this was of good quality, though was not the best I have eaten. Alongside the fish was very good lotus root and potato, deep-fried and very small salt-grilled ayu (sweet fish). The little potato balls were nice and the ayu was nicely seasoned with salt and was of high quality - this did have a little sweetness of taste which is sometimes hard to detect, and was the best element for me (15/20 overall, more for the ayu).

Next was a very well made tofu soup, whose stock had just a little hint of citrus to provide some welcome acidity (15/20). The following dish was what appears to be a specialty of Hyotei, a simple soft boiled egg, but in half, and then seasoned with just a drop of soy sauce. This was a very good quality egg indeed, apparently supplied by a local farmer in northern Kyoto. This was served alongside a sushi of barracuda and a genuinely lovely chestnut, which was glazed with honey and had very good flavour (16/20)

Next was an unidentified cooked white fish I didn't recognise, wrapped in its own skin and served with a very good salad of mushrooms, the salad having a nicely balanced citrus dressing (15/20). Following this was a cold dish of shrimp in jelly with tofu and mushrooms; the mushrooms were fine but I felt the prawns were a little chewy, which rather let the dish down (14/20),

Next was a prettily presented salt-grilled ayu, much larger than the earlier appetiser, with its roe displayed bursting out of its body; this must require skilled knife work to achieve; the fish was served with fried lotus root, and again had a little hint of sweetness that it is supposed to have but often lacks (16/20). The savoury stage of the meal concluded, as is traditional, with boiled rice, in this case with beans and pickles, as well as miso soup. This was pleasant but was hard to get excited about, and the miso seemed to me unexceptional (13/20).

Dessert was pieces of giant grape garnished with pomegranate seeds and diced pears. These were very ripe and was a very refreshing end to the meal; the fruit had clearly been carefully selected (17/20). There was also a green tea ice on the side.

The bill was ¥67,250 for two (£256 per person), with just some beer to drink; the food component was ¥32,000 (£244) per person. Overall this was a pleasant experience, and there is no doubting the quality of the ingredients (and indeed the lovely serving dishes on which the food was served). However it was hard for me to honestly say that I found the food particularly exciting; flavours were clean but there was no dish that really stood out, except perhaps the excellent fruit of the dessert. When you then consider the bill, this is a great deal of money, although of course you have a private room and very gracious service, all of which undoubtedly must cost a lot to deliver. However I still felt that somehow the overall experience and the setting was really the thing that stood out more than the food itself.

 

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