Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Next Kyoto

During my previous life as a young corporate champion, I was fortunate enough to visit Japan and Kyoto multiple times, including in the Autumn. It is difficult to express how beautiful that whole country is in every season, but how surreal, oneiric, and at the same time absolutely flabbergasting its beauty is in the Fall. 

Autumn in Japan
It is probably in Japan that I fell in love with food for the first time in my life. I always liked food, obviously, but love and like are two different concepts. So I have fond memories of Japanese food and of the whole dining experience. The peace you experience in visually taking the presentation of Japanese food has always been 50% of the pleasure for me. Obviously, having clients taking you to the best restaurants in Tokyo and Kyoto on a company credit card helped me appreciate the cuisine even more, at times. But cheap food in Japan is probably the best cheap food I have had anywhere. 

A much younger version of the Tuscan Foodie in his Japanese days eating a cheap and delicious bowl of udon in the middle of a Japanese nowhere - 2003

Why is all this relevant? Because last Sunday I made it to Next, Kyoto. For those who are not familiar with it, Next is a new concept restaurant by Grant Achatz, one of the world greatest chefs, according to a lot of rankings. Next's menu changes completely every few months, and it is thematic: the first menu was Paris, then there were Thailand, Childhood, Tribute to El Bulli, Sicily and now Kyoto. Next's objective is to really make the diner feel transported to that time and place through food. They also have what I think is a completely fucked up reservation system: you need to buy "tickets", whose price varies depending on the time and day you want to go. A neat idea in theory, but practice says otherwise: "good tickets" at decent times go away within seconds of being put online, and I am not joking. 

A much younger me in Japan
Since I don't think one should spend hours in front of a pc trying to score a table at a restaurant, irrespective of how good that restaurant may be, I always refused to go through the ticket ordeal.  But my friends Jesse and Heather managed to score four tickets for a Sunday night at 10pm. Normally I would have said no way (I eat my meals by 7,30, thank you very much) but this was the Kyoto menu, so I happily said yes in spite of the price: for $256 (sake pairing, tips and taxes included), I was expecting to be blown out of my mind, and be transported back to my young days of Japan. 

The menu is made of 14 courses, and it is a traditional kaiseki menu. Kaiseki is a special type of meal that was originally served as an accompaniment of tea. It is normally a real feast, and the menu served at Next was no exception. 

None of us diners had a camera, on purpose: without coordinating ourselves, we all came to the conclusion that there was no point in bringing a camera when there were already good photos of the menu out there. Just sit back and enjoy the food. If you want to read a good detailed explanation of each course of the menu from someone who seems to know what he/she is talking about - together with good photos - you should read this

I will limit myself to a few lines: did I have a very good meal? Yes, I did. Did I have the feeling, as Next promised, of experiencing "Autumn in Kyoto: the moon viewing, the changing hue of the maple leaves, the last crickets of summer, wind blowing through the river grass..."? Yes, I did. 

Yet, I don't think Next-Kyoto was one of my most memorable meals. Far from it. 

My wife says it is because I am blasé. I may be, but I don't think that's the reason I wasn't blown away. We all found the food was great, but we all felt we had had better meals elsewhere for a fraction of the cost. 

Now, I am not saying that we were ripped off. Although I agree with my fellow Italian Chicagoan Fabrizio when he says that usually restaurants that cost 100% more than average only offer around 30% better quality than average, I did see where my money went: the sakes and liquors we had were absolutely amazing, and plentiful. And they married beautifully to the food. 

But my issue is that if I remember something of this meal in ten years from now, it will be the sake, in particular the Mizuho Kuramatsu Kembishi: when it hit my tongue I could sense all of my taste buds feeling I was dead and gone to Paradise. 

But the food? Yes, it was extremely good. But it wouldn't be something that made me want to go back to Next (assuming I could spare another $250). I have had other kaiseki meals in Japan, and this was as good as those. Which is probably an achievement in itself, but perhaps my expectations were higher.

Also, for that price, I would expect each and every server to know their menu inside out, and be able to answer questions and explain things to me as if I were five. This was the case in most cases, but not always. One staff in particular seemed to be repeating things he had learnt by heart, mixing words, forgetting things, unable to answer questions. Did this ruin my meal? No, absolutely not. Did I think I would see this in a $250 meal restaurant? No, I didn't. 

Perhaps my expectations were too high, perhaps I didn't understand all the subtle nuances that were going on, perhaps my palate is not as good as I would like it to be. All this could be true. Or perhaps my experiences from the past come to mind sweetened by long lost time, and are therefore better than the present, as every good memory is. Who knows. I would give the experience 8/10. I just wanted it to be a 11/10 though, that's the reason of my disappointment.

If the whole point of NEXT is to offer a menu at the top level of the cuisine of choice, they nailed it. And from a technical point of view it is a phenomenal feat that these guys can pull a Japanese menu like that, when three weeks ago they were doing Sicilian, and before that El Bulli. I mean: they really are fantastic. I think the problem (in my case) is that I was expecting it to be a memorable experience like I hear Alinea is.

PS: my favorite course was this matsutake chawanmushi, a savory custard which has all the flavors that I personally associate to Japanese cuisine. Some of my dinner partners thought it was too salty, I thought it was just perfect. Too bad the pines next to it weren't fragrant at all. Photos from here.


Leah said...

That chawan mushi looks divine! It's one of my favorite foods. One thing I like about kaiseki ryouri is how simple some of the food is and yet how it's miles beyond the tempura or chawa mushi I could make at home. I've eaten $100 meals for work, but, like you, I'm kind of wary of super expensive meals because I expect so much from them, especially in terms of the service. Really interesting review!

A Tuscan foodie in America said...

Thanks Leah. Yes, that dish was divine indeed. Although reading around, a lot of people seem to be complaining about texture. But I think it is one of those acquired textures/flavors of Japanese cuisine.

Trobairitz said...

Interesting review. I like the concept of the restaurant but wow, the price. I think for that price your napkins should have been gold plated.

I am glad you enjoyed the food even if you weren't wowed over the moon.

A Tuscan foodie in America said...

Thank you Trobairitz, this is how I felt too...

Sekure said...

You do look younger in those photos! Not better looking but yes, younger looking! And yes, you did set your expectations too high my dear. It is well known that present experiences can never compete with myths...
Baci tuscanfoodie-san

A Tuscan foodie in America said...

Kronos is a devouring God.


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