The Japanese Emperor’s New Clothes

American restaurants are better than ever, which makes it all the more painful when time and money are wasted on a restaurant built on hype.

We are very excited to be presenting in this issue our first annual Restaurant Awards. You’ll find our selections of the finest wine-oriented restaurants in America. In order to put excellence in perspective, however, I’d like to cite an example of its opposite, on a grand scale.

A few weeks ago my wife, Sybil, and I joined another couple for reservations at one of the most hyped new restaurants in New York City, an upscale Japanese restaurant said to be serving food of rarity and refinement by one of the most renowned chefs in the world. We made our reservation six weeks in advance, secured with a credit card. We had to reconfirm 48 hours in advance, at which point the $350 per person tasting-menu prix-fixe was charged to the card. Nonrefundable.

Our hopes were flying high as we entered—we dreamed of spectacular ambience, unique décor, delicate fountains and exotic music. What we found was a spare, simple room with four tables and a sushi bar. Fair enough. Minimal décor is part of the Asian aesthetic: beauty in simplicity. Fine.

No menu was brought to our table; we were prepared for this, knowing that we were in the hands of the famous chef. We were eager to enjoy whatever he was in the mood to prepare for us. I’d brought two special bottles of great Bordeaux: an ’82 Château Margaux and an ’85 Château Haut Brion. The corkage fee, we were informed, would be $75 per bottle, which was the most I’d ever paid in any restaurant in the world.

Once the wines were decanted and the food began to arrive, we started to enjoy ourselves. The Margaux was incredible; the sashimi and sushi preparations were very good. But gradually I realized that we hadn’t seen the “sommelier” since he had opened our bottles, commented on the ’82 Margaux and decanted our wines. He had disappeared, never to be seen again. But what was worse, what was unforgivable: The levels in the decanters were equal; he had left the Haut Brion on the table with about a quarter of the wine still in bottle. But we never saw the Margaux bottle again. This man had left with the bottle, and a good portion of the wine.

Our wait staff always seemed to be changing. We had to continually ask someone, anyone to refill our water glasses. When we had questions on the exotic food preparations, each of our many servers was clueless, and our master chef too busy to advise them. Meanwhile, plate after plate arrived: salmon, Toro, soup, grilled tuna, eel, salmon again, octopus, fluke, Toro again—it was a veritable Cirque du Soleil of fish and rice production, and quite redundant.

This went on for a full three hours before we finally cried “uncle” and asked for tea to signal that we were finished. When the check was delivered, it was north of $2,000 for the four of us. And “for my convenience” they had added an additional $400 gratuity for their poorly trained waitstaff and thieving sommelier.

Anyone can fall victim to hype. Fool me once, as they say. But whether a restaurant is in the big city, small town or out on a prarie, hype can’t mask a lack of customer service, hospitality and value. It can’t make poorly prepared food taste great, and it can’t make a lame wine list shine. You don’t have to be a gourmand to recognize that the Emperor has no clothes.

But when a restaurant marries great cuisine, wine and service, as our award-winning restaurants do on a daily basis, they are rewarded with return visits and positive word of mouth, which are the lifeblood of this exciting industry. This country’s restaurant scene has matured dramatically over the past 20 years. True to the American spirit, chefs are taking risks, expanding boundaries, and following their own impulses to present original, inspiring food. It is now possible to enjoy distinctive cuisine and a great bottle of wine just about everywhere in the country. This month’s issue is a tribute to that industry.

In this issue you’ll also find our Vintage Chart. We’re expanding our coverage of wine regions you’re most interested in, to help you find the finest wines for the money you’re prepared to spend. Also, you’ll find our annual harvest report, a recommendation for a Valentine’s Day seduction dinner (page 54), a Buying Guide with some exciting offerings from France and a compelling story on Chile—if you’ve never considered a wine tour of that exciting country, Michael Schachner’s article could change your mind. All in all, this is one of the best issues we’ve ever published…and that’s no hype.


Published on February 1, 2005

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