Japan- Komago- ✪✪✪

Komago is tucked in the lush, effectively gated community on top of a hill right between Osaka and Kobe called Koyoen. I had to kill a few minutes in a grocery store/coffee shop nearby that beats the living hell out of any Whole Foods back home, and had the chance to walk around a bit- something I highly recommend. A few quiet steps from the Koyoen train station is Komago, an older building that used to be a tea ceremony house. 

While the setting was gorgeous, the interior, service, and most of the dishes made almost no sense. Employees wandered around in oddly clueless fashion, and English skills were basically non-existent. Please avoid. 

 Komago Main Entrance

Komago Main Entrance

KOBE, JAPAN

SERVICE: 5.5/10

FOOD: 4.5/10

PRICE PAID: $220 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 5.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 5.0/10

As is the tradition right before dinner service, the gorgeous ancient cobble-stoned entranceway was freshly washed, and, unlike other establishments that have asked us to remove our shoes, we are shown right into a rather sterile room without much decor looking out at a lovely small garden. We are seated on chairs with plain, flat tables that felt more dentist-waiting-room than 3-Michelin-Star restaurant. Odd.

 Komago Dining Room

Komago Dining Room

 Komago Garden

Komago Garden

 First Sip: Tea + Seaweed, 8/10

First Sip: Tea + Seaweed, 8/10

Almost immediately, one of several traditional-dress-decked-out ladies comes by with a welcome tea- very salty and Ocean-y but refreshing; small flecks of seaweed visible throughout. 8/10

 Course 1: Tofu + Broccoli, 6/10

Course 1: Tofu + Broccoli, 6/10

Next up, the big black plate that will serve as my base of operations for dinner along with a small and attractive-looking portion of fish/ginger tofu with cooked broccoli arrive. Very strong ginger flavors in the broth, and the overall texture is exceedingly soft; on the verge of slimy. Not bad, but not really my speed. 6/10.

 Course 2: Shrimp Dumpling Soup, 9/10

Course 2: Shrimp Dumpling Soup, 9/10

Next, an excellent soup with bright pink crab dumplings, starchy vegetables, greens, lemon peel, and a clear broth. The crab is super fresh, and the soup is piping hot. Subtly different; I really like the dumpling and the nice colorful touch the lemon peel adds. 9/10.

 Course 3: Crab, 5/10

Course 3: Crab, 5/10

While trying not to sound like a culturally imperialist asshole, I have to say that this crab dish looks indistinguishable from a pile of either crab guts or just plain crab shit. It took me a moment to get over the appearance, and found that the flavors overall were Not Bad, but quite earthy. 5/10.

 Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

Course 4: Sashimi, 7/10

Had some high hopes here- this tends to be the dish where 3-star Kaiseki restaurants shine; the sashimi. Grilled tuna is a nice touch, the squid has that soft but yielding texture that I’ve come to really appreciate, but it is about as good as everyone else's in the region. Maybe slightly less good. 7/10.

 Course 5: Anago Eel, 6/10

Course 5: Anago Eel, 6/10

Anago. I really enjoyed the balled-up presentation, but honestly the eel is a bit dry and overcooked, which throws off the textural interplay with the rice. 6/10.

 Course 6: Duck + Fish, 5/10

Course 6: Duck + Fish, 5/10

This next course was a disappointment. The duck is dry, cold. and a touch gamey- the taste was a little like horses smell. The entire-cooked anchovy stares back at me, and even on making a good-faith attempt to break the fish open, I’m faced with a razor-sharp line of fish bones that I dare not get too close to- and even after exercising caution, coughed up a tiny, hairlike, almost-transparent bone several hours later that felt a little like coughing up a tiny iron nail. Western visitors, unless you know what you’re doing, tread lightly here. The tied-in-a-knot fruit shape tastes like a subtle and pleasant fruit roll-up, which gives some diversity of flavors to the plate. Egg cube and fresh, wet greens diversify further. Have to be honest, I don’t always understand some of these textures, and the small flower-shaped marshmallow is neither sweet nor particularly pleasant to eat. 5/10.

 Course 7: Cooked Fish, 4/10

Course 7: Cooked Fish, 4/10

This can safely be called the main dish- cooked fish- served almost blackened in oil. I must say that one part is tender and awesome, one part is overcooked, dry, and almost too tough to put my utensils through, which is both a surprise and a big disappointment. 4/10.

 Course 8: Sea Urchin, 7/10

Course 8: Sea Urchin, 7/10

Uni (Sea Urchin). All extremely soft textures that work well together. A nice recovery from the previous course but it’s not a deeply moving dish. 7/10.

 Course 9: Shrimp + Mushroom Soup, 7/10

Course 9: Shrimp + Mushroom Soup, 7/10

Arriving in a dumpling-like shape with a clear yellow/lemony broth, this quickly turns into shrimp/mushroom/rice mush. It’s pleasant and warm and filling, but it’s nothing that special. 7/10.

 Course 10: Clam + Rice, 8/10

Course 10: Clam + Rice, 8/10

What, in Kaiseki, must surely have a name like the “are you full yet” course, an enormous ceramic pot full of rice and clams are brought the table, and I am served until, effectively, I say Uncle. The clams are fresh and delightful, and I like the idea that Kaiseki restaurants never want you to leave hungry. 8/10. 

 Course 11: Fruit Gelatin, 7/10

Course 11: Fruit Gelatin, 7/10

The first dessert is a lovely, understated presentation of strawberry, gelatin, orange, and mango. Not bad, though the orange is quite bitter (perhaps intentional?) 7/10.

 Course 12: No Idea, 4/10

Course 12: No Idea, 4/10

 Still no clue.

Still no clue.

I have honestly no idea what is happening here, but it’s not particularly sweet nor delicious. 4/10. When I asked for more information, I was told that it was "dessert." Charmingly terse. 

 Last sip: Matcha, 8/10

Last sip: Matcha, 8/10

Matcha. Exactly the same as every other cup of matcha I’ve had on this trip- strongly similar to a wheatgrass smoothie. 8/10.

Macau- The Eight- ✪✪✪

Yet another in a long string of confusing-how-they-earned-it Chinese Three-Stars, Au Kwok Keung's Cantonese-style restaurant is named the luckiest number in Chinese culture. Fitting that it's inside an enormous casino, the Grand Lisboa, which is in fact the very same casino as the other Three Star in Macau, Robuchon au Dome. The Eight is, without any doubt, the inferior of the two.

 The Eight's Main Entrance

The Eight's Main Entrance

MACAU, CHINA

SERVICE: 5.0/10

FOOD: 4.0/10

PRICE PAID: $220 PP (LIST PRICE- PRE-CHALLENGE)

VALUE/MONEY: 6.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 5.0/10

 The Eight Interior

The Eight Interior

References to the number Eight are literally everywhere, and I have to say I found this restaurant's interior like something from a Bond villain lair. Female wait staff are outfitted in extremely slinky cocktail dresses and high heels, which look incredibly uncomfortable and contribute to said ambiance further. 

 First Bites, "Abalone Dumpling," 7/10

First Bites, "Abalone Dumpling," 7/10

One of the restaurant's signature dishes- we are first presented with a dumpling with abalone sauce, and abalone with pomelo. Only after we've consumed both does the waiter come over and inform us that it wasn't really an abalone, it was a mushroom! You guys got us! 7/10.

 Course 1: Pork + Goose Liver, 3/10

Course 1: Pork + Goose Liver, 3/10

This next course is the interpersonal equivalent of coming on way, way too strong way too early. A heaping slab of barbecue pork prepared Char Siu-style is garnished with an even-larger hunk of goose liver. This makes the goose liver appear bigger than it is, balancing unsteadily on the pork like a big, sweaty elephant on a circus ball. When you think about how fatty and heavy both of these things are together you wonder what might make this a good starting dish for those who haven't skipped lunch (and maybe breakfast before that). On top of that, the goose liver is dry and the pork is overcooked. Poor. 3/10.

 Course 2: Beef + Watercress, 8/10

Course 2: Beef + Watercress, 8/10

This next course is, once again, really heavy, but it has the new feature of actually being delicious. Beef from the tropical Japanese island of Kagoshima is super tender, and pairs almost perfectly with the watercress,which is crunchy and has a great texture. 8/10.

 Course 3: Sea Whelk + Abalone + Red Date Soup, 5/10

Course 3: Sea Whelk + Abalone + Red Date Soup, 5/10

The menu charmingly describes this dish as "double-boiled sea whelk, abalone, and silky fowl with red dates." Sea whelk, a type of sea snail, is gamey and chewy; the same idea as escargot but less tasty. The sweetness of the dates is pronounced and welcome, but along with the rubbery-chewy abalone it makes for an extremely difficult-to-eat soup. 5/10. 

 Course 4: Boston Lobster + Egg + Minced Pork + Black Bean, 4/10

Course 4: Boston Lobster + Egg + Minced Pork + Black Bean, 4/10

I feel terrible for this lobster, who followed me all the way from the US (Boston) only to be badly cooked and dumped in a vat of mushy, poorly-articulated sauce and minced pork. Very difficult to pull the flavors apart here, and the undercooked lobster didn't help straighten anything out. 4/10. 

 Course 5: Seasonal Vegetables + Ginkgo+ Bean Curd, 3/10

Course 5: Seasonal Vegetables + Ginkgo+ Bean Curd, 3/10

What could only safely be described as an orgy of green vegetables came next; the second dish in a row that seems to be drowning in its own sauce. I got barely a third of the way through before deciding that this A) tasted like a crappy take-out side dish that one orders purely out of guilt for how unhealthful the rest of the meal is, only to wish they had fully committed to the oils and fats and B) was an enormous waste of my and someone else's time. 3/10.

 Course 6: "Shark Fin" + Rice Vermicelli, 3/10

Course 6: "Shark Fin" + Rice Vermicelli, 3/10

The first thing anyone confronted with this plate would probably ask, of course, is: "What in the holy hell is happening right now?" This pile of rice vermicelli, conpoy (dried scallops) along with fake shark's fin was a bland, soulless dish that tasted exactly like eating a bowl of plain pasta mixed with bran cereal. We are told by our server that this is, in fact, fake shark's fin; real shark's fin is a delicacy, they worked tirelessly to re-create the flavors and textures for this dish. A similar idea to the abalone that was actually a mushroom from earlier. I'm sure someone gets the significance of this effort, but it is completely lost on me. 

 Course 7: Taro Pudding, 2/10

Course 7: Taro Pudding, 2/10

From just looking at this dessert, there's no way you'd think it was totally gross, right? You'd be wrong. Lukewarm, sickly-sweet flavored, in a bath of sugar milk. 2/10. I broke off one of the wings, only to find it also bland and brittle, leaving the small fake butterfly staring forlornly at the crystal Bond-villain drapes. A sad image evocative of my experience here. 

 Course 8: Coffee Service, 5/10

Course 8: Coffee Service, 5/10

A final dish- coffee service- is brought out, complete with gold leaf on the white-chocolate rose to remind you that this meal is not only bad but also expensive. What a strange and disappointing place. Please avoid at all costs. 

USA- Chef's Table at Brooklyn Fare- ✪✪✪

NEW YORK, NY, USA

SERVICE: 4.0/10

FOOD: 8.0/10

PRICE PAID: $275 (pre-challenge)

VALUE/MONEY: 5.0/10

FINAL SCORE: 5.0/10

I'll start this review with three of the English language's most lethally condescending words:

In Their Defense...

The Chef's Table is an extremely unique physical space. I'd like you to imagine what fine dining on a submarine might look like, and your first draft of that idea is actually just perfect. Imagine how people might move, how they might bump and sidle around each other, how they might squeeze themselves into seats and bulkheads. Now, in your imagination, also cram in a bulky Molteni stove and about 1,500 pounds of copper cookware, and you're closer.

You enter a cramped portal where a dosey-do must occur between you and the host in order to remove your jacket. Special note- try to go in the summer, or wear your least awkward coat. After removing said coat, you'll glance up to notice that no matter how many patrons, chefs, and staff members occupy the space, they are all now making direct, intimate eye contact with you. From the moment you walk in to the 6x6x6-seat "Chef's Table" area, you have the feeling that you've now entered the flight deck. Or, like I said, a submarine.

César Ramirez, a wunderkind chef who has gotten the culinary world's attention as much for his restaurant's business model as his dishes, worked his way up from a cult dining establishment to a full three Michelin stars in only a few years. He's gotten rave reviews from the Times and many others. I'll admit to having higher expectations here than most of the other restaurants I have visited.

Of special note to bloggers, writers, or others seeking to memorialize their special private dining experience - you may not. Being the obstinate fool that I am, I failed to read down to the seventh paragraph of my email confirmation, which clearly stated:

 I should have known this would be trouble...

I should have known this would be trouble...

In Their Defense, I should point out that I'm thrilled with restaurants that take a strong stance on building their guests' experiences. Over the moon, in fact, in a world of social media and (hey, the exact space this blog occupies) exploitive food photography (I shudder to say food porn). I'd like to think that there's a difference, though, between classily asking customers to refrain from photos and angrily hissing to remove my camera and notepad from the table space. An extremely awkward first interaction with the person occupying the center of that 6x6x6 space turned out to be a bad omen for the rest of the meal. He also turned out to be the waiter/runner/expo, and the only wait staff I would speak to all night besides a clueless, silly sommelier with a full page of $2,000 Romanée Conti bottles on offer. Absurd, by the way. 

I'll do my best to summarize some high points. Early courses were smallish dishes of seafood lightly prepared- Japanese big eye tuna with shiso, with a bright, shiny, herbaceous flavor. Japanese anchovies, fried fish with wasabi that had a killer kick, and then the crown jewel of the evening, by a long shot. Cooked sea urchin on a small square of toast, which tasted like pure liquid buttery goodness. The product was fresh, and had been prepared only seconds before I ate it, and it was absolutely perfect. 

The best course was, however, also an embodiment of the worst parts of the experience- that waiter/runner/expo I told you about (you'll remember, because it will be the only person you speak to) saw his role as that of some kind of perverse announcer. He would scurry back and forth in his small stainless steel pen, bringing two dishes at a time from the kitchen to the diners. He would pause with care, and place the dishes in front of his customers. Then, with a flair, he would look up with intensity, and with just the right amount of effete accent, say: "Sea Urchin. Prepared On Toast." Hold that eye contact an extra second, and then he'd vanish back across the pen to the kitchen to make a similarly dramatic pronouncement to the two people sitting less then three feet away, who had very much already heard him. It was really weird to watch this happen many times in a row for each course.

The second half of the meal was notable and fun- lamb with white asparagus that was perfectly salted and minted, shiso sorbet and milk chocolate foam that melts away as you eat for dessert, Meyer lemon and chocolate cookies. But, I never really got over how forced the behaviors were, how unpleasant this stilted environment was. As we shoved our way down the narrow hall, the second seating's guests were roughly jostling inside and throwing off their coats, I felt a wave of relief wash over me with the chilly Spring night air.