After so many years of a trend leading away from fine dining and toward more casual, even quick-service, restaurants, it’s nice to see some more upscale restaurants come online recently. And Walt Disney World is responsible for a few of them, notably Toledo at the Gran Destino Tower at Coronado Springs Resort and the just-opened Topolino at the Riviera Resort.
Add Takumi-tei to that list. Opened in July, this elegant dinner-only occupies a previously under utilized space at the Japan pavilion in Epcot. As with the other restaurants at the pavilion, Takumi-tei is operated by Mitsukoshi, the Tokyo-based department store.
The name is a reference to artisans, and each room inside restaurant is dedicated to a natural element: wood, water, stone, earth and washi paper. The appointments in each room – artistic wallhangings accented with lighting; the napkins folded to resemble robes; chopsticks resting on smooth stones; and the meticulous brocade designs on the upholstered seat backs – are impressively detailed. There are no windows to the outside, so you can immerse yourself in the surroundings and enjoy the fastidious service from the traditionally costumed servers and quite forget that you’re at a theme park. (Just ignore the Disney standard-issue name tags on the servers’ kimonos and your fellow diners in shorts and t-shirts.)
There are three dining experiences available at Takumi-tei. You may opt for the a la carte menu, choosing appetizers, sushi rolls and entrees of meat, seafood or duck. Three of the four appetizers are priced over $20 and entrees range from $44 to $120, the latter for A-5 grade wagyu. Or you may choose the omakase, a seven-course tasting menu of chef recommendations, priced “starting at” $150 per person with wine and sake pairings an additional $75.
But it’s the kaiseki chef’s table that is being touted as the ultimate dining experience at Takumi-tei. Indeed, kaiseki, or kaiseki ryori, is the Japanese equivalent of haute cuisine. Here it’s a nine-course dinner served in a private room for up to eight people. (It’s priced at $200 per person plus $100 for sake and wine pairings.)
Kaiseki and omakase aren’t the same. With omakase shimasu, which translates to “I trust you,” the chef presents a series of dishes for the guests based on his or her whim. Kaiseki is more structured, detailed and intricate. It’s as much about presentation and ceremony as it is with the food, which is usually determined by seasonality. If I were to compare it to something it would be the chef’s table at Victoria & Albert’s, also at Disney, in the Grand Floridian Resort & Spa.
I was invited recently to experience the kaiseki at Takumi-tei as part of a media dinner. And I found myself simultaneously overwhelmed and underwhelmed. Each dish was beautifully prepared and painstakingly presented on an array of stylish plates and platters. The food stimulated all the senses, and the service was precise and accommodating.
Kaiseki is served in the Water Room, a small private space with a stone waterfall at one end and a stone-based, resin-topped table with a tableaux of rose petals in a stream. There are no windows – you’re not even aware of other diners in the restaurant – so it’s not a space for the claustrophobic. Nor, with the constant tinkling of the waterfall, for the easily susceptible incontinent.
And the dinner could make the slow-food movement look like a bullet train. My fellow kaisekites and I gathered at the restaurant at 6:30 p.m. I made it back to my car just before 11 o’clock, walking through the by-then dark and eerily empty Epcot.
There were long lulls between courses, none of which took much time to complete, with little distractions to amuse ourselves. With a conventional chef’s table, there is usually the kitchen goings-on to watch. Not here. Even with amiable and engaging tablemates such as I had, one eventually runs out of conversation.
Are these the niggles of a jaded critic? Perhaps. Others may find all of this charming and desirable. We won’t disagree on the quality of the food.
Each course was presented and explained by the Tyler Schmitt, Takumi-tei’s chef, a soft-spoken native of Buffalo, New York. Garin Williamson, the restaurant’s manager, presented the pairings. Otherwise we were well served by one of the young cast members, a native of Japan.
We started with an otoshi – the Japanese equivalent of an amuse bouche – of a cucumber slice topped with a bit of salmon and roe.
The only roll we were served was the Mozaiku Roll, an impressive conglomeration of tuna and yellowfin with tobiko and red shiso rice. If you find yourself wondering how a checkerboard cake is made, this construction will confound you. It was served with a lemongrass ponzu foam.
Next was Hama no Kani, snow crab claw dressed with ponzu, a small one-bite toasted crab (shell and all), frisee dressed with leek gel, watermelon radish. It was served on a clear-glass spherioidal plate filled with gravel. (Representing earth or stone or both.)
Ochazuke was seabass served with some more of the red shiso rice topped with toasted nori. Shimeji mushroom cooked in soy and pickled daikon were also in the ultra wide-brimmed bowl. To complete the dish, the server poured a matcha tinged bonito based broth over the fish. The seabass, which was carefully sliced for easy chopsticking, had been marinated in a broth made with its own bones, and a bit of its skin was also used to complete the dish.
Kamo consisted of marinated duck seasoned with salt-cured duck egg yolk. Fresh black grapes and edamame decorated the plate. It was served under a smoke-filled glass cloche.
Following a tart palate cleanser, we were served Wagyu Tabekurabe, which means comparison, It featured two types of wagyu: actual Japanese A-5 wagyu strip steak, pictured on right above, and an American version. Had we only been served the American wagyu, we might have thought it to be one of the finest steaks we’d had in a long time. Next to the Japanese A-5 grade, it was obviously inferior. The tabekurabe will not have you shouting, “U.S.A., U.S.A.!” The plates for this course resembled iceberg platforms, the meat on one and the accompaniments – roasted cippolini onions, curried potatoes, hedgehog mushrooms, yuzu kosho of spiced rind, and a saucy paste made by reducing arima sansho peppers.
Castella cake, the dessert, was topped with honey meringue and sat in a honey caramel sauce dotted with bits of sesame brittle.
As with a traditional kaiseki, a tea service was offered at the end of the meal. As one of the young women explained, there are more than a thousand steps to preparing a traditional tea, but we were offered a shortened version (to our relief). It involved placing a small amount of matcha tea powder in an earthenware cup, adding hot water and then using a bamboo whisk to blend it.
Keep in mind that in addition to the $200 cost (plus tax and gratuity), admission to the park is required, so add at least $109. Plus parking. (Attendees of the media dinner were also provided entry to the park.)
Takumi-tei is in the Japan pavilion at Epcot. It is open for dinner daily. Reservations for the kaiseki menu must be made 24 hours in advance. The phone number is 407-827-8504.
An earlier version of this review misidentified the manager of Takumi-tei. He is Garin Williamson.