It’s been a long time since I’ve left a restaurant angry. Not just disappointed or let down but actually really pissed off. But tonight, I am. My wife and I visited a restaurant tonight that we’ve been looking forward to going to for years. It’s the favourite restaurant in Japan of my own favourite sushi chef. One of my contributors to the Chubby Hubby site raved about it in a post 3 years ago. And despite not having gone, we’ve recommended it to friends.
But as of tonight, not only will I never visit again, I’d like to recommend any friend going to Kyoto to skip Tempura Matsu. It is, based on tonight’s experience, an overpriced restaurant whose proprietors have become big-headed due to international press coverage and think it’s perfectly fine to rip off overseas customers.
We dropped almost Y40,000 tonight. At that price, plus given its reputation, I expected a meal I’d be dying to talk about, with delicious dishes whose images I’d be eager to post on Instagram. Instead, I got a meal I’m dying to talk about, but for all the wrong reasons.
Here’s my problem. Tempura Matsu serves two menus, one priced at Y10,000 and one at Y15,000. I would understand if people getting the lower priced menu felt that they were getting either less dishes or less high-quality produce compared to other patrons who opted for the higher priced menu. What I have a big, big problem with is serving drastically different menus to customers paying the same amount of money.
After we arrived, Su-Lyn and I sat down with eager anticipation. Service was dreadfully slow. We watched the couple next to us get a number of really exquisite-looking and quite creative dishes before we got our first course. Seriously, we had killed any entire flask of sake before the first course. But, from what we were seeing being served to our fellow customers, we were very excited.
Once the dinner started, however, we started to notice that the Japanese guests were getting more creative and more interesting dishes. Not that our dishes were bad. They weren’t. A few were even excellent. But as the courses progressed, and as I closely watched what our neighbours were being served and what we were being served, I began to get a little annoyed. Part of me still held out the hope that we would also be served these really exciting looking dishes. But as the night went on, I realised that we were getting the short end of the stick. The latter half of our meal especially felt very ordinary and mundane.
Our Japanese couple, for example, got a lobster bouillabaisse, with yuba and lobster meat; the live lobster had been shown to them earlier with great flourish. This was followed by a plate of uni sushi. By comparison, we got a small dish of yuba mixed with bits of scallop, and a small portion of uni on top. The couple next to us was served a gorgeous grilled whole fish, that was deconstructed – the meat was used for a sushi roll while the central bone was deep fried so it could be eaten whole. We got, as a second last savory course, a piece of tempura onion and one tempura shrimp. And, while we were getting our rather sad and small ebi tempura, other patrons were getting a wagyu steak, seared over hot stones. When, at the end of the meal, they asked if I was full, and I said, “no”, they ignored my response and listed our two possible dessert choices.
Clearly, the chef can cook. And the restaurant is capable of fantastic dishes. Past reviews from a wide range of sources testify to that. And, from what I saw, some of the dishes being created at the restaurant really seem special and look delicious. My problem is despite paying for the higher-priced menu, I didn’t get to try these dishes. I only got to watch them being served to other patrons.
The owner’s mother (her husband, the original chef-owner has recently retired) made it a point to show us Matt Goulding’s book, Rice, Noodle, Fish, in which she and her family have been prominently featured. She’s clearly very proud of the coverage her restaurant has received in this very well written guide to eating across Japan. But receiving editorial attention does not mean you can start slacking off in your duties to ensure that every customer leaves your establishment satisfied and happy.
I will admit my perspective is a little unique. I’ve been a part of the restaurant industry, so I can roughly gauge food costs. I especially have a good sense of the relative costs of ingredients, i.e. which products are cheaper and which are expensive. I’m also a keen observer of dining rooms. I naturally scan rooms and keep tabs on what different customers are eating.
My infuriating experience tonight may have been purely because of circumstance and bad choices by the chef. In an attempt to make the menus of different groups unique, the chef gave each dining group a slightly altered menu. At least half of the dishes were the same, while the rest were different. My problem is that when I compared what my wife and I were served, we definitely received cheaper ingredients, served in less creative ways. There is simply no doubt about that. Again, this could be purely coincidence — we got the crappy menu tonight while someone else got the luxe version. But if that was the case, why charge us the same amounts?
Look, I would not be so upset if we all had received the same menu. I would certainly have felt that the menu was somewhat over-priced (at least mine felt that way), but I wouldn’t have felt insulted or cheated. But because of the discrepancy in the dishes, by the end of my meal, I was angry. And yes, maybe this is just sour grapes on my part. And maybe I’m a spoiled buffoon, but I’d rather be honest than not.
At the end of the evening, when I expressed my displeasure to the chef’s sister (who had innocently asked how my meal was), she tried covering for her brother’s failures by explaining that every group had a different but equally good menu. She then asked, “didn’t you have…” naming some rather high-end ingredients… to which I said, “No, but that would have been nice!”
In the history of this site, I have never posted a negative review. I have posted one review criticising a restaurant for a dress code that made no sense. But that’s it. In fact, I made it a policy not to post negative reviews because I wanted this site to be useful. In 11 years, I have never come out and told you, my readers, to avoid a restaurant. Well, I am now going to. And that’s because this is only the second time in 15 years I have left a restaurant so angry.
So, I am now going on the record to say that Tempura Matsu is, in my opinion and my opinion alone, a waste of money. And that unless you are Japanese, you are probably going to get shafted. Given the amount of money they charge to dine at their restaurant, I’d rather you spend it somewhere else. The very thought of any of you having to sit there and watch someone else be served something that looks amazing, and then be served something ordinary and mundane, gets my blood boiling. So do me and yourself a favour and give this over-hyped restaurant a miss for now. Maybe in a few years, when the young chef learns how to treat all guests equally, it will be worth revisiting. For me, I’m going to give it a wide berth for a long time. I personally don’t feel obliged to give this guy a second chance when there are so many other awesome places to dine in Kyoto and so many other young talented chefs out there who are still waiting to be discovered.