Food & Drink: House of Culinary Art
Takumi-Tei, the new entry at Epcot’s Japan Pavilion, dazzles with pricey high-end dining that is a feast for the senses.
Editor’s note: Takumi-Tei, as well as the entire Walt Disney World Resort, remains temporarily closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Amid the abundance of eateries inside the confines of Disney World theme parks, a few (Le Cellier Steakhouse and Monsieur Paul come to mind) can be considered fine dining experiences. But it takes daring to construct a new restaurant, inside an attraction already tagged with high entrance prices, and offer a $300-plus chef’s table option. Which is what Takumi-Tei, the new space within the Japan Pavilion at Epcot, has done. Fortunately, from atmosphere to service to the dazzling work of Chef Tyler Schmitt, it is warranted and welcome.
“I went to a culinary high school,” Schmitt says of his childhood in Buffalo, N.Y. “Students would cook and serve lunch to anyone who came in from the public, and to other students. It gave me a great foundation for my career.”
He came to Orlando to work at Victoria & Albert’s and Disney’s Jiko. He spent his off-hours haunting area kitchens in an unpaid internship tradition called stage (prononounced staahj), learning techniques at The Ravenous Pig and others. “Just me, a bag of knives and a borrowed car.” He progressed to Roy’s and the high-end Vergina, both in Naples. Then came Takumi-Tei.
Schmitt is a storyteller, and sees each ingredient, even the plates and use of aromas, as integral to the tale of Takumi-Tei. Japanese food has a history of adapting other sources: rice, ramen and soybeans (and chopsticks) from China; tempura, spices and sugar from Portugal; beef from the West. Schmitt studies traditional dishes and, as he says, “within that box, we can expand.” Reflecting on his own history, he says, “What I’m doing here is a biography of where I’m from. I’m able to interpret cuisine and execute it respectfully.”
Operated by the almost 400-year-old Mitsukoshi corporation that runs department stores, the gift shop at Epcot, and the seven restaurants within the Japan Pavilion, Takumi-Tei means “house of the artisan,” and art it is. Each of the five stylized rooms are shaped by natural elements: wood, earth, stone, paper and water, reflected in the décor and artwork that echo the simplicity of Japanese culture. Panels of hand-printed rice paper; an indoor waterfall; wall-hung Japanese sand gardens; layered and variegated wood sculptures—all add to an atmosphere that feels crafted and genuine. Each area is for general dining in various configurations, save one.
The Water Room is the chef’s table (presided over by the Chef himself), a “kaiseki-ryōri,” a three-hour, multi-course display of culinary prowess that ends in the fabled tea ceremony. “What we present is an abbreviated version,” Schmitt says of tea. “There can be hundreds of steps. But I still get affected by seeing it performed.” Reservations are made directly to the restaurant instead of through Disney Dining, and are usually for six to eight people exclusively of one party. Return guests are recognized and pampered. “Not one person will have the same meal twice,” Schmitt says.
Consider Schmitt’s economy and symmetry, a meditation on sympathetic flavors. He’ll take the fatty caps of prized Wagyu beef, both Japanese and American, render and use it to cook the tender steak itself, and then to temper a spicy and sweet arima sansho pepper sauce that is cooked for more than a day. Sea bass is, in his own words, “marinated in itself, then seasoned with itself” with a broth made from the fish and flavored with the crisped skin.
Kamo duck ($46) is a symphony of pairing, the breast smoked in green tea leaves and seasoned with salt-cured duck egg yolk, kabocha squash set on a squash puree, halved grapes atop a grape reduction. In the Water Room, the dish is presented under smoked-filled glass cloche and released to the room (plating and presentation is more elaborate at the chef’s table). The tea leaves are made into a signature dessert, hojicha-infused custard for Castella honey cake, another Portuguese legacy.
In the nearby gift shop, next to Hello Kitty purses and Pokemon toys, are thumbnail-sized tamagogani, a shell-on dried hermit crab bar snack, coated in sugar, soy sauce, and mirin, and featured in the Water Room-only Hama No Kani (“crabs on the beach”). Impressively offered on a flattened glass terrarium of sand and shells is Alaskan snow crab, frisée dressed with leek gel, and those crunchy crabs, which should be bravely eaten with each ingredient.
Epcot’s Japan Pavilion
1510 Avenue of the Stars
407-WDW-DINE; Water Room dining, call directly at 407-827-8504.
At the high end is Japanese A-5 Wagyu beef, served as a “Cattleman’s Harvest” (Ushikai no Shukaku; $115). The exquisitely tender ribeye lives up to its reputation, complemented by roasted potato, charred cippolini onion and a smattering of local baby shiitake mushroom. The Water Room presentation contrasts Japanese wagyu with American from Jackman Farms in Clewiston, Fla. While the local kobe is a great cut, the comparison only emphasizes how good Japanese beef can be.
Yes, there is sushi, epitomized by mozaiku (mosaic) roll ($22), a stained-glass creation of bluefin tuna, hamachi yellowtail, asparagus, jewel-like tobiko fish roe, red shiso and white rice, and a lemongrass ponzu foam. Takumi sashimi ($40) is simple and beautiful, redefining the term “sushi grade fish”: a painter’s palette of maguro and toro tuna, salmon, hamachi, uni and salmon roe.
By reaching for the top of culinary excellence within the gates of Epcot, Takumi-Tei could set an example that other in-park restaurants can follow. The artisans in the kitchen have a lofty but simple goal.
“We want to give our guests a unique experience if they have no idea what to expect,” Schmitt says, “and go beyond their expectations if they do.”
Difficult to do, unless you’re as talented as Tyler Schmitt.
A Pricey Affair
Takumi-Tei’s menu ranges from $10-$30 for starters, $10-$40 sushi, and $42-$120 entrees. An omakase tasting is $130. Dinner in the 8-seat private Water Room is a 9-course, $200 experience, plus $100 for beverage pairings. And park entrance. Hungry Florida residents might consider Epcot’s After 4 Annual Pass for $309, which includes parking (saving about $9,000 if you go every night).