Thought I would dutifully report back on my first trip to Nara's this Saturday night:
We arrived without reservations about 7:30 pm, the place was already hopping and were told we would have a 45 minute wait. No problem, we walked right up to the bar and ordered our first bottle of sake to share. We were seated in about 20 minutes . . .NICE!
We looked around while we were waiting we noticed several things:
1) This restaurant location, decor and vibe is modern Black Bamboo Asian-inspired but the exposed brick walls and tall windows make it feel more relaxed, like you are at someone's home attending a cocktail party. Nara's bringing sexy BAAAACK!
2) It is as close to NYC dining experience as we have in KC at the moment. If you don't agree, just go to the bathroom at Nara. I thought the bathrooms were way cool, but some of the other women were unnerved. Welcome to KC . . .NYC!
3) Nara has a groovy patio area that will rock once Spring and Summer hit.
4) The crowd was definately a 30's something crowd. (I must have sang the words to every song they were playing from the greatest dance hits of the 80-90's.) "You asked if I loved you . . .what could I say . . .you know that I do and that this is just one of those games that we play."
5) Local celebrities were even spotted on my first visit . . .Tony Gonzales, KC Chief's player and his gorgeous significant other sat right across from us enjoying a cozy dinner for two.
6) The cocktail seating area at the front of the building is small, but will probably be a hit with the 20 somethings. It does take advantage of the city street views, but I really don't prefer to sit on cocktail couches with my knee caps touching the strangers sitting across from me. Well, unless that stranger is tall, dark and handsome . . .then that's another story. However, a Cosmo spilled in my lap from the teetering drunk girl in the high heels as she tries to dive for that last cocktail cushion is not my idea of an enjoyable night out. Sit at the bar if you are over 30, trust me.
7) We also noticed that there were lots of people in groups and not a lot of 2 top tables. If you wanted single seating they did have a sushi bar that you could easily sit around if you were dining alone or with one other friend.
They have a nice selection of sake's to choose from both of the warm and cold variety and some interesting specialty cocktails on their menu as well. The Saketini was awfully tempting but we chose to stick with our bottled sake. The sake glassware used was beautiful, but done by a completely swamped, out of both breath and patience bartender. Not exactly done with the amount of ceremony or service we hoped for.
This was interesting . . .because when it was good it was really good . . .but when it was bad it was just WRONG! The staff managing the front door (Manager, I'm sure.) really did a terrific job and hit the right welcoming tone . . .the servers were all well trained, knew their menu and were appropriately low key. However, once our order was placed we never saw our waitress ever again. The back of the house produced dishes in random order with our appetizer dish being served dead last. Still working out the operational kinks at Nara. We ordered some sushi and when we finally flagged down someone to bring us some soy sauce we found ourselves sharing it with the tables around us. Seems we had stumbled across and were apparently hogging that rare and beautiful creature known as "the only bottle of soy juice in the joint". Priceless!
I know many of you may disagree . . .but I was utterly and completely NOT impressed with anything on Nara's menu food-wise . . . except for the two perfect pieces of Bluefin Tuna sushi (only available on Fridays and Saturdays), which were of the best quality. That's it! We did a nice sampling to try to get a feel for the place and ended up with nothing worth the $100 we spent including drinks.
Here's what we ordered:
Appetizer - Nara Gravlax - soy-ginger, jalapeno, cilantro cured raw slices of salmon with a fresh vegetable Asian slaw and two wide mushroom chopsticks. $9
Sushi (2 pieces per order) - Ahi Tuna, Bluefin Tuna, Fatty Tuna, Freshwater Eel, Shrimp, Red Snapper $33
Robata Yaki Gyu - Chimichurri-spiced sirloin, green onion and teriyaki sauce. $8
Wakko Noodles - (House recommended) Spicy coconut, pineapple, lemongreass, Pearl sake and red curry broth with vegetables, tofu and vermicelli noodles. $9
After being so uninspired by the meal . . .we left and went someplace else for dessert. How sad!
One final word on this famous Robata Menu of Nara's . . .I was under the impression that this Robata style of dining is what Nara has that makes them different from other Japanese restaurants in town. I assumed there would be some presentation to it, some seeing of this famous clay grill it is cooked on . . .I expected it to be a more of a show when it came out to the table. Perhaps some interpretive ancient Asian dance done as it is being served to me . . .
In place of that imagined tribal fire experience, we were served our Robata dish FIRST. It was plopped onto our table after being autioned off to us by the server like a cheesburger at Denny's. It was the saddest excuse of a plate presentation I had ever seen. It was served on a white square dish with two wooden skewers of about 4-5 pieces of beef chunks per stick and a few wilted pieces of cilantro for garnish. The meat was room temperature and it came with no sauce on it what so ever, and it was a bit tough to chew after all of that.
Will we go back, you ask . . .yes, probably with a big group of friends more interested in drinking than eating. I know once the construction is complete this place will do well with the business crowd for lunch . . .but I would recommend this place for drinks, not dinner.
It seems the atmosphere at Nara's is "too sexy" for it's food, afterall.
Reading this made me chuckle a bit, as I had a similar Nara expierience w/co-workers last week. All we really wanted was a dang bottle of soy sauce for the table to share. After requesting twice, the very snotty waiter told me, "We aren't allowed to leave the bottle. We believe it cheapens the table." HA!
After he walked away, I noticed my stainless steel table had scratch marks and dings all over it...talk about cheapening...or I guess that's just the "urban chic" look. Blah...
You know, that sounds about par for the course (the service response with the soy sauce) with new "concept" restaurants. A similar problem occured with Japengo years ago (now Baja 600). The concept didn't have enough flexibility to match the diners. Servers need to be trained to respond in a SIMPLE way, which is to bring the soy sauce (or the ketchup, god forbid), if that is what the customer wants.
It isn't easy, however, being a server in a new, high concept restaurant. Expectations are high from both sides. I would definitely give this restaurant another chance, considering very few number of good Japanese style dining experiences in KC. They need to step up their game in the food department. The food can't be reduced to "snack food" after a few drinks, as you say.
Bossy, There are other good Japanese dining experiences here. Maybe not in KC proper, but I've had good meals at Kaiyo, Izumi, Sushi House, and heard good things about Jun's and Cafe Beautiful in Lawrence. They all do a good job--well prepared, well timed food and service, and always gracious and friendly. There's no reason to put up with snotty service, bad food, and poor timing at Nara. I've chalked it up to a place for drinks, period, from what I've heard.
Let's add to that list Domo's that recently opened up in Brookside (by the way everyone MUST go to Cafe Beautiful in Lawrence, unbelievable food/service and atmosphere, worth the drive).
I think you both make excellent points. And I think regardless of what you hear or read about a restaurant, you must go and experience it yourself to know if it is a winner for you. One man's, or in this case wonan's, trash is another's treasure.
Bossy girl is right training servers is a tough gig, and turn-over is constant so it is ongoing. Even if the "concept" doesn't like the look of clutter on the table with soy sauce, then the procedure should be to serve it with the food once goes to the table only to be pick back up from the table once the dishes are cleared. This allows the guest to enjoy it on the table as long as they need it. It would be like serving french fries and not allowing the ketchup to come to the table and stay as long as the guest wanted it. In the case of service and preferences the right answer is always what the guest wants.
To Amyzan's point, people vote with their wallets. No need to put up with snotty service, poor operations and bad food just because the place is cool. I am always interested in the logic the food critics use with "we will try each restaurant we review at least three times in order to be fair" . . .the hard cold truth is the guest will come and try your new place once, before they pass judgement on whether they will return. If there is nothing of interest, merit or desire in the experience to want to repeat it they will simply not return. I content with people watching their wallets, new restaurants basically get one shot to get it right. You both are right, a restaurant as expensive to open as Nara's is going to have to figure out how to be more than drinks and apps . . .or they won't make it. Just my two cents.
I would definitely give Nara a try, when I'm going out for drinks. I won't be going for a meal, as there's clearly no point at this time. I only hope that's rectified in the future.
BTW, I wonder about the soy sauce if they're using high quality shoyu, and the expense might be a consideration along with the "concept?"
Funny you should say that . . .I was thinking the same thing when I had dinner there . . .I thought guess they didn't get enough soy sauce in time for opening, so they "dreamed" up this fantastic reason of not wanting it to clutter up the table to cover up their ordering mistake or the fact they did want to spend the money. Ha! Great minds think alike.