The team behind hot spot Megu aims to do for Japanese food what Rolex did for watches.
(FORTUNE Magazine) - The Midtown Manhattan branch of Megu, set to open in April on the ground floor of the new 90-story Trump World Tower, will feature much of what you've come to expect from a celebrity chef's latest hot spot. There will be 30-foot ceilings, groovy architecture, nice views (of the neighboring United Nations), and innovative preparations of the most expensive possible ingredients, such as fish flown in from Japan and Kobe beef from Oregon.
All that's missing is the celebrity chef.
Instead, the new Megu and its downtown sibling, which opened in March 2004, are subsidiaries of a Japanese corporation with ambitions of building a global ultra-high-end restaurant brand. Under the Austin Powers-worthy name Food Scope (the "global food conglomerate"), the company aims to do for Japanese haute cuisine what Starbucks did for lattes and Rolex for watches: Charge previously unimaginable sums for a precisely calibrated product sold across the globe.
Not that one detects any of this on a visit to the downtown Megu. A card folded into your napkin welcomes you on behalf of "owner chef/creator" Koji Imai. Imai did in fact create the menu, he founded Food Scope, and he owns a minority stake in the company. But the 37-year-old is not a celebrity, not even back home in Japan, and he doesn't really consider himself a chef.
For most of the 1990s, Imai operated a tiny bar in Tokyo where he also sometimes served meals. In 1998 he opened his first real restaurant, a yakitori joint where chicken is grilled on skewers. Imai wanted the chicken he grilled to be especially tasty, and settled on a particular breed raised 300 miles north of Tokyo. He locked up supply contracts with a few farmers, and began grilling. Last year I visited the original Imaiya restaurant, on a side street near the Ebisu train station in Tokyo, and can confirm that the chicken is seriously good.
Not long after the restaurant opened, a former boss of Imai's stopped by and tasted opportunity. This was Masahiro Origuchi, now 44, who left a corporate job in the early 1990s to start a now-legendary disco called Juliana's Tokyo, then moved on to business triumphs in temp services and home health care. (His publicly traded Goodwill Group now has annual sales of about $1.7 billion.) Origuchi pushed Imai, who had worked at Juliana's as a sort of VIP wrangler, to let him put his money and his business savvy to work building a restaurant juggernaut. After resisting for a few years, Imai let Origuchi buy a majority stake. Food Scope now operates 28 restaurants in Japan; in January it became a subsidiary of Goodwill.
Origuchi says that in every business he's entered he has found a crucial point that most overlook. What is that point in the restaurant business? "Very tasty, that is the point," says Origuchi, leaning across a conference room table at Goodwill's elegant offices in the Roppongi Hills Mori Tower in Tokyo. "You must stick with that, even if the ingredients are very expensive.... Mr. Imai is really understanding that. Sometimes too much."
Imai spends much of his time scouring Japan and, increasingly, the U.S., in search of farmers and fishermen who meet his exacting standards. He concocts dishes in his Tokyo apartment, tests them out in his restaurants, then leaves instructions that those who work in his kitchens follow to the milligram. Every night before dinner at the downtown Megu, the chefs are expected to recite, in Japanese, a chant that concludes, "Never compromise in the greatest dishes for our guests!"
Imai also doesn't compromise on decor, hiring designer Yasumichi Morita to do up the New York Megus in extravagant fashion. The upshot, says Donald Trump, a fan of the first Megu and landlord of the second, is that "they have the best food, and at the same time they have the best architecture." Trump is thinking of putting Megu in the 64-story tower he's building in Las Vegas, and there are plans to open Megus in Hong Kong and London in 2007. Dubai and Shanghai are the likeliest candidates after that.
The name "Megu," which means "blessing," was chosen in conscious imitation of the restaurant's famous downtown neighbor, Nobu. But while diners on three continents have proved willing to pay dearly for food touched at least in theory by chef Nobu Matsuhisa's culinary genius, will they do the same for Food Scope's deliberately corporate fare? The early evidence from New York is, probably. Dinner for two can easily top $400 at the downtown Megu (one Kobe beef entree alone costs $180), yet the restaurant keeps filling its 236 seats--although reservations aren't hard to get. Reviewers have taken issue with the prices and Disneylandish feel, but they invariably praise the food itself. Besides, the target audience isn't so much foodies as people with money to burn: business moguls, entertainers (Tom Cruise likes the Kobe beef with wasabi, Imai says), international men of mystery. With customers like those, who needs a celebrity chef?
Looking for an authentic meal? Several Japan-based restaurant companies are expanding aggressively in the U.S.--though only Megu's parent, Food Scope, is targeting the ultra-high-end.
By Kate Bonamici
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