Feb 18, 2015

ANA x Noma Japan

They say it doesn't snow very often in Tokyo. But on the day of our lunch at Noma at the Mandarin Oriental, it was coming down hard and the view from the 37th floor was all that much more magical. I'm among this lucky group of diners thanks to the partnership between ANA and Noma and the larger ANA By Design campaign. It's hard to write about Noma (you know, the No. 1 restaurant in the world) in a way that doesn't feel trite, and having not been to Noma Copenhagen, I'm lacking a bit of context for this meal. But what I can say for certain is that I've never had so many unfamiliar tastes and textures in a single meal as I had with this one. Every bite was a surprise and a learning experience. Maybe that says more about my inexperienced palate (which I didn't realize was so inexperienced until this meal) than it does about Rene Redzepi's food; but in any case, when your meal starts off with a freshly-killed Hokkaido shrimp jumping off your plate onto the floor, there's a high level of novelty involved.

"This one is a little less athletic," the server jokes as she puts down a new shrimp for me. Luckily, I had no more runaway dishes for the rest of the meal. If I were to write about every course, this would quickly become a dissertation, so I'll only point out a few highlights (though, that's a bit hard when everything feels like a highlight). Even the first dish, the unripe strawberries with sake lees, comes with this great story of how Rene and Lars (head of R&D) had to negotiate for 7 hours with this passionate strawberry producer who refused to sell his white strawberries because he spent his whole life perfecting his red strawberries. Later in a conversation with Rene, he notes how people here [in Japan] are reaching for the sublime and they respect it so tremendously.

The main inspiration for how they organized the flavors of the menu was based on shōjin ryōri, or traditional temple cuisine. There is a focus on vegetables, which is always welcome in a long tasting like this. Some of my favorite dishes included the tofu steamed with wild walnuts, the pumpkin with cherry wood oil and salted cherry blossoms, and a turnip cooked in shiitake mushrooms with roasted yeast broth. Another surprising dish was the aerated scallop (that looked nothing that like scallops I've known and had) which was dried for two days and served with beech nuts and kelp. Talk about umami. Our rice dish (traditional at the end of kaiseki) came in the unexpected form of dessert: rice crisps with sake ice cream.

We had a chance to chat with Rene during a little tour of the kitchen (where we watched ants being cut into thirds). We talk about how easy it is to fall in love with Tokyo, how the best things are here but it's not too pretty and has a gritty undercurrent; how everything has meaning here and how it's been amazing to be part of a culture like that; how the concept of Omotenashi - an inner desire to perform an altruistic task but never expect anything back - is so prevalent in everything here .

Fueled to go back to work [in Copenhagen], Rene says he can't see them not doing something like this again – "It was a really a life experience that makes not only our restaurant better, but us happier."

Disclosure: This post was created in partnership with ANA - All Nippon Airways. All opinions expressed in the post are my own and not those of ANA.

Feb 12, 2015

The ANA Flight Experience

Any time flight hour times climb into the double digits, I feel an extra bit of dread and anxiety. You might not know it, but flying still makes me unreasonably nervous, no matter how many flights I've taken. A frequent flyer I once chatted with said she looked forward to flying and it actually became fun once she was at a status level where she was almost always upgraded. I never knew that feeling. Over the past year, I've gotten a little more "indulgent" with my flying behavior, paying a bit extra here and there for slightly more leg room or for earlier boarding in economy. So flying to Tokyo in business class with ANA was a rather novel experience for me (please don't take the following to be a review of any kind as I'm certainly not qualified for that!).

Everything about it made me pretty giddy. ANA's attention to detail is apparent throughout the experience. Even something as simple as a bathroom sink with an automatic faucet had me wondering why all airplane bathrooms don't have this. ANA has even created an app to help anxious travelers (like myself) distract themselves during take-off (usually the most anxious moment during a flight). It's a soothing game that's easy enough to get lost in. I was a little skeptical at first but the next thing I knew I was trying to beat my high score and we were off in the air.

There's a good amount of privacy for each passenger, thanks to the staggered seating arrangement. I was in a middle aisle seat on the way there and a glorious window seat on the way back. Behind a little compartment under the media player, there are power outlets and USB chargers in every seat. I loved having a roomy side table for everything I wanted easy access to. The flight attendants could not have been more friendly or attentive.

During the flight, the galley area is stocked with newspapers/magazines, snacks, water, and toiletries such as face and hand cream (such a lifesaver) and toothbrushes. A bowl of Ippudo ramen (!!), along with a number of other snacks, is available as you wish throughout the flight. (Not that I was hungry to begin with after snacking on all the onigiri options in the ANA lounge.) For proper meals, there's a choice between a Japanese menu and an International menu, though I'm sure if you wanted to cobble bits from each one, you could easily do so. ANA really prides itself on its in-flight food and beverage menu and rightfully so -- it was the first time I can actually remember enjoying airplane food.

I could have had a nice nap in the fully lay-flat seats and add-on seat padding, but I was too engrossed in my books. (Side note: it's been a while since I've been this taken by a book – Dept. of Speculation had me in tears by page 13. I still keep the book near me and keep returning to certain phrases. Highly recommend for a read that will linger with you. On the way back I finally read Gone Girl to see what the fuss was all about.) I also appreciated that ANA didn't make their cabin a refrigerator like many airlines do. I was comfortable throughout and the light quilt was perfect. If the flight had been another six hours, I would have said 'bring it on.'

Disclosure: This post was created in partnership with ANA - All Nippon Airways. All opinions expressed in the post are my own and not those of ANA.