Dave Perry: Food critics need to look beyond central Tokyo

Dave Perry: Food critics need to look beyond central Tokyo

Why Michelin and its ilk aren’t the sole arbiters of good taste in Japanese dining

In 2008 Michelin awarded a total of 191 of its coveted stars to Tokyo restaurants, confirming the status of Japan’s capital as a dining nirvana.

The city has consistently displaced the once mighty Paris as the culinary capital of the world ever since, racking up 331 stars in the recently released 2012 guide.

Critics, writers and bloggers have all played their part in maintaining the litany of praise.

English-language commentators should also broaden their horizons.

After all, Tokyo is really a collection of villages sharing a concrete veneer that, thankfully, has failed to completely obliterate the individual charms of myriad neighborhoods and the multitude of dining experiences they provide.

It seems a shame that so many with something to say should stay so focused within the green delimitation of the Yamanote Line.

For serious diners

Michelin's “Tokyo Yokohama Shonan 2012” guide, for example, covered 247 establishments within the 23 wards, approximately 65 percent of which were safely nestled in Tokyo's apparent gastronomic inner sanctum.

To be fair, Michelin’s judges award only a certain kind of restaurant, most of which are more likely to be centered around the heart of the city and in close proximity to the fattest purses.

This, of course, makes perfect sense. “Being inside, you’re assured a very regular, affluent kind of clientele,” explains Marcus Yip, owner-chef at 148 Hiroo, a centrally located restaurant with a wine-inspired Australian-Asian fusion menu.

The “Zagat Tokyo Restaurants 2009” guide, which one would assume targets a somewhat wider range of budgets among its audience, shows a similar bias; only one in six establishments covered were (more or less) outside the Yamanote loop.

Restaurant guides are arguably intended for the more serious diner, but they are not the only culprits.

Location, location, location

Around 75 percent of the restaurants featured in the 11th “Frommer’s Tokyo” travel guide are also inner-Yamanote.

“In choosing my restaurants, the overriding decision is location,” points out Frommer’s Tokyo author, Beth Reiber. “They should be in places visitors are most likely to already be, whether that's because of hotels, sights, shopping or neighborhoods,”

Space considerations, especially when writing a comprehensive guide to a city on the scale of Tokyo, also play a part in the selection of restaurants, although Reiber has at times looked further afield.

“I did try to include a chanko nabe restaurant in Ryogoku a couple of years back, but the establishment was less than friendly and turned me away,” she says.

More on CNNGo: Tokyo regains Michelin title as world food champ

It’s a sentiment Marcus Yip shares: “The people writing guides and so on, they’re going to take the location into consideration. It’s like a pie ... part of it’s food, service and ambience and part of it’s location ... but in Tokyo, because of its size and density, location takes more of that pie.”

Guide writers are not alone in their proclivity for central dining spots. Prior to the decade or so at his current location, Yip himself decided to set up shop beyond the Yamanote line.

“My first restaurant, out near Tsukiji, was in the wrong location. It was outside the circle, in a fish market area. Who could you expect to come and eat fusion food there?”

Going digital

Maybe so, but the Internet has provided exposure to lower-rent establishments, and in doing so has done much to level the playing field, while also allowing diners instant access to the opinions and recommendations of their fellows.

Tokyo Food Page -- a primarily English language website that has admittedly done a sterling job of accounting for a bevy of dining spots -- lists more than 1,700 establishments within the 23 wards and outlying cities (such as Musashino-shi). Still, roughly two-thirds of them are located within the Yamanote Line.

Undaunted, why not consider local food blogs?

By their very nature they tend to offer a more diverse, eclectic and personal take on the Tokyo dining scene. They might also have a more expansive geographical outlook.

In the four years that Tokyo's (and most likely Japan's) most prolific English-language food blogger, Jon Mollenhauer, cataloged his eating habits, he racked up well over 1,300 blog posts; a Herculean achievement.

And yet, despite displaying a healthy interest in the further reaches of the city’s dining landscape, roughly two-thirds of those posts (give or take the odd guitar shop) remained focused on "central" Tokyo.

Fair enough. The inner city offers a great diversity of styles and cuisines, covering the whole gamut of qualities and budgets. Enough to wreck havoc upon the waistline for a lifetime.

Indeed, why bother looking further?

Suburbia

Although far from underreported, immensely popular locations (always high on the annual rankings of Tokyo's most desirable residential areas), and their respective dining scenes, can be found just a short distance beyond the Yamanote.

Nakameguro has received plenty of attention in recent years and it’s hardly a secret that, of all the quality restaurants it boasts, Kushiwakamaru has served up unswervingly superb yakitori for decades.

More on CNNGo: Our favorite Tokyo izakaya

The formula for success -- incredibly delicious and reasonably priced cuisine -- seems so effortless that it begs the question, “why aren’t they all doing it?” 

Trundle a little further down the Toyoko Line to Jiyugaoka, and dining cheek-to-cheek with Katoriya’s mostly inebriated, convivial patrons on lovingly grilled morsels of skewered chicken is also an unforgettable, although somewhat different, experience.

What of Nakano? Hardly remote, but after walking the warren of side streets and alleyways on the north side of the station on a cold winter’s night, there’s nothing more welcoming than the robata-grilled fish and cozy confines of Okajoki.

Changing

Outer-Yamanote dining isn’t just about nostalgia and “tradition.”

Kichijoji, itself fast becoming an urban center, once brought to mind Iseya’s smoky decrepitude and balmy summer evenings overlooking the park from Peppermint Café. These days, the string of red-lanterned Mishima bars, tapas joints and hole-in-the-wall izakaya are reinvigorating the neighborhood and setting a new tone.

Shimo-Kitazawa, despite the relentless and sadly misguided designs of Setagaya Ward's urban planners, remains (for now at least) a pseudo-bohemian enclave amidst a swathe of gentrification.

And yet, allowing for some unforgivable casualties along the way (memories of long liquid-lunches at the venerated jazz-café Masako bring a tear to the eye), encroaching refinements mix with the unpolished leftovers of a bygone era to create a vibrant dining destination. 

Indeed, some of Shimo-Kita’s indigenous establishments, such as those under the Jackpot banner, are in such rude health that they’ve succeeded in branching out to become mini-chains in their own right, with their izakaya popping up in more central locations.

The periphery

Musashi Koyama’s Honoka and Gyutaro exemplify different ends of the izakaya scale. The quiet self-assurance and considered approach of the former’s menu -- the pork cutlets are a revelation -- set in stark contrast to the proletarian prices and bubbling cauldron of nikomi at the latter.

For those craving a taste of the shitamachi, eating some the city’s freshest, most dynamic cuts of sashimi in monastic silence at Monzennakacho’s Uosan is an almost religious experience.

Schlepping over to Oyama to sample Manakamana’s delicious Nepalese dishes sheds light on the abundance of quality outer-Yamanote “ethnic” cuisine.

Such restaurants actually seem wasted in such locations. Stick them somewhere “cool” such as Jingumae, let’s say, and they’d be goldmines.

And for the more intrepid? The wilds of Akabane, brusque service and long, patient queues of regular customers shouldn’t deter a visit to Marumasuya. The opportunity to breakfast on grilled eel and fresh carp, accompanied by hefty beers, is a wondrous thing.

One of many that make a persuasive argument for dining beyond the Yamanote Line.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dave Perry.

 Where are your suburban Tokyo favorites? Share the love in the comments.

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