Tokyo 2012 ultimate dining guide
“I have a little challenge for you,” my editor began, employing the disingenuous tone of an adult trying to convince an eight-year-old that math homework is fun. “I want you to put together a food guide that would reflect what it’s like to eat in Tokyo right now, in 2012.”
I blinked, wondering where to begin. With literally tens of thousands of places to choose from, Tokyo is a food lover’s paradise, and composing a shortlist of restaurants is more than "a little challenge."
These days, the city offers a mind-blowing array of options -- from traditional favorites like sushi and tempura to creative, cutting-edge cuisine that’s hard to categorize.
You can find just about anything your heart (and stomach) desires, which is exactly why I love eating in Tokyo, even if it makes my job harder.
Ramen: Chabuya and Chabuya Zutto
For a lot of Tokyoites, ramen is the epitome of cheap, fast food -- a simple bowl of noodles to be slurped down in a matter of minutes during lunchtime or after a long night of carousing.
Not so, says ramen mogul Yasuji Morizumi, who has made it his life’s mission to elevate the humble dish to gourmet status.
The 43-year-old chef spent 10 years working at a French restaurant before going into the ramen business, and his training shows in the classic ramen served at Cabuya in Bunkyo Ward and the modern ramen dishes served at Chabuya Zutto in Yotsuya.
Chabuya Zutto’s shoyu ramen manages to be both original and comfortingly familiar. Served without soup, beneath thick slices of buttery roasted pork belly, the noodles are bathed in an umami-rich concentrate of soy sauce, broth and oyster essence from Piedmont, Italy.
Morizumi is a stickler for texture, and his ramen noodles have the satisfying, chewy consistency of al dente pasta. In preparing the dough, the chef measures the temperature of the flour and the amount of water according to the humidity and weather every day.
It’s a lot of work for a bowl of noodles, but Morizumi would have it no other way.
Chabuya, 1-17-16 Otowa, Bunkyo-ku, +81 (0) 3 3945 3791.
Chabuya Zutto, 7 Funemachi, Shinjuku-ku, +81 (0) 3 5919 0752.
Creative international: Aronia de Takazawa
Yoshiaki Takazawa has a reputation for playing with his food.
At his restaurant, Aronia de Takazawa, the chef has invented his own brand of international haute cuisine, and he takes particular delight in creating witty interpretations of the Japanese standards that usually appear in less-exalted dining establishments.
“I come up with new dishes by first considering the season and also thinking about dishes that may be a bit nostalgic,” Takazawa tells me.
Crab croquettes, a staple in izakaya and bento box lunches, are given the fine-dining treatment and turned into silky crab and corn bisque, topped with crispy strands of fried pasta, while the treacly petit pudding commonly found in convenience stores becomes a savory egg custard, covered with a thin layer of dashi gelée.
His latest reinterpretation is a postmodern play on curry rice. A perfectly grilled lamb chop, accompanied by a trio of pureed potato, carrot, and caramelized onion, is topped with crispy sheets of curry-flavored rice paper.
In each case, the culinary fireworks have the effect of focusing attention on the quality of the ingredients.
Aronia de Takazawa, Sanyo Akasaka Bldg 2/F, Akasaka 3-5-2, Minato-ku, +81 (0) 3 3505 5052. www.aroniadetakazawa.com
“Tempura is not like sushi, where the ingredients are presented just as they are,” says owner-chef Hitoshi Arai of Tenko restaurant in Kagurazaka. “The challenge for the tempura chef is how to enhance the flavor of the ingredients without obscuring their natural essence.”
Arai speaks with the earnestness of a man who polishes his tempura pot to a gleam every night before going home, and this sincerity comes through in his food.
At Tenko, Arai prepares greaseless Edo-style tempura -- fresh seasonal vegetables and seafood shipped daily from Tsukiji market, sealed in an airy batter perfumed with sesame oil.
Most items, such as the delicate hase fish, are best enjoyed on their own with a sprinkle of sea salt.
Sweet shrimp are one of Tenko’s specialties, and Arai serves them alongside their spindly heads. No bigger than the first joint on your thumb and deep-fried to a perfect crisp, these little morsels alone are worth making the trip for.
Tenko is hidden away on a side street and located in a former geisha house. The restaurant’s traditional atmosphere, with its tatami-mat rooms and sliding shoji doors, makes for a truly unique dining experience in Tokyo, and Chef Arai’s hospitality is impeccable.
Tenko, 3-1 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, +81 (0) 3 3269 1414.
Contemporary Italian: Bulgari Il Ristorante
Tokyo has a well-established reputation for French gastronomy (one look at the Michelin Guide will tell you that), but recently, the city has also witnessed the flourishing of Italian fine dining.
The dramatic Bulgari Il Ristorante inside the Bulgari Ginza Tower provides an appropriately stylish backdrop for executive chef Luca Fantin’s elegant, contemporary creations.
Fantin had worked in some of the world’s top restaurants -- Mugaritz, Cracco and Ryugin, to name a few -- before joining Bulgari nearly two years ago.
The tasting menu shows off his traditional background and international experience to great effect: A tender cut of wagyu is drizzled with rich Barolo sauce and nestled in a piquant puree of caramelized apple, and a creamy chestnut pudding is presented with tiny cones of deep-fried chestnut chips.
A Treviso native, Fantin has a deep affinity for mollusks. A dish of grilled squid, pureed cauliflower and truffles, served with squid-ink vinaigrette, is even more delicious than it looks.
A similar dish of baby octopus sampled earlier this year remains firmly imprinted on my memory.
Bulgari Il Ristorante, Bulgari Ginza Tower 9/F, 2-7-12 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 (0) 3 6362 0555. www.bulgarihotels.com
Shichifukujin, located along one of the narrow roads that radiate from Koenji Station, is probably one of the best sushi joints in Tokyo you’ve never heard of.
I wouldn't have known about it myself, had it not been recommended by a couple of local chefs.
Squeezed into a tiny space the size of a one-room apartment, Shichifukujin is brightly lit, sometimes smoky, and invariably packed after 6:30 p.m.
The crowds flock here not for the ambiance but for the fresh fish at breathtakingly low prices.
In fact, “breathtakingly low” may even be an understatement, considering the quality of the ingredients. Nigiri-zushi topped with glossy slabs of translucent scallop and scarlet squares of tuna go for ¥120 per piece. For ¥320, you’ll get velvety, pudding-like uni (sea urchin) so sweet it might just change your life, or at least broaden your palate.
Shichifukujin, 3-2-13 Koenji-kita, Suginami-ku, +81 (0) 3 3223 8755.
Neo-bistro: Quand L’appétit Va Tout Va
The trend dominating the culinary landscape in 2011 is the rise of the neo-bistro -- stylish (and often intimate) places serving first-rate casual French fare.
Back in the 1990s, the word “bistronomy” used to have a nasty ring to it, but Tokyo’s chefs have embraced the concept fully.
Perched on the second floor of a nondescript building in Azabu Juban, Quand L’appétit Va Tout Va strikes just the right balance between a neighborhood bistro and a “serious” restaurant.
Running nearly the length of the dining space is a long, wooden counter, which gives the interior a contemporary Japanese feel.
The food, prepared by the young and able chef, Daisuke Kaneko, is fresh and modern. A straightforward dish of roasted bainiku pork is meticulously executed, the meat succulent and springy to the touch.
Golden croquettes stuffed with pork tongue and trotters are tasty enough to make you wonder why these cuts ever fell out of fashion.
Owner and sommelier, Yuichi Cho, formerly of NARISAWA, says that his goal was to take the stuffiness out of fine dining.
At Quand L’appétit Va Tout Va, he’s done just that. It’s one of the few places in Tokyo where you can pay less than ¥10,000 for a meal that feels like it should have cost much more.
Quand L’appétit Va Tout Va, Visco Bldg 2/F, 2-3-12 Azabu Juban, Minato-ku, +81 (0) 3 3455 9951. www5.ocn.ne.jp/~quand