A tour with Tokyo's human food and drink guide
Hunting down fine food and drink is a tall order for the Tokyo newbie, which is where Shinji Nohara comes in.
He’s the "Tokyo Fixer," a gourmet guide, journalist and shochu-swilling bon vivant, and the man who fed fugu to TV chef Anthony Bourdain.
Here he goes on a gourmet highlights ramble through town.
1. Tori Yoshi
“Yakitori for yuppies,” Shinji notes with a smile as we descend into an under-lit counter restaurant, all hard woods, smoke and sizzle. A round of Ebisu draft, Shinji’s beer of choice, sets the evening in motion.
“These heavy ceramic mugs make the froth really smooth, like silk,” he explains, as chefs in slick white robes baste, skewer and grill with extreme precision. Soon a mouth-watering precession of chicken thighs, wings and other morsels sails off the coals.
“Everything is sourced locally, so you can be sure of the quality,” Shinji says. Little ginkgos out of their pods are a seasonal treat, and young, charred bamboo shoots are served simply with grated fresh wasabi.
Average price per person: ¥4,000
Tori Yoshi, B1F 4-2-6 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku. Tel: +81 (0) 3 5464 5466
“I love this place because you can eat great ramen in the atmosphere of an izakaya,” Shinji says as we squeeze in among lively tables of salary men and well-dressed couples kicking off a night on the town. On the fixer’s recommendation I go for the “inky-black” kogashi broth, meaning charcoal-scorched.
“The yakibuta (barbecued pork) is to die for if you like flaming meat,” he adds. As Shinji espouses the many merits of shochu, we’re distracted by cooks fighting huge flames in the open kitchen.
“It’s a good sign, isn’t it?” Too right. An order of gyoza is a delight: gossamer-thin skins and juicy, porky middles.
Average price: ¥2,000
Address: 1-4-36 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku. Tel: +81 (0) 3 5775 5566
3. Azabu Kusafue
Next we’re weaving our way through the gently sloping back streets of Nishiazabu. “This area is the hangout for people like me who love speakeasies," Shinji says as we enter the first floor of a nondescript house and into a living room-styled space, accented with modish furniture, leafy plants and a beautiful brick bar, stocked to the hilt with shochu.
“Shochu isn’t harsh like vodka, and its distinctive flavor really depends on its ingredients,” Shinji says as we work through several varieties. A chestnut shochu is a turn of the taste buds too far, but we can’t get enough of a cask-aged barley variety. "Like a good single malt,” is the consensus.
Average price: ¥2,000
Address: 2-3Fl. 2-25-13 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku. Tel: +81 (0) 3 3498 3181
4. Wodka Tonic
Just across the street, this sumptuous underground bar comes over like a 1930s Chicago speakeasy. As if on cue, the impeccably dressed bartender puts the final chips to a flawless globe of ice as we enter.
The epic sweep of bar is a feast for the eyes, boasting an inventory of some 1,000 bottles. “It’s expensive but justified because you can find rare bottles here. I found a Rhum Agricole that survived the eruption of Mount Pelee on Martinique in 1902,” Shinji says.
Bar snacks are a cut above, like pale shavings of ripe Tetes de Moines cheese, and a shot glass of angel hair pasta fried to a salty, savory crunch.
Average price: ¥2,500
Address: B1F 2-25-11 Nishiazabu, Minato-ku. Tel: +81 (0) 3 3400 5474
5. Sushi Sho
"This place kicked out the Michelin researchers. The master told me they were rude and didn't know how to appreciate sushi," Shinji laughs as he introduces Sho, meaning "master" in Japanese.
Day two of the tour, and time for some serious fish. I’m told it was here that Keiji Nakazawa created the new school of Edomae nigiri in the 1990s. The omakase (chef’s choice menu) is a breathless banquet of near indescribable luxury, paired with micro-brewed sake from all over Japan.
The kohada (a little herring-like fish) -- the test dish for a sushi restaurant in Tokyo -- is exquisite. “The problem for you now is that you can never go back to regular sushi again,” Shinji tells me. I can live with that.
Average price: ¥20,000
Address: 1-11 Yotsuya, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: +81 (0) 3 3351 6387
6. La Jetee
“This bar is a must visit if you like French Nouvelle Vague films,” Shinji says, as we squeeze up a staircase to a tiny room crammed with old French jazz cassettes, curios and bottles of half-drunk booze tagged by their owners.
Run by the disarming madam Kawai, La Jetee in the Golden Gai became famous as the best-loved bar of Japanese movie director and legendary drinker Yasujiro Ozu. Pastis seems to be the tipple of choice, but we round out the tour with a final Ebisu draft and madam Kawai’s delicious tofu nibbles, as we decipher some of the (very famous) signatures of patrons past on movie posters that line the walls.
Average price: ¥1,500
Address: 1-1-8 Kabukicho, Shinjuku-ku. Tel: +81 (0) 3 3208 9645
You can find out more about the "Tokyo Fixer" by visiting Shinji's website, www.tokyofixer.com.