Further Tokyo dining

Saturday, June 07th , 2008

 tokyo 3648 Imperial palace walls-crop-v3.JPG
The Tokyo reviews and pictures are now all up on the web site. I’ll just summarise in this blog.
Let’s first discuss the French restaurants. L’Osier was terrific, a genuine 3 star by any standards. I found Quintessence  less satisfactory, at times pushing towards 8/10 territory but overall slipping back firmly to around the 7/10 mark (the arithmetic average of my dish scores was 7.1). Hence this was very good, but some way from being a 3 star. I found Joel Robuchon restaurant similarly a let-down, with plenty of theatre and lovely presentation during the lengthy tasting menu, but the tastes not matching the presentation. Again this seemed to be a good 7/10, not really hitting 8/10 level, so somewhere between a one and two star level by the standards of France.
The best meal of the week was at a two star restaurant, Ryugin. I thought this was actually well worth three stars (9/10 in my scoring system) as it combined great seasonal ingredients, excellent technique, at times dazzling presentation and reasonably harmonious taste combinations. This also happened to have great service, though in general the service in Japan is of a high standard anyway.
The Japanese 3 stars ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. The best (apart from Ryugin) was Sushi Mizutani , which had the best sushi I have ever tasted. I am not sure about the wisdom of giving 3 stars to a place that is essentially only serving up raw fish and rice, but this is undeniably magnificent raw fish and rice, so at least in this case I understand where Michelin is coming from.  In terms of the taste of the fish, Sushi Mizutani was streets ahead of the similar format Sukyibashi Hiro in Ginza, as well as being half the price. We also tried its sister restaurant, Sukyibashi Jiro in Roppongi, which was pleasant but no more than that. At least the welcome at the Roppongi branch was fine, contrasting with outright hostility at the Ginza branch.  In a society so remarkably courteous as that in Japan, the sneering "service" at the Ginza branch was shocking to me.   
Of the other places, Kanda was good, though again I struggle to see where the 3 stars come in. Koju was simply poor, with a couple of basic lapses in cooking technique. Hamadaya was ever so pretty and had charming service, but I’m afraid the food was just downright unappetising and poor. I flipped through the Zagat Guide to Tokyo and observe that Hamadaya scores a fairly lowly 24/30, while Ryugin outscores all of the 3 star places in terms of Zagat scores. I never thought I’d be aligning myself with a Zagat guide, but in this case my experiences seem to be more in synch with Zagat than Michelin.
Outside the 3 star set, we had two excellent tempura experiences. Fukamachi  has one star in the 2008 Michelin, while Ten Ichi in Ginza is well known in Tokyo for its tempura but is not even mentioned by Michelin. Both seemed to me excellent at what they do, and I enjoyed both about equally. Ten Ichi in particular had the freshest of ingredients, with the prawns live until their brief encounter with deep frying in a wok.
We also tried a couple of Chinese places, including the rather formal Reikasai, which gets two stars in Michelin. This seemed way off to me, as although the food was very fancy in presentation terms, I found the cooking itself very ordinary, and a long way below one star level. China Blue descended into farce in terms of service, but again the food (when it finally turned up) was deeply ordinary.
Overall, I was surprised at the wild swings in my experience relative to Michelin’s ratings. Perhaps, this being their first edition of the guide, they have just made some errors which will be corrected in later versions. There is no doubting the sheer range of restaurants in Tokyo, which must be very hard for any guide to try and tackle. The frustrating thing is that, having had such a great meal at a place rated at two star level, I suspect that there are many other terrific restaurants either languishing at the one star level or maybe not mentioned at all. With such great ingredients, obsession with seasonality and tradition of lengthy chef training, I expect there are many, many fine restaurants which I did not get to try. At least Michelin now has people talking about Tokyo, and it would be great if someone would translate one of the local guides into English to act as a counterweight to Michelin.
Back in the UK, Blah Blah Blah is a simple vegetarian café in Shepherds Bush where you can bring your own wine without corkage. The food was surprisingly good given the dismal level of many specialist vegetarian restaurants. Not somewhere to journey to, but worth a look if in the area.
Madhus provided a welcome Indian meal after two weeks of (mostly) Japanese food. I was particularly impressed with a tandoori lamb chop dish I had not tried before, while the great strength of Madhu’s cooking, the biriani, was as good as ever. 
It was interesting to return to Royal China a few days after trying Reikasai and China Blue in Tokyo. The décor at Royal China is stuck in some 1970s disco time-warp, but the cooking was better than at either of the two starred Tokyo Chinese places I tried, and at a very fair price.
After a disappointing meal at old favourite The Capital Hotel last summer, I had hopes that my faith would be restored on my return this week. Sadly this did not happen. The cheese board (from Bernard Antony) was still great, and probably the best in the UK. However the rest of the meal lingered around the 6/10 level. No Eric Chavot today, which probably did not help matters, but that is now two meals in a row clearly below the two star level. Excellent service and a great cheese board do not suffice for a two star experience, I'm afraid.