Dining in Tokyo

Saturday, May 14th , 2016

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The newest three star Michelin restaurant in Japan is Kohaku. It is one of no less than 13 three star restaurants in Tokyo (by comparison, Paris has 9), and the sister of Ishikawa. I had a perfectly pleasant meal here but preferred Ishikawa, and to be honest had better kaiseki meals elsewhere on this trip, such as at Nakahigashi and Tempura Matsu. It is not obvious to me why Michelin elected this particular restaurant to join the hallowed three star rank, but it was certainly nice enough.

I preferred my meal at Kodama, a one star kaiseki restaurant whose chef has a somewhat modern cooking style while still respecting the traditions of Japanese cuisine. Some dishes, such as a cabbage and prawn dish with a savoury sauce, were terrific, and the standard was very high throughout the meal. This restaurant is not one that gets much buzz in English-speaking foodie circles, but delivered one of the best meals that I have eaten in Tokyo.

Daigo is unusual in that it is a shojin restaurant, serving Buddhist vegetarian cuisine. The restaurant only has private rooms, which just as in Kyoto means that the bill is immediately elevated due to the amount of space that your room takes up relative to a seat at a counter. I was rather puzzled by my experience here, as it had been recommended by several people, has two Michelin stars and in principle should be great given the high quality of vegetables available in Japan. Yet the meal we actually encountered was distinctly ordinary, with pretty average vegetable quality compared to other places I have tried in Japan. Maybe it was once better than it is now.

Umi was a better experience, a two star sushi restaurant with a new chef after the tragic and untimely death of the previous chef late last year. Umi offers an unusually lengthy and varied omakase experience, perhaps twice the number of sushi bites than at many other places in the city.  The fish quality was a little variable but the best was very good, and the young chef was lively and friendly.

Perhaps the find of the trip for me (along with Kodama) was Uchitsu, a two star Michelin tempura restaurant. I had an excellent basis for comparison as I had just eaten another meal at the superb Nanachome Kyoboshi, the only tempura restaurant ever awarded three Michelin stars. This was still very much on form, using some of the most dazzling quality ingredients that you will encounter anywhere in Tokyo. It is no longer listed in Michelin at the chef/owner’s request, but the meal we had there was every bit as good as it was before.

Uchitsu has two Michelin stars and has a very cleverly designed counter looking out over a stunning forest-like garden backdrop. You are actually in central Tokyo but it feels as if you are eating in some magical woodland. The food matches the surroundings, with exceptionally high quality tempura and a friendly chef who speaks quite good English. This was another restaurant that gets virtually no foreign foodie attention, yet the standard of cooking and ingredients was remarkable. If you are in Tokyo, do yourself a favour and try it.

As a change from all the Japanese food I tried Crescent, a two star French restaurant set in a pretty town house with a view over trees from a nearby park. The food there was particularly prettily presented, and apart from one dish the meal was generally worth its two stars. Service was quite old fashioned but this was certainly a pleasant enough, albeit not cheap, experience.

On my latest visit to Tokyo I was keen to try at least some places off the Michelin path. Tonkatsu is a much more down to earth cooking style than sophisticated kaiseki, involving coating a pork cutlet in breadcrumbs and deep-frying it. Just as with ramen noodles, tonkatsu has countless outlets in the capital, and no shortage of advocates for which is the best of all. The only Michelin starred one is Katsuzen, but another highly recommended restaurant is Butagumi (others I have yet to try include Azabujba, Katsukara, Tonki and Narikura). There are actually two branches of Butagumi, some people preferring one and some the other, so I played it safe and went to both. The original branch is much more atmospheric, and I slightly preferred the tonkatsu itself. The other branch is in an obscure corner of the labyrinthine Roppongi hills complex, which was presumably designed by whoever did the Barbican centre based on the number of lost looking people wandering around its maze of corridors trying to track places down. My tonkatsu here was a little less good but you could see the chefs at work in the open kitchen, which was quite fun.

I also enjoyed a sake lesson with sake consultant Rebekah Wilson-Lye, the only non-Japanese Master of Sake Tasting. If you have an interest in the subject then she is highly knowledgeable and entertaining; she can be found on Twitter at @IchifortheMichi and definitely knows her stuff. As ever, Tokyo was a joy to visit. We stayed at the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi Hills, surely one of the most flawless hotels in the world and a favourite of Alain Ducasse. It is built almost on top of a subway station (three stops to the Ginza) and has a wide selection of shops and restaurants within the complex itself. Perhaps the trickiest thing there is avoiding the temptations of the pastry shop attached to the Atelier Robuchon within the complex. The concierge staff at the Grand Hyatt are eternally patient and competent, and can help you plan your trip, which is ever more useful given how difficult reservations are becoming in the top places in Tokyo these days. 

My complete set of Tolkyo reviews (around 70 restaurants in all so far) can be found here.