Exploring the food scene of Tokyo

Tuesday, April 30th , 2013

Tokyo 5472 azaleas in park-crop-v2.JPG

Tokyo is without doubt one of the great food cities of the world. It has at least 67,000 restaurants (the official figure, other estimates are higher), world class ingredients, a population interested in food and a perfectionist tradition applied to cooking. This is my eighth trip to Japan, and yet each time I come I feel I have barely scratched the surface of its restaurants. On this occasion there were no new 3 star restaurants in Tokyo or western Japan in 2013, so I was curious to try more “local” places, as well as other top places that came highly recommended but I had not had time to try on previous trips.

I tried two tempura restaurants, Rakutei and Mikawa. Rakutei is the more famous of the pair, and produced some really terrific tempura. If you are used to what passes for tempura in the UK then it may seem hard to see what the fuss is about: it is just deep-fried food, right? The difference in Japan is that top-class ingredients are used, and the tempura batter at the top-places is ultra light, so you are mainly tasting the ingredient and not the batter or the oil. For example, at both places the prawns were alive on the counter prepared literally seconds before cooking: seafood does not get fresher. I enjoyed both restaurants very much, Mikawa being exceptionally good value.

For kaiseki I tried Ginza Okamoto, the new venture from the ex head-chef of 3 star Yukimura. This was very impressive. The modenr side of kaiseki was shown at Aronia de Takazawa, which combines cutting edge tevhnqieu with high grade ingredients. I was also able to try the tonkatsu at Tokyo institution Maisen, serving good value pork cutlets for almost 50 years. 

For teppanyaki I had a pleasant though somewhat expensive meal at Keyakizaka, which has very smart premises and English speaking chefs. This was fine but not really exciting. The only duff meal in the first few days was at Xao Xiong Fan Dian, the only two star Chinese place in Tokyo. This turned out to be deeply mediocre and yet wildly expensive; no wonder there were just two other diners. Michelin really lost the plot on this one. 

For sushi I compared Sushi Sawada with Sushi Saito. Sawada was super, the quality of fish magnificent, and enjoyable bold use of fresh wasabi. I still fractionally preferred Sushi Saito, which is without doubt the best three Michelin starred restaurant in a car park.  However Sawada was definitely top class, and for me was up there with other top sushi places like Yoshitake and Mizutani. Sushi Saito is the number 1 rated sushi place on the local guide Tabelog, and is pretty much perfect as a sushi restaurant; it is also a fraction the price of the other high end Tokyo sushi temples.

Tokyo also has some pretty parks, as illustrated. The transport system is magnificent in Japan, and everything just works: trains and even coaches turn up exactly on time, and people are remarkably helpful. This is useful when you get lost trying to find a restaurant, which is something even the locals struggle with given the remarkably discreet, not to say, stealth entrances of many places. The recently weakened yen is just one more reason to visit.