In the eyes of the world, Japan has for many decades been a symbol of advancement as well as immaculately preserved tradition and culture. People are as comfortable associating Japan with the latest gadget or car as they are with shrines, temples and age-old rituals and practices.
One area in which this is beautifully obvious is in its food. Traditional Japanese food is deeply entrenched in its ingredients, methods of preparation and aesthetic presentation; and at the same time has been treated to imaginative modern interpretations and has influenced other contemporary cuisines. All over Tokyo’s crowded cosmos of restaurants you see this mix of old and new, from hundreds of hole-in-the-wall eateries slapping out the most authentic of Japanese dishes, to fancy Japanese restaurants serving exquisite kaiseki to contemporary restaurants conjuring up ingenious dishes like risotto cooked with Japanese sweet fish and a dashi made with tomato and truffles.
On a recent trip to the Japanese capital, we got to experience some of these culinary joys. Arriving on a hot and balmy Sunday afternoon, we checked in at The Capitol Hotel Tokyu (2-10-3 Nagatacho, Chiyoda-ku, www.capitolhoteltokyu.com) in central Tokyo and couldn’t have landed ourselves in a better location. Sitting on top of the sprawling Tammeike-Sanno subway station, this elegant five-star hotel is a bit of a gateway to the city. Five subway lines intersect here, which makes getting anywhere you are likely to want to go to a breeze, and a hotel lift opens out almost directly into the subway station for easy access.
In our spacious room overlooking the Akasaka district, which foodies will know for its warren of yakatori joints popular for late night supping and drinking, we planned and plotted our meals for the trip. With the endless array of Japanese and contemporary options to choose from, it was tough to finally narrow our choices down to a handful of restaurants that would help us experience both the traditional and contemporary side of Japanese cuisine.
Our first stop was Yonemura (4/F Kojyun Building, 6-8-7 Ginza; +81 3 5537 6699; http://r-yonemura.jp) in the ritzy shopping and business district of Ginza. A small restaurant located in the same building as Tokyo’s Barney’s of New York, this eponymous restaurant by Chef Yonemura Masayasu serves modern Japanese cuisine with a heavy French influence. Chef Yonemura first earned acclaim for this style of cooking at his original restaurant in Kyoto, which had diners raving so enthusiastically he took the leap of opening this second restaurant in Ginza, a move that seems to have paid off handsomely. The restaurant is full almost every single night and without a reservation way in advance you can simply forget it.
Degustation, or ‘course,’ menus as they are referred to in Japan, are the order of the day here. We opted for the 10-course menu, which was mostly seafood-centred with the exception of a beef dish, meant to be the climax of the meal. Expect the slightly unexpected—our first course was a light-and-rich combination of lobster and peach jelly with caviar, and clams and octopus fried in butter. The dishes got more imaginative as the meal went along—sea bass with baked eggplant and cheese made a delicious but unlikely companion with a mango, raw ham and clam spring roll; and the aforementioned risotto with sweet fish, deep fried and topped with foie gras, was excellent. By the time we got to the climactic, penultimate beef—which in contrast to the elaborate menu was simply grilled—our taste buds were on overdrive with delight, like dizzy children in a candy store. But you won’t be as challenged with the drinks, there was only one, lonely sake on the menu and more (but not many) wines.
Next stop was a long-standing traditional tempura restaurant. Tenshiba (Basement, The Prince Park Tower, 4-8-1 Shibakoen, Minato-ku; +81 3 5400 1111; http://www.princehotels.com/en/parktower/restaurant/) has been serving customers, many of whom are regulars, faithfully for years, and yet remains a bit of a hidden gem, tucked away in the basement. The hospitality here is exemplary and the restaurant airy and spacious, which sets it apart from the typical cramped, noisy and greasy tempura joint. And the tempura batter is incredibly light, as it should be—not the overly heavy versions we tend to find here—and just coats the ingredients, like a film.
We sat around a small counter in a private room with a guest, restaurant critic and food consultant Jun Yokokawa, ordered a course meal, and sat back to watch Chef Endo perform. Deft, masterful and almost militantly tidy, Chef Endo’s is, according to Yokokawa, “a brilliant tempura chef … whose well refined tempura has earned him a following amongst celebrities in Japan.”
As the oil was heating up at the very start of the meal, we were treated to appetizers of a wonderful cheesy, sesame curd topped with the sweetest sea urchin, and fresh, raw eggplant served with a miso dip. The eggplant was crunchy with a natural hint of sweetness; a perfect summertime ingredient, we were told. Then the tempura flowed—prawns, two types of fish, squid, sweet potato, lotus root, asparagus and mushrooms—each one perfectly cooked. To end the meal was rice with chopped prawns and an egg yolk fried whole, but still oozing inside, in tempura batter, paired with clam soup. And, observing Chef Endo’s well-timed and executed movements as he prepared and served our meal was like watching good theatre, with ringside seats. As Mr Yokokawa said, “It is rare that skilled craftsmen have such excellent hospitality, which is the best thing about this restaurant.”
Alternating back to modern Japanese, we headed to the outskirts of Tokyo to try another French-Japanese restaurant. In the charming northern suburb of Oji is The White Fox (2/F Kouei Ekimae Building, 1-1-11 Kishi-Machi, Kita-ku; +81 3 6903 6696; www.thewhitefox.jp). A tiny box of a restaurant, The White Fox seats only about 16, but neither that, nor its location, stops people from coming. Its appeal is British-born, French-trained chef Trevor Blyth’s inventive, tapas-size dishes that he and his lovely wife Hiromi stream out of a cubicle of a kitchen.
Blyth’s dishes really take culinary creativity to the next level, combining a mish mash of Japanese and other Asian ingredients with European ingredients in ways that are incredibly freethinking and that some might even find unusual. But they work. Take for example his creamy foie gras carpaccio with aloe vera, white raisins, brioche and yuzu crumble—a delicate balance of savoury, sweet, smooth and textured—or his seared, curry spiced scallops with white miso aioli and sweet potato chips—a mix of distinctive but compatible flavours. Our favourites were the kampachi sashimi of green apple with a dressing of umeboshi, sake, mirin and olive oil—the sharp plum sauce and the mild green apple offset the smooth oily fish so nicely—and the sakura spaghetti with broccoli, clams, tarako and chervil. This signature dish reveals its complexity as you eat it, starting off a little salty but ending tangy and slightly sweet, a real delight.
“Most of our Japanese customers seem to like our food very much,” says Blyth. “One of the real qualities of Japanese people is that you can introduce them to something new, and if they like it they accept it right away. I respect this open mindedness. For example, if I had carpaccio of foie gras with aloe vera on my menu in Europe only half of my customers would try it, whilst here in Japan almost everyone orders it. And one of my greatest pleasures is to watch how people relax and become more comfortable and confidant once they taste the food.”
Another draw to this restaurant is their selection of wines, probably normal by Western standards but wide for Japan, where wine is beginning to pick up rapidly. Some customers pop in for an after work drink with a few of Blyth’s tapas dishes for a snack, and he keeps about a dozen wines available by the glass to encourage sampling. It’s worth the train ride out to Oji to try The White Fox, though Blyth tells us he might be saving his customers the journey in the near future with plans to open a second restaurant in central Tokyo.
A good wine list is also one of the things that sends diners streaming to the chic Two Rooms Grill|Bar in Shibuya (5/F AO Building, 3-11-7 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku; +81 3 3498 0002; http://www.tworooms.jp). The wine list here is truly extensive, “the most extensive in Tokyo for an independent restaurant,” says chef and director Matthew Crabbe. Other charms this restaurant exudes include a stylish dining room, rooftop terrace and a trendy bar that the city’s hip and sophisticated just love, and the most fabulous cocktails this side of Asia.
In fact, we had heard such good reports about their cocktails that we had to try a couple—even though we were there for lunch. And we were glad we did. A perfectly blended strawberry bellini—with the strawberry infused throughout the champagne and not sinking at the bottom like in poorer versions—and a rounded, balanced raspberry martini set the pace for a delectable meal. The food, Western-contemporary peppered with Japanese ingredients, was delicious, rich and generously portioned.
Two fat oysters commenced the meal: a Kilpatrick that was smothered in bacon shreds and a buttery Miyazaki. We then had a white corn and Jersey ‘milkshake’ with ricotta and summer truffles that was just divine, followed by plump Hokkaido scallops lightly teppan grilled and served with bacon dust, avocado puree and new pea shoots. That was our personal favourite of the meal—the sweetness of the scallops went so well with the slightly salty bacon, nutty avocado and crisp pea shoots, and made the dish truly memorable.
For our mains, we dived into a thick blue fin tuna steak, seared on the outside and served with sundried tomato and green olive tapenade; and a Harami Hanger steak with onion marmalade and red wine sauce. We must say the beef outshone the tuna—all the flavours of the beef dish worked together so seamlessly they formed a simply delicious final taste that was more than the sum of its parts.
Two Rooms has been darling of the hip Tokyo wining and dining scene since it opened a few years ago, and is so popular that it maintained its bookings even through the unfortunate natural disasters that blistered the country. You can see why; with its high style quotient it could equally be at home in Manhattan or London and naturally brings a crowd who will shine, and dine, no matter what.
The Director’s Cut
To wrap up our visit we took to one of four Kurosawa restaurants in the city. Purportedly opened by his ‘close associates,’ and not the famous director himself, the restaurants are all housed in gorgeous, traditional Japanese wood and bamboo buildings and filled, naturally, with Kurosawa paraphernalia. This awesome ambiance itself is worth speaking about.
Each restaurant specializes in a different type of Japanese cooking. We tried the shabu shabu restaurant, Nagatacho Kurosawa (2-7-9 Nagata-cho, Chiyoda; +81 3 3580 9638; www.9638.net/eng) which came highly recommended, though the udon and soba restaurants are popular too. Our meal there was our last dinner in Tokyo and so we decided to order a spread of black beef and black pork, the restaurant’s two best types of meat.
While waiting for the shabu shabu broth to come to a boil, we were served a small smorgasbord of appetizers. White fish with peppers, an eggplant terrine, broccoli, lotus root and potatoes and—the most unique of the lot—a shot of sweet, mushy fermented rice, which we were thoroughly intrigued by and enjoyed. The meats soon arrived, paper thin slices of various cuts of pork and beef, which our obliging servers helped us cook. Service was exemplary, even by high Japanese standards, with servers in traditional dress shuffling around silently, constantly muttering niceties and ever ready to help. The meat was melt-in-your-mouth and we savoured each slice, trying them out with the different accompaniments that were provided: plain salt and pepper, a sesame cream and a surprising spicy green salsa called yuzu kosho that exploded in our mouths. We finally, reluctantly, ended our meal with an egg dropped into the broth that was then poured over rice and garnished with scallions.
In spite of the catastrophic setbacks Japan has faced this year, with the tsunami and then the earthquake, Tokyo’s dining scene remains strong, if a little devoid of foreign visitors. People are still dining out, restaurants are still vibrant and the wonderful mix of old and new in Japanese cuisine shows that chefs are still inventing and still upholding tradition. This is surely a good sign for the city, and it is only a matter of time before the tourists return in full force. So now, is a good time to go.
A Taste of Tokyo
Elaine Ee heads to Tokyo and finds Japan’s delicate balance of traditional and modern encapsulated at some of the city’s favourite Japanese and contemporary restaurants.
This article was first published on Food and Travel