Since they first established a foothold in the East Asian market nearly a decade ago, the publishers of the Michelin Guide have been generous with their praise, awarding stars to a whopping 217 Tokyo restaurants in the company’s 2016 guide alone, with 13 earning three stars, the highest rating. This makes Japan’s capital, by a considerable margin, the most-starred dining city in the world; the runner-up, New York, has 76 starred restaurants, and 6 with three stars.
Now, some might say it’s silly to put much stock in Michelin’s anonymous restaurant inspectors, whose views and tastes are as subjective as anyone’s, even though their judgments are rendered in a single, authoritative voice than can forever alter the course of a chef’s life. Furthermore, many food professionals have dismissed the attention that Michelin has lavished upon Tokyo as a ploy to gain market share, which is flatly and emphatically denied by Michelin’s top brass.
All that said, the sheer number of stars is undeniably attention-grabbing. On its own, the Michelin love would seem merely hype-y, but it happens to jibe with the exaltations of Tokyo’s food that have been issued with regularity in recent years from people who really know what they’re talking about. Anthony Bourdain, for example. In a 2013 essay that accompanied an episode of his CNN travel show, Parts Unknown, he declared, “If I had to eat only in one city for the rest of my life, Tokyo would be it.”
When someone as worldly as Bourdain says that Tokyo is the tops, you sit up and take notice. I had never been to Tokyo, and the anticipatory buildup to my first trip there, this past spring, was febrile and intense. In my mind, I was going to experience food that was not only transcendently good but lysergically transcendently good, transporting me to a sensory wonderland of tangerine trees and marmalade skies.
I had only five days, but I cast as wide a net as I could, booking lunches and dinners at restaurants ranging from three stars to none. Tokyo abounds with highly touted but tiny restaurants, some seating as few as a half-dozen diners, and several of my top choices were already booked a month ahead of my trip, when I was doing my planning. Therefore, I would not be trying any of the three sushi-ya that currently rate three Michelin stars, Saito, Yoshitake, and Sukiyabashi Jiro, the latter immortalized in the 2011 film Jiro Dreams of Sushi.
Nor would I be going to Sushi Sawada, a two-star six-seater that was tipped to me by Michael Romano as, in his opinion, one of the world’s greatest sushi restaurants. Romano, chef emeritus of Danny Meyer’s Union Square Cafe in New York, is now a part-time Tokyo resident, having fallen in love with the city when he and Meyer set up a sister restaurant there, Union Square Tokyo, in 2007. Of the Michelin stars, I asked him, “Do they represent a dining culture in which restaurateurs are dutifully proficient at ticking all the boxes of ‘great restaurant’—or is the food in Tokyo just really that good?”
“Kind of both,” he responded. “You have a tradition of disciplined hospitality of the kind that impresses judges, but you also have these little restaurants where the chef is working his whole life to achieve the highest standard—in ingredients, in technique, in presentation, even in the selection of crockery, a lot of which is handmade just for that place.”
These observations were echoed by Michelin’s American-born international director, Michael Ellis, who noted the “incredible attention to detail” inherent to Japanese cuisine, as well as the fact that Japan is “blessed in terms of good product.” Ellis defended Michelin’s high-volume starring of Tokyo as a matter of demographics as much as anything. “There’s a huge restaurant culture in Japan, with over 80,000 in the Tokyo metro area alone, which is about the same as the whole of France,” he said. “So, on a per capita basis, France more than holds its own. But the Japanese have a wide food culture. The people I know who have actually dined in Japan say, ‘Why aren’t there more stars?’”
But I would have to judge for myself. Would reality live up to expectation? Would mind and taste buds be blown, triggering visions of plasticine porters with looking glass ties? There was no more time for imagining. At JFK, I buckled in for the long flight to Narita International.
A key first impression: The baseline of food quality in Tokyo is simply higher than it is in most American cities. The underground levels of the department stores, such as Isetan and Takashimaya, are occupied by giant, acres-big food halls that recall Harrods in London but are better than Harrods, with stalls offering everything from exquisitely curated melons to gelato to tempura to baked goods (U.S.-style breads, pastries, and doughnuts are increasingly popular) to takoyaki, griddle-cooked dough balls with chewy chunklets of octopus inside them.
Then there are the informal joints devoted to yakitori, or chicken skewers, and fried, breaded pork cutlets called tonkatsu. (If you’re wondering how good a pork cutlet can possibly be, very: a juicy rapture of greaseless, panko-crusted succulence the likes of which most Americans will sadly never know.) Nearly all of these places exist beyond the concern of the Michelin inspectors, as did the first place I fell into off of the airplane, Andy’s Shin Hinomoto, an izakaya only a stone’s throw from where I was staying.
Izakaya are generally conflated with the gastropubs of the U.K. and U.S. as taverns that serve good food. But they predate the gastropub phenomenon. Shin Hinomoto, tucked into a tight, barrel-ceilinged space below the elevated Yamanote railway line, opened in the aftermath of World War II. Andy is Andy Lunt, a cheeky, jug-eared Englishman from Leicester who looks like an Aardman Studios animated character and is married to the founder’s granddaughter. Lunt took over the business when his Japanese wife’s patriarchal family, lacking a male heir, anointed him boss. The food he served me was phenomenal for its pub-grub price point: sashimi-grade raw tuna sliced more thickly than it would be in a sushi bar, scallops the size of York Peppermint Patties, and “Japanese foie gras,” sake-washed monkfish liver that had been steamed, refrigerated for a day to set, and then briefly sautéed before serving. Every morning, Lunt explained to me, he buys his fish fresh at Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, at worryingly steep cost. He makes up for his thin margins through high volume; the place is packed nightly.
I’d come to understand in a very limited way what Bourdain was getting at; there’s amazing and varied workingman’s food to be had in Tokyo, even in a city whose very name is a byword for unaffordability. But what of the fancy-pants places? Many of them conveyed to me through my hotel’s concierge that no English was spoken within their confines. So I enlisted a ringer, my childhood friend Jan Schiffman, who lived in Tokyo for eight years at the dawn of the aughts and is married to a Japanese woman.
Jan was helpful not only as a translator but also as an etiquette consultant, noting, for example, that we should keep our voices hushed and our gazes fixed upon the chef at Sushi Mizutani, a former three-star place, now down to two, whose namesake maestro trained under Jiro “Dreams” Ono, and is himself a revered elder statesman of sushi. Years ago, at the French Laundry, Thomas Keller told me that he can’t stand the term temple of gastronomy and that the last thing he wants is for his customers to eat before him in awed silence. Chef Hachiro Mizutani, on the other hand... Well, the dude pretty much wants you to abide by the hushed-temple rules.
Granted, he is mesmerizing, working silently behind an eight-seat counter abetted only by one young assistant. Just watching his right hand worry a piece of aji (horse mackerel) into a cushion of rice, and then seeing him brush the fish with a thin slick of slightly sweet nikiri sauce, was compelling—a lifetime’s worth of training firing through his supple fingers. We enjoyed, indisputably, an excellent sushi lunch at Sushi Mizutani, concluding with a custardy little brick of tamago, or sweet egg omelet.
I later learned our timing was fortuitous: Chef Mizutani is closing his restaurant this month to enjoy retirement. But sentimentality aside, while the meal pleased me, it didn’t move me. And at nearly $200 a head, for just under an hour’s eating, was it worth it? Jan cited the law of diminishing returns as applied to fine wines: At a certain point, unless you have a super attuned palate, you’re not going to appreciate the difference between a $400 bottle and a $200 bottle. As irrefutably good as Mizutanisan’s sushi was, I just can’t argue that it was, to use Michelin’s phraseology, “worth a detour."
The high-end tempura place we went to, on the other hand, was the embodiment of detour-worthiness. For one thing, Mikawa Zezankyo is hard to find, in an unmarked building that’s a 15-minute walk from the Monzen-Nakacho subway station, in a quiet residential neighborhood. The conflicting walking directions that Jan and I got from the locals, who seemed unaware that a great restaurant existed under their noses, made us feel like characters in a Haruki Murakami novel, slipping between the “real” Tokyo and a dream-state version in which Shiba Inu dogs are leashed to poles while wearing striped sailor dresses (a sight I swear I did not imagine) and an old man fries magical tempura while toiling beneath an oversize copper exhaust hood forged in the shape of a Borsalino hat.
Once we found Mikawa Zezankyo, we were welcomed in politely and asked to remove our shoes. Superficially, the setup was not unlike that of Sushi Mizutani: a few counter seats and everyone’s eyes trained upon a master chef—in this case, a tall, lean man named Tetsuya Saotome—and his young assistant. But there was a smilier vibe to the place, a palpable expectation of fun. (Surely, the exhaust hood helped.) I was given a bowl of cold daikon oroshi, or grated Japanese white radish, in which to dip my food (a useful coolant and complement to tempura), as well as a little dish of my preferred accompaniment, coarsely ground sea salt. Course after course emerged hot out of the fryer, starting with a large, sweet prawn, followed by the prawn’s even sweeter and crunchier head.
Here I witnessed what Romano had been talking about: a chef who had devoted his life to one discipline, which he carried out with rigor and loving care. (And also, yes, his own special crockery.) We were seated closer to chef Saotome’s assistant than to the chef himself, which, to us, was better, because, while we could still make out Saotome’s rhythmic battering and frying motions, we had an up-close view of the food prep for courses that we knew were definitely coming but not exactly when. At one point, we saw the assistant scoring a squid, but not until we were each served what looked like a large French fry—only to encounter (psych!) the rubbery texture of the cephalopod—did we recognize the “fries” as the squid. We took note that the assistant was coating pretty, petal-like shiso leaves in flour, but it was a total delight, a few minutes later, to discover to what end he was doing so: The chef had fused two floured leaves around a dollop of golden uni, or sea urchin, creating a sort of briny fried raviolo.
We had heard that chef Saotome was a gifted calligrapher, and that, if he takes to you, he will unleash his quill at meal’s end and draw you a prawn. I’m humbled to say that Jan and I merited a prawn apiece. Two hours after entering, with our prawn-art keepsakes in tow, and having savored various tempura’d vegetables and seafood—including an ayu, about three inches long, whose ventral fins had been folded out so that the fish could be served upright, in swimming position—we toddled out contentedly. The restaurant did so much more than demonstrate that tempura, when done right, rises way above the soggy, stomachache-inducing stuff we endure in America. It was a 360-degree immersion in a specific tradition and milieu, a genuine only-in-Tokyo experience.
I wish I could say the same of Seizan, in the Mita district, a two-star kaiseki restaurant featuring a Japanese tasting menu of small, intricately detailed dishes. We could not secure counter seating and were instead shunted into a characterless area of tables out of view of the cooks. Perhaps the young chef, Haruhiko Yamamoto, was simply having a bad night, so I won’t even get into the food. But it bears noting that the service was cold and perfunctory, especially in comparison with the next two-star kaiseki restaurant we went to, Kikunoi.
Kikunoi is the Tokyo outpost of a spot of the same name in Kyoto, owned by a Japanese celebrity chef named Yoshihiro Murata. Set back from a long, bamboo-lined path in the otherwise nonpastoral Akasaka district, the restaurant has both table seating (with tatami mats) and a counter. After our Seizan exile, we opted for the counter; a kimono-clad hostess showed us there, and a large staff of young servers and cooks set to work making us happy. Kyoto’s cuisine is known for its refinement and seasonality, and our 11-course menu (the midlevel choice of three options ranging from about $140 to $200) reflected this—in particular its second course, a wooden mystery box bound in string that opened to reveal a medley of starter bites, among them edamame, anago eel rolled in julienned gourd, and sea bream sushi wrapped in bamboo leaves. My favorite course came later: a gorgeous white miso soup in which bobbed chunks of lobster enrobed in yellow scrambled-egg skins, another ravioli-evocative preparation.
At a certain juncture, a jovial older man with broad features and thick, gray hair presented us with a midmeal palate cleanser, a strawberry sorbet with a kick—or, as he put it in English, “Strawberry...one, two, three...WASABI! ” He proceeded to talk to us convivially in Japanese, as if we were all taking a steam together, though I understood nothing and even Jan struggled to comprehend the man’s Kyoto-accented patter. This fellow turned out to be none other than chef Murata himself. A pro’s pro, he gave us monogrammed Kikunoi cloth napkins to take home and, at dinner’s end, walked us up the bamboo path, seeing us into a cab.
“That was nice, what you’d hope a two-star restaurant would be,” Jan said. Nice, yes, but I’d still yet to experience the OMG-I’m-trippin’ Tokyo experience that I’d prepped myself for. That is, until we checked out a newish place in Akasaka that Romano had recommended: Shirosaka, another tasting menu restaurant but a bargain at about $75 per person. Its 40-year-old chef, a Tokyo native named Hideki Ii, opened it in November 2014, after having worked from 2010 to 2013 in New York, as the cook for Japan’s ambassador to the United Nations.
Not that Shirosaka makes concessions to Western palates. We sat at the counter—Shirosaka does have a couple of tables too—and, off the bat, we were presented with ceramic bowls in which sat tangles of tiny, transparent baby eels with little dots for eyes, their forms suspended in a golden dashi, or broth, of bonito stock seasoned with mirin and soy sauce. This wasn’t stunt food but rather a sweet-salty-bright-bracing-wriggly thought experiment that tasted really good. Much the same could be said (minus the “wriggly”) for what chef Ii calls his signature dish, a spheroid rice cracker that, when served, looks like a macaron floating in salad dressing studded with diced tuna, scallions, and microgreens. Open the “lid,” though—the top half of the cracker—and inside are a quail egg, caviar, and dashi jelly, with sea urchin, mustard sprouts, and paprika. You crumble the cracker, stir everything together, and eat it up with a spoon. Now we were getting into lysergically transcendent territory.
Ii later explained via e-mail that he doesn’t consider Shirosaka to be a kaiseki restaurant, because “the kaiseki way is steeped not only in formal traditions but has set rules dictating the way food is made, presented, and served. Our aim here is to serve great food in a more relaxed environment, where we are unconstrained by particular rules.” Indeed, Shirosaka was the only fine-dining place I visited that is reflective of the living, breathing, vibrant Tokyo outside its doors. Another knockout dish, of wagyu beef shank slow-cooked till meltingly soft and served with tofu, bamboo shoots, leeks, and chrysanthemum, nodded to Japanese hot pot dishes while being its own sui generis awesome thing.
Shirosaka’s servers are loose but solicitous, and a couple speak English. The clientele, which skews younger than the other places I dined, responded to their energy; this was the good-timiest place I visited and the one I most eagerly anticipate revisiting. And how many Michelin stars does Shirosaka have? None. Though I suspect that might soon change.
So, for all my planning, my most transportive Tokyo eating experiences were an offbeat tempura fantasia and a zero-star upstart’s audacious bid to make a name for himself. Tokyo is truly a great food city—and I scratched only the surface of the surface—but my advice to the first-timers who follow me: Go with your gut, the flow, and the advice of who you know.
The Diner's Diary
Andy’s Shin Hinomoto
Michelin stars: None
Contact: 2-4-4 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; andysfish.com.
Michelin stars: Two
Contact: 6-13-8 Akasaka, Minato-ku; kikunoi.jp.
Michelin stars: None
Contact: 1-3-1 Fukuzumi, Koto-ku; mikawa-zezankyo.jimdo.com.
Michelin stars: Two
Contact: Grande Mita B1F, 2-17-29 Mita, Minato-ku; 81-3/3451-8320.
Michelin stars: None
Contact: 6-3-9 Akasaka, Minato-ku; 81-3/5797-7066.
Michelin stars: two
Contact: Juno Bldg. 9F, 8-7-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3573-5258.
How to Book a Table
A tip on the process of making Tokyo restaurant reservations: Most of the city’s fine-dining establishments don’t take them from overseas. The best way to handle booking is to let your hotel’s concierge do it for you. “We always book Jiro through the hotels,” says one travel outfitter, adding, “The Peninsula Tokyo concierge has the best contacts.” Thus DEPARTURES sent our wish list of 17 top-flight restaurants to the Peninsula’s chief concierge, Akane Tanaka, and her team of 13, in hopes we’d be able to get five dinner and four lunch reservations—though we’d been warned of the likelihood of striking out. To our amazement, however, Tanaka came back 24 hours later with all nine slots filled, mostly with high-on-our-list choices. It’s also worth mentioning that reservations can’t be canceled at the last minute without incurring a fee equal to the price of dinner.