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Creative Young Chefs Are Giving Japanese Cuisine an Modern Refresh

Tokyo’s irrepressible appetite for precision and perfection has always made it one of the world’s great food capitals. Lately the city has developed a taste for reinvention, as bold young chefs from all over bring in influences from abroad to give modern Japanese fusion cuisine a thrilling update.


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Writing about new Tokyo restaurants is like keeping on top of memes: With almost 160,000 places to eat for 13.9 million diners, thinking you’ve got a bead on a trend or identified an up-and-coming neighborhood is sheer hubris. But new is where you should be setting your sights. Sure, who wouldn’t want to dine at the pinnacle, securing a seat at the 75-year-old Sukiyabashi Jiro? But unless you a) are able to book calendar years ahead, b) have access to the Jedi-like concierges at the Aman or Park Hyatt Tokyo, or c) know a regular, your chances are as slender as a sheet of nori. Besides, you no longer have to spend decades mastering seaweed-toasting to open your own place. Maybe that’s why the kids are having so much fun these days. (And why it’s going to be impossible to make pat generalizations in this article. But I’ll try!)

You know the saying that the world’s best French food is in Tokyo—that the Japanese focus and perfectionism, when laser-beamed at a specific food or cuisine, yields better results than the source? So true. That’s because for years, young Japanese chefs apprenticed in France before returning home in their 30s or 40s to plant their flags. (That is, if they didn’t stay. These days, one of the best ways to gauge the excellence of a Parisian kitchen is to count the number of Japanese cooks.) While today’s top Tokyo chefs have French bona fides—like Yosuke Suga, who spent 17 years in Joël Robuchon’s kitchens before opening Sugalabo, and Hiroyasu Kawate, who worked at L’Astrance in Paris before opening Florilège—now you’re just as likely to find twenty-something cooks in Tokyo who did time at Noma in Copenhagen or Maaemo in Oslo, or even Chez Panisse in Berkeley. And with them came a casual vibe, open flames, and lists of natural wines that rival those in Paris.

Within two hours of arriving in Tokyo, I was on a stool facing the kitchen in what could have been a family-owned bistro in the French countryside, sipping a glass of Japanese (!) natural wine and watching flames soar above a makeshift grill. The animal jawbone that was used as a knife rest tipped me off that Anis was not actually in the French countryside. Chef Susumu Shimuzu cooked at L’Arpège, the legendary Parisian restaurant where chef Alain Passard transformed himself from a Maître Rôtisseur, or master meat-roaster, into a Michelin three-star vegetable whisperer. Shimuzu learned both disciplines exceptionally well. His tasting menu is centered around grilled heritage-breed meats, served with hyperseasonal vegetables in stark, primal presentations that belie the elegance of their flavors.

Related: The Perfect 24-hour Itinerary for Your Next Trip to Tokyo

As he set down each dish—Shimuzu is the sole employee—my pen raced to keep up with the names of produce I’d never tasted and the prefectures from which they came, a practice with which I became familiar over the days. In Japan, each ingredient, it seems, achieves star status when attached to the right growing area, prompting worshipful nods from diners when it’s mentioned that, say, the dairy is from Hokkaido or the oysters from Kyushu. Those bivalves were incredible when served alongside braised beef shoulder, early-spring-vegetable tempura, and the best tomatoes I’ve ever tasted, naturally salty thanks to the soil. I was also introduced to the succulent, subtly sweet beauty of fresh lily bulbs, paired with an impossibly tender slice of Kobe beef and humble grilled cabbage and onion. Shimuzu knows how to prepare each ingredient in a way that elevates its flavor, rendering it both elemental and profound. The beauty of Anis is as raw as it is cooked.

The beauty of Été, on the other hand, is its take on feminine luxury—as magnified by Instagram. Former Florilège pastry chef Natsuko Shoji built such a following for her photogenic mango cakes, constructed like rose petals, that she’s flown around the world to make them. Last December, the 31-year-old opened a “restaurant” behind her tiny cake counter in the ground floor of an apartment building, where you’ll find her making $200 strawberry tarts while wearing Pleats Please and a baseball cap beside a vitrine filled with limited-edition merch from Karl Lagerfeld, Chanel, and Hermès. The focal point of the coolly modern dining room, where up to four guests are served each day, is not the 1980s Ingo Maurer light fixture but a stunning vitrine of another kind of luxury: That morning, the glassed-in garden display had been filled with a riot of cherry blossoms.

A bottle of vintage Dom Pérignon quickly materialized, holding its own through ten courses that did photogenic things with expensive ingredients while allowing Shoji’s pastry expertise to hold court. A buttery sablé crust was the base of an uni tart topped with grated egg yolk. Wearing stylish gloves, Shoji sliced into a whole just-baked golden brioche to unfurl intoxicating wisps of steam. We were instructed to taste it solo before slathering it with the Hokkaido butter that sat smoking under a tiny dome. A shattering mille-feuille layered caviar with fresh and pickled ground cherry, lemon cream, shallot mousse, and gold leaf. Cherry blossoms appeared with fruity peppercorns atop rich Akagyu beef, the pink petals adhering to black truffles that had been stencil-cut into hearts and Murakami-for-LouisVuitton-like trefoil shapes. Edible bling.

“Every customer is special for me, because there is only one at a time,” Shoji said as she laid hammered-brass spoons on 200-year-old, angel-shaped Baccarat spoon rests in advance of pomelo sorbet. She then arranged a photogenic tableau of coral rose petals on the table before bringing out the signature rose tart. Stumbling out of the house after such an elaborately performative and Insta-worthy meal, I definitely felt special. As in $320-per-person special.

Ode combines the visual and technical delight of the El Bulli/Alinea/Instagram schools with pedigreed Japanese ingredients, resulting in a Michelin-starred show along the horseshoe-shaped concrete counter. It was almost impossible to keep up with the server’s Google-translated descriptions. There were so many techniques and prefectures to jot down—not to mention instructions on which of the, say, “cigars” you could actually eat when a humidor was placed before you. (Turns out they were filled with foie gras mousse and purées of dried persimmon and orange, then dusted with onion powder.) Or what would happen when you bit into that white-chocolate orb. (Lobster mousse would flood your mouth, so one bite only, please!) My notes streamed into nonsense, the words piling up like the dots on the Yayoi Kusama skateboards hanging in the private dining area. All I can say is the butter-poached, binchotan-charcoal-grilled snapper with shimeji mushroom sauce got a star next to it thanks to its pretty floral/citrus components, and that the dessert was “potatoes.”

Knowing that pizza would be part of the trip, I asked Tokyo regulars their favorites. Studio Pizza Temaki ranked high, but I followed the advice of Litti Kewkacha, an academy chair of World’s 50 Best Asia, who told me that the pies served on the 38th floor of the Mandarin Oriental hotel were perhaps the best he’d had: “For me, the closest thing to a Michelin-starred pizza for its refinement and quality.” What the Pizza Bar on 38th lacks in interior decor, executive chef Daniele Cason—an actual Italian—makes up for in knockout nerdery that any Japanese chef would approve of. His pizza alla palla, a cross between Neapolitan and Roman styles, uses five types of imported Italian flour, mixed with San Pellegrino and just one gram of yeast per kilo of flour (basically nothing) to fuel its 48-hour ripening. The fresh, painstakingly peeled cherry tomatoes are from some magical prefecture, but the canned ones hail from Italy, of course, as do the cheese and oil. The remarkable, cracker-crisp crust made me understand why it got three slices from Italy’s Gambero Rosso guide—and made me wonder what’s been taking the Michelin crew so long to make it up to the 38th floor.

Now that I had a handle on how deep Japan’s obsession with ingredients ran, it no longer seemed like career suicide for chef Jérôme Waag to have left Chez Panisse and its fabled California farmers after 25 years to open a restaurant and wine bar in a district where businessmen go to let off steam after work. At the Blind Donkey, he and his Canadian partner Shin Harakawa have gone beyond name-checking prefectures to writing a farm manifesto. While the food on the tasting menu retains much of the rustic simplicity of Waag’s alma mater, he is gradually going native. I tried ricotta made in hipster Shibuya beneath turmeric-yellow strips of raw korinki squash, a pile of winter greens with stewy shell beans and olive oil, and heritage chicken with peanut mole. Both the space and the food have an unpretentiousness and soulfulness that made me wish they’d pull a reverse-Tokyo and open an outpost in New York.

Caveman looks like Blind Donkey’s slicker cousin: a wine bar and restaurant rendered in raw concrete and blond wood. Opened by the crew behind the critically acclaimed Kabi, the influences skew Scandinavian. Executive chef Atsuki Kuroda cooked at Maaemo, in Oslo, a Michelin three-star restaurant where shavings of dried deer heart are the norm. I invited Margaret Siu, known in the Instagram food world as Little Meg. Her 151,000 followers dine vicariously through her eating prowess and access to impossible-to-penetrate restaurants such as Sushi Saito. As the staff vibrated in her presence, she explained the trend of newer places like Caveman: The limited number of seats in top-tier restaurants are increasingly hard to book, so young chefs are opening their own spots—often before some would deem them fully trained. Hence the more casual, international vibe informed by their travel to places like Paris, Copenhagen, and Brooklyn.

Siu was explaining that a Japanese kitchen is judged by its dashi—the broth, made from steeping kombu (seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried bonito flakes), that underpins Japanese cooking—when a dish of mackerel and burdock root appeared, featuring a sauce of yuzu, soy milk, lemon verbena, and dashi with black garlic paste. We had already had deer heart, smoked and dried in the manner of katsuobushi, with dill oil. The cultural toggling continued with an excellent pasta of brown butter, Japanese fish sauce, lily root, sweet potato, and smoked salmon roe. One of the desserts was juniper berry ice cream with juniper oil. The international cooks blasted electro while grilling and smoking things, the diners kept the sommelier busy pouring (natural) wine, and it all felt distinctly un-Japanese.

Future, or trend? When I asked Siu what new places she’s excited about in Tokyo, she said she is now following young chefs to the cities of Kyoto, Kanazawa, and Fukuoka. And it isn’t jazz hands she’s seeking. It’s the Japanese art of mastering subtlety. “They make simplicity not simple at all,” she said. “You can hide imperfection in a sauce. But here, a single piece of grilled yam can be mind-blowing.”

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As we put on our face masks and headed out, Siu said she’d be interested to hear what I thought about my dinner at Inua the following night. Though popular and getting high marks on international lists, the restaurant is divisive in Tokyo. (It is temporarily closed due to the pandemic, with no current reopening date.) Inua was started by Thomas Frebel, Noma’s former head of R&D, a young German chef who stayed on after Noma’s 2015 Tokyo residency, spending six months researching local ingredients with the help of big backers. I arrived punchy from jet lag and high on sweets, having just toured the gorgeous new flagship of Toraya, the sixth-generation royal confectioner. Church giggles during dish descriptions aside, I found Inua served one of the most genuinely delicious and distinctive meals of my trip. Yes, it had strong Noma Disney vibes, from the decor to the plates to the dishes themselves. But Frebel and his eager team from over 15 countries are going deep into Japanese ingredients—dreaming up dishes like meaty maitake mushrooms aged whole and smoked, then braised in pine dashi; dehydrated plum leather speckled with herbs and flowers arrayed on framed honeycomb; koji-blackened barley ice cream—to arrive at something new.

After so much newness, I was craving something traditional. I managed to secure an evening with super-fixer Shinji Nohara, the insider’s insider (@tokyofixer on social media), who has guided everyone from Tony Bourdain to Sofia Coppola through Tokyo’s restaurants—high, low, and hidden. Asked to take me somewhere that no gaijin would know, he steered me to Yakitori Ogawa, where we ate all manner of tasty chicken skewers and drank enough sake to get us to a second-floor record bar so cool I was sworn to secrecy. Not that I can remember what it was called. Still, I wanted something truly old-school. Back in the fourth century, sushi—which derives from a word meaning “sour-tasting”—was salted fish placed on cooked rice and allowed to age, thereby preserving it. Hungry yet? Well, a trusted friend had told me that, thanks to a tip from the late Jonathan Gold, he’d had one of the best meals of his life at Sushi Kimura—and managed to secure me a seat. (You can also try reserving through TableAll, one of the online platforms that takes much of the opacity out of booking.)

I was the only tourist at this eight-seat bar in an upscale suburb, and the regulars greeted me with raised brows of approval: An American is about to eat two-month-old fish? You’re in! After starters of smoked oyster butter, soup made from the liver and sperm sac of blowfish, and gnarly crab claws drenched in brandy sauce, we began young: Hokkaido shrimp aged for six days, then boiled for just three seconds. Deep-ocean kinmedai aged two weeks. While the room was unremarkable, each sake pitcher, teacup, and glass—changed with each round—was a work of art. I was nervous when the jovial, forty-something Koji Kimura announced that he’d bought himself the forthcoming yellowtail as a Christmas present—it was February 16—but soon I was fighting back tears of another nature. The fermentation had rendered the fish lush, creamy, and sweet—as buttery and beautifully nuanced as a dry-aged Wagyu rib eye. Salmon and swordfish entered new/old dimensions. Kimura put forth other fish that no local or app could translate, having transformed them using methods that were forgotten or ignored. But in the end, it was the untranslatable quality of the experience that made it feel like an actual discovery—the new shock of the old.


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