I’ve been told there are 80,000 restaurants in Tokyo. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of that information but I can promise you one thing: it’s next to impossible to have a bad meal in the Japanese capital.
The level of quality produce and dedication to the craft of cooking seems inherent in the culture. Many of the places are small and hidden away. Do your best to search them out and never leave the hotel without a return business card so you can find your way “home”. My wife, Sam, and I were lucky enough to have 10 days in Tokyo and we chose to stay at two places while we were there – The Ritz-Carlton in midtown, near Roppongi, and Palace Hotel, near Ginza. Tokyo is such a big city; it’s great to base yourself in a couple of different areas. Cabs are fairly inexpensive and if you’re up for an adventure, the subway is fun, too.
On the first day, we went to Tokyu Food Show, a gourmet food hall in Tokyu Toyoko Department Store next to Shibuya Station. This place is amazing – full of fresh produce and incredible stores. There’s all this awesome food being cooked in front of you. Don’t leave Tokyo without experiencing it. As for the restaurants I did get to (definitely not 80,000, although I gave it my best shot!), I had some meals that were out of this world. Here are my favourites…
In June 2015, The World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ranked Narisawa at number eight. It’s as beautiful as you might expect, with dark timber floors, timber blinds and tablecloth-sized napkins. The 10-course dégustation begins with the “Bread of the Forest 2010”, which sees bread dough brought to your table in a glass. After the dough rises in front of you, it’s put on a stone heated to 300ºC, enhanced by chestnuts and left to bake for 12 minutes. This is dinner as theatre but the flavours match the drama, from dried and smoked hand-caught sea snake to a most tender wagyu beef shabu-shabu. The wine list is equally impressive; we forego sake for a half-bottle of the 2010 Olivier Leflaive Puligny-Montrachet from the Côte de Beaune and a bottle of 2001 Chateau Lynsolence from Saint-Emilion in Bordeaux. You’ll need to book ahead online, on the first day of the month before your visit.
2-6-15 Minami Ayoyama, Minato-Ku
This amazing six-seat eatery provides an incredibly personal experience that’s hard to beat. The plates are passed to you by Chef Tomori Toshiji (above), who does everything from open wine to wash up. Fortunately, he also makes extraordinary Italian food (and the wine, a 2010 Château de Saint Cosme from the Côtes du Rhône isn’t too bad either!). Our eight-course tasting menu includes a flounder carpaccio with wild herbs and roasted pigeon, Jerusalem artichoke chips and garlic. We also have our first plate of pasta on this trip – a taglierini with coriander and sansho pepper flowers. So good! Every dish is perfect and a great blend of fabulous ingredients and the craft of cooking. It’s extraordinary how well you can eat in Tokyo.
1-5-11 Komaba, Meguro-ku
Everything about this tiny restaurant, which specialises in tempura and only seats eight, is beautifully Japanese – from the décor (a large tree branch juts out of the kitchen and into the diners’ space) to the handwritten sake list (I opt for a chilled sake). A small plate sits in front of us for the tempura paper to be placed on it and what you notice with every placement is that there’s no oil left on the paper. Extraordinary! We eat a dozen different takes on tempura, from shrimp legs (so crisp, they actually shatter) to shiitake mushrooms and blackthroat perch to bamboo shoot. But the killer dish of the night is fresh sea urchin on tempura shiso leaf – creamy, sweet, salty and crunchy all at the same time. As we leave, it’s raining and the chef holds an umbrella over us as we climb, sated, into the car. A truly memorable evening.
￼3-2-4 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku
A real neighbourhood joint with most diners sitting at the counter, this is a great find. The chef is busy at the grill, turning each skewer over and over again, brushing some with oil, clipping burnt bits off others and then dipping them in a thick yakitori sauce – simple food with quality ingredients cooked by a master. Sake is available in open-top teapots and we find a Jyou-Kigen Yamagata-ken more than agreeable (to the tune of four pots!). If fresh gingko nuts are on the menu, do try them. Creamy but waxy, sweet but slightly bitter; I wish we could get these back home. They’re nothing like the vacuum-packed ones we suffer. This is awesome food and crazy value.
3-23-4 Nishihara, Shibuya-ku
There are about a dozen of these ramen restaurants scattered around Tokyo and purists seek them out for Ippudo’s speciality – the classic pork soup, tonkatsu ramen. The restaurant we visit in Roppongi is nothing flash – there are 10 seats at the kitchen and a communal table in the back room – but the soup (made by boiling the bones and skin of the pork to create a cloudy, full-flavoured broth) is incredible. Sam and I both have the Ippudo Karaka Men – a pork soup laced with spicy miso. When they say spicy, they mean it! I opt for level four (out of five). Not a complete mistake but you have to be a chilli warrior to handle the heat. My brow sweats in the best possible way, the noodles have just the right amount of chew and the broth is incredibly moreish. Perfect washed down with iced tea.
This gorgeous soba shop started life in Manhattan. Can you believe it? It takes a few design cues from Denmark but the food is very, very Japanese. The fried eggplant with soy and grated ginger is simple but delicious, while the tofu with grated daikon and fermented mountain yam is fresh and creamy. But we’ve come here for the handmade soba and happily tuck into chilled soba with mountain yam. I dip the noodles in the yam dipping sauce, bring the bowl to my lips and slurp up the soba. This is what life’s all about!
7-14-18 Roppongi, Minato-ku
You have to order through a vending machine, which immediately tells you something about this place. Afuri is far from fancy but it’s cheap, quick and delicious. Try the kara tsuyu tsukemen noodles. Although they can be served hot or cold, I always prefer mine cold as the chew of the noodle is the best bit. The garnish is nori, pickled bamboo, boiled egg and warm pork. Extremely satisfying.
1-1-7 Ebisu, Shibuya-ku
Here’s what you need to do. Join the queue up the stairs (where you can smell the charcoal). Buy your tickets from a vending machine. Order your pork and rice (which comes in three sizes) and add pickles, vegetables or a poached egg. Watch the chef as he works over the hot coals and grills the marinated pork belly. Enjoy the aromas of the pork on rice with the sauce (a reduction of soy, mirin and sake) as it’s brought to the table. Enjoy every mouthful of the juicy pork. And have an ice-cold beer with it. That’s it. So basic, so delicious.
￼3F, 2-6-15 Kanda-Surugadai, Chiyoda-ku
On the first floor of the South Tower, Sushi Saito is not easy to find. Like many restaurants in Tokyo, persistence and a friendly cab driver help! But do persist. This restaurant is often described as having the best sushi in Tokyo (French chef Joel Robuchon goes even further, describing it as the best sushi restaurant in the world). Everything is perfectly manicured – the chefs work together with the master to cut and shape each sushi – and there’s no soy or wasabi on the plate (each piece is seasoned by the master, depending on what it needs). The fish, from red snapper and Japanese sardine to fatty tuna, is incredibly tender. And the flavours! Some delicate, some on steroids. We booked a month in advance to secure our spot. It’s definitely the best sushi in Tokyo – is it the best in the world? Probably, because in my opinion Tokyo has the best fish market in the world.
1F, Ark Hills South Tower, 1-4-5 Roppongi, Minato-ku
This is a cool, fun place. Just a few tables in a tatami room with lots of sake lined up and a mix of original songs and Japanese knock-offs on the soundtrack. The staff don’t speak a lot of English but that’s half the fun – just let them choose for you. They bring us a bunch of stuff, from a fresher-than-fresh sashimi of bluefin tuna, snapper and sea urchin to a classic Japanese curry of eggplant and potato with cheese, which is surprisingly good. The highlight? An oily fish that’s grilled over charcoal and has an egg omelette on the side. This is truly off-the-charts good and is made even better by the chef who sings and whistles while we eat it. In fact, the food is so great and the place so fun that we probably don’t need five sakes. But hey, when in Tokyo... ￼
￼B1F, 2-7-14 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku
Tetsuya Saotome has been cooking tempura for more than 30 years. His old-style shop seats 12 and is renowned as one of the best tempura restaurants in Tokyo. The oil seems hotter than at Motoyoshi, which means the batter is crisper and darker and the sesame taste is slightly stronger. Every morsel is amazing but it’s the savoury course of clam tempura on rice that makes us sit up. Crunchy and salty with the soy, it makes for a perfect finish.
1-3-1 Fukuzumi, Koto-ku