TOKYO FOOD FILE YEAR-END 2016
What a year it’s been. Thankfully, the world of gastronomy hasn’t ridden quite the same roller-coaster of frustration, sadness and despair as the political and popular music arenas.
Even so, it’s high time to get the Year of the Monkey off our backs with a rundown of some of the ups, downs, ins and outs at Tokyo’s top restaurants.
In with the new.
Among the many exceptional openings this year, have been clutch of new and worthy sushi counters. Amamoto stands out, by dint of chef Masamichi Amamoto’s training, both in sushi at the excellent Umi in Aoyama and in traditional cuisine at some of Kyoto’s top restaurants.
Raising the bar for high-end Japanese cuisine has been Oryori Miyasaka. This offspring of Kyoto’s revered and impossible-to-reserve Mizai, opened in late 2015 but has really come to the fore this year, deservedly winning two Michelin stars.
It was only a matter of time before innovative French chef and ardent Japanophile Thierry Marx made his move here from Paris, channeling his Michelin-two-star expertise into the heart of Ginza with a serious, fine-dining restaurant alongside a brilliant neo-bistro that boasts one of the city’s finest vantage points.
Among the local big-hitters, the boldest statement has come from Yuichiro Watanabe, a former longtime chef at Joel Robuchon’s chateau restaurant in Ebisu who this year finally set up his own intimate haute cuisine restaurant, Nabeno-Ism, turning his back on the usual upmarket parts of town in favor of a location overlooking the Sumida River in Asakusa.
On a more casual level, we have plenty of new faces to celebrate. At Alternative, chef Takayuki Saito’s excellent modern cuisine makes a most compelling case for a leisurely evening in Roppongi. And in Shinbashi, the Danish-inflected French dishes of Junichi Kato have been drawing a stream of customers beyond their usual haunts to the immodestly named Sublime.
Meanwhile, Tokyo is finally cottoning on to the fact that some people — a lot more than used to let on — love high-end dining but are happiest when skipping straight to dessert. Scratching that oh-so-sweet itch, Janice Wong brought her signature sweets from Singapore this spring to the impressive NEWoMan complex above Shinjuku JR station. This was closely followed in April by Esquisse Cinq in the brand-new Tokyu Plaza Ginza mall.
Out with the old
It’s always sad to see old favorites disappear. One of this year’s disappointments was the demise of Beard, Shin Harakawa’s mellow little one-man bistro in lower Meguro. However all is not lost: he has hooked up with Jerome Waag (ex-Chez Panisse in California) for a new project which will hopefully coalesce into an actual restaurant in the near future. Watch this space.
Onward and upward
On a happier note, a number of Tokyo’s most popular venues have resurfaced, sometimes after long gaps and often in sparkling new guises. Reikasai disappeared from Roppongi Hills a couple of years ago, but has now reemerged to offer its classical Chinese Imperial court cuisine in Ginza.
And Shinsuke Ishii's year-long hiatus since closing the cult-classic Bacar finally came to a happy conclusion with the opening of Sincere, just north of Harajuku.
One of Tokyo’s local favorites, yakitori specialist Takashi Imai called it a day at his compact one-counter grill in Sendagi, but returned in late November with sleek new premises in Jingumae that are considerably larger, if more impersonal. That said, the quality of the chicken, vegetables and other ingredients at Yakitori Imai remains consistently high.
In an even greater upheaval, after nine years in Jimbocho chef Zaiyu Hasegawa has left his iconic address and also moved to Jingumae. The new incarnation of Den looks and feels very different, but Hasegawa's Japanese cuisine is as adventurous as always and the welcome every bit as warm.
And for those craving contemplative immersion in the culture of green tea, Shinya Sakurai’s remarkable Japanese Tea Experience is now much easier to find, having moved into the Spiral Building, close to Omotesando. His new address is now justifiably entered in many tourist guides, so you are advised to call ahead unless you’re ready for a long wait.
Pop-ups and tie-ups
A growing number of chefs have also been heading to Japan. Some come to observe and find inspiration in the food culture. Others prefer to roll up their sleeves and get to work, often together with local chefs.
One of the most memorable collaborations this year was the groundbreaking dinner by Brazilian superchef Alex Atala (D.O.M. in Sao Paulo) at Restaurant Narisawa. Held in February in anticipation of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, it introduced exotic fruit (and Amazonian ants) to assorted gastronomes and luminaries, along with signature dishes such as heart of palm fettucine.
Another highlight was the three-day event hosted by Florilege’s Hiroyasu Kawate with Gert de Mangeleer from Hertog Jan near Ghent, Belgium. It was a brilliant meeting of minds between two chefs who are treading parallel paths on either side of the world, and who seemed to spur each other on to new heights.
Meanwhile, Japanese sommelier Yukiyasu Kaneko returned to his homeland after two years at Noma (Copenhagen, Denmark) to curate a sell-out two-week pop-up along with Australian chef Luke Burgess (ex-Garagistes, in Tasmania) at Verre Volé in Meguro. Kaneko made sure the wine — all natural, of course — flowed while Burgess and his partner conjured up magic from the minuscule kitchen. All those who were there will likely be crowing for similar collaborations in the Year of the Rooster ahead.