Tokyo 2012 ultimate dining guide
“I have a little challenge for you,” my editor began, employing the disingenuous tone of an adult trying to convince an eight-year-old that math homework is fun. “I want you to put together a food guide that would reflect what it’s like to eat in Tokyo right now, in 2012.”
I blinked, wondering where to begin. With literally tens of thousands of places to choose from, Tokyo is a food lover’s paradise, and composing a shortlist of restaurants is more than “a little challenge.”
These days, the city offers a mind-blowing array of options — from traditional favorites like sushi and tempura to creative, cutting-edge cuisine that’s hard to categorize.
You can find just about anything your heart (and stomach) desires, which is exactly why I love eating in Tokyo, even if it makes my job harder.
Ramen: Chabuya and Chabuya Zutto
For a lot of Tokyoites, ramen is the epitome of cheap, fast food — a simple bowl of noodles to be slurped down in a matter of minutes during lunchtime or after a long night of carousing.
Not so, says ramen mogul Yasuji Morizumi, who has made it his life’s mission to elevate the humble dish to gourmet status.
The 43-year-old chef spent 10 years working at a French restaurant before going into the ramen business, and his training shows in the classic ramen served at Cabuya in Bunkyo Ward and the modern ramen dishes served at Chabuya Zutto in Yotsuya.
Chabuya Zutto’s shoyu ramen manages to be both original and comfortingly familiar. Served without soup, beneath thick slices of buttery roasted pork belly, the noodles are bathed in an umami-rich concentrate of soy sauce, broth and oyster essence from Piedmont, Italy.
Morizumi is a stickler for texture, and his ramen noodles have the satisfying, chewy consistency of al dente pasta. In preparing the dough, the chef measures the temperature of the flour and the amount of water according to the humidity and weather every day.
It’s a lot of work for a bowl of noodles, but Morizumi would have it no other way.
Chabuya, 1-17-16 Otowa, Bunkyo-ku, +81 (0) 3 3945 3791.
Chabuya Zutto, 7 Funemachi, Shinjuku-ku, +81 (0) 3 5919 0752.
Creative international: Aronia de Takazawa
Yoshiaki Takazawa has a reputation for playing with his food.
At his restaurant, Aronia de Takazawa, the chef has invented his own brand of international haute cuisine, and he takes particular delight in creating witty interpretations of the Japanese standards that usually appear in less-exalted dining establishments.
“I come up with new dishes by first considering the season and also thinking about dishes that may be a bit nostalgic,” Takazawa tells me.
Crab croquettes, a staple in izakaya and bento box lunches, are given the fine-dining treatment and turned into silky crab and corn bisque, topped with crispy strands of fried pasta, while the treacly petit pudding commonly found in convenience stores becomes a savory egg custard, covered with a thin layer of dashi gelée.
His latest reinterpretation is a postmodern play on curry rice. A perfectly grilled lamb chop, accompanied by a trio of pureed potato, carrot, and caramelized onion, is topped with crispy sheets of curry-flavored rice paper.
In each case, the culinary fireworks have the effect of focusing attention on the quality of the ingredients.
Aronia de Takazawa, Sanyo Akasaka Bldg 2/F, Akasaka 3-5-2, Minato-ku, +81 (0) 3 3505 5052.www.aroniadetakazawa.com
“Tempura is not like sushi, where the ingredients are presented just as they are,” says owner-chef Hitoshi Arai of Tenko restaurant in Kagurazaka. “The challenge for the tempura chef is how to enhance the flavor of the ingredients without obscuring their natural essence.”
Arai speaks with the earnestness of a man who polishes his tempura pot to a gleam every night before going home, and this sincerity comes through in his food.
At Tenko, Arai prepares greaseless Edo-style tempura — fresh seasonal vegetables and seafood shipped daily from Tsukiji market, sealed in an airy batter perfumed with sesame oil.
Most items, such as the delicate hase fish, are best enjoyed on their own with a sprinkle of sea salt.
Sweet shrimp are one of Tenko’s specialties, and Arai serves them alongside their spindly heads. No bigger than the first joint on your thumb and deep-fried to a perfect crisp, these little morsels alone are worth making the trip for.
Tenko is hidden away on a side street and located in a former geisha house. The restaurant’s traditional atmosphere, with its tatami-mat rooms and sliding shoji doors, makes for a truly unique dining experience in Tokyo, and Chef Arai’s hospitality is impeccable.