When Masterchef goes on the road, the conversation is all about where, and what, we are going to eat
Masterchef goes to Japan.
Behind the scenes, in the weeks leading up to the Masterchef trip to Tokyo, one question consumed the judges. “Where should we eat?”
We’d been in Tokyo precisely 17 minutes before we were around the corner from our hotel hunkered down in a great little ramen bar called Shinamen Hashigo, or Hashigo for short. Ramen was a high priority as Gary (like most of Japan) is obsessed with this cheap and slurpy noodle soup. Even after the cool Afuri and the rich porky broth at the famous Ippudo, the dark spicy ramen here stood up as our favourite. But I did love the plastic washing basket they give you at Ippudo for your coats and bags, so they don’t sit on the floor.
Tokyo is a mecca for this sort of tiny eating house where the bill is small, the food is tasty and they specialise in one thing. Maisen, located in an old public bathhouse in Shibuya, is a prime example. There’s an impressively extensive menu of pork cuts, which can be expertly cooked one of several ways. It’s all about the excellent crumbed tonkatsu here. The golden, crisp but crumby crust hides a fat slab of loin or fillet. It’s equally wonderful with a finely shredded but undressed salad of raw cabbage or in a white bread sanger that is so fashionable here in Australia at the moment. In both cases, the fruity homemade barbecue sauce accompaniment is a must.
Forget the saké. So much of Tokyo’s food is perfect with beer and nowhere is this more obvious than at the pumping Shirube in Shimokitazawa. Pick your way past the sunken bar and kitchen, through a packed maze of diners sitting cross-legged on the wooden floor, to find a table. Our mob ordered beer, fried shrimp, curly fries with seaweed salt and whole fillets of mackerel with mustard pickled ginger that was blazed dramatically with a blowtorch at the table. This place is a raucous riot, totally delicious and an antidote to the tiny, stitched-up, fine diners that Tokyo is famous for. If this is izakaya life, I like it!
Equally classic and authentic is Kanda Matsuya. This soba noodle joint founded 130 years ago sells some of the best handmade soba noodles in the world. Have them like we did – cold and plain with a sesame dipping sauce and a bottle of Sapporo beer.
There were plenty of other Japanese classics like tempura and gyoza, or skewered sticky grilled eel and the sweet omelette from the stalls around Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji fish market. The restaurants serving degustation or other modern fare were fantastic as well, especially the immaculate Narisawa in Minato.
But after three weeks, when we might have been getting a little bit over ramen, we were only just getting started on the raw fish.
Even the basic stuff you pick up from department stores is darned good – the rice tender and the fish impressively fresh – but it’s when you step up to a specialist that things start to get interesting. The little sushi bar in the mall by our hotel, Sushi Kyotatsu, not only served excellent cuts of tuna but also interesting oddities like icefish, a tiny elver-like fish with a texture akin to fishy jelly. (Honestly, they were way better than I make them sound.)
The pick of all the sushi places we went to however was up in Shimokitazawa. Chef Kodama-san, with whom we filmed Monday night’s challenge, told us of his favourite sushi restaurant, snorting with derision at the crazy prices demanded by the top Ginza sushi temples for these iconic bites that started out as street food sold from hand carts around old Edo (as Tokyo was called in the 17th-19th centuries).
Uoshin-sushi was so good we went there twice. What makes the best sushi so memorable isn’t just the impeccable produce that we rarely see in Australia, like blackthroat sea perch, thread-sail filefish or geoduck clams. Or the carefully chosen rice flavoured with little more than a couple of vinegars so the fish sings with its own sweetness. Or even the assured knifework.
What makes it the best is the care taken with each morsel. Whether it is gurnard barely cured with kelp salt, bonito marinated in soy, yellowfin gently blazed, fatty tuna from an unusual place on the fish like the cheek or under the fin, or lean tuna cured briefly in soy and then dotted with yellow mustard (the original heat source that dates back to when wasabi was too expensive for those sushi street carts to use), everything is prepared with unique attention to detail.
Each visit was one of those rare meals where your eyes roll with pleasure and where we learned so much.