JA­PAN: TOKYO ALL STARS

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY KRIS MADDEN

Seek­ing en­light­en­ment in Ja­pan in­volves hik­ing back in time. With more Miche­lin-starred restau­rants than Paris, Tokyo has firmly es­tab­lished it­self as the gas­tro­nomic cap­i­tal of the world.

More than a cen­tury ago, broth­ers Án­dre and Édouard Miche­lin, founders of Miche­lin tyres, launched a res­tau­rant and hotel guide to en­cour­age driv­ers back then to use up their tyres and buy more.

To­day, the Miche­lin Guide Tokyo 2017 is one of the most re­spected and fa­mous sys­tems for rat­ing restau­rants and ho­tels across the world. As any chef worth his salt knows, gain­ing a Miche­lin star can in­stantly pro­pel one from ob­scu­rity to the heights of star­dom. It’s a sign that you’ve suc­ceeded at the high­est level as a chef.

So, it’s no mean feat that Tokyo has ranked number one in the world for the most three-star Miche­lin restau­rants for the past decade, the length of time the Miche­lin Guide Tokyo has been pub­lished. In this year’s edi­tion, 227 es­tab­lish­ments were awarded stars: 12 with three stars (four which have held their stars for 10 years); 54 two-star restau­rants, and 161 with a sin­gle star each. Sixty-six new restau­rants were added this year alone.

Al­though there are two French three-star restau­rants on the list, when in Tokyo it would be a shame not to treat your­self to the finest Ja­panese cui­sine the Land of the Ris­ing Sun can pro­duce.

With more Miche­lin-starred restau­rants than Paris,Tokyo has firmly es­tab­lished it­self as the gas­tro­nomic cap­i­tal of the world.

Worth a spe­cial jour­ney

In Miche­lin terms, three stars mean ex­cep­tional cui­sine, worth a spe­cial jour­ney, so at least one (if not more) of these restau­rants should be on your list. Many only seat a hand­ful or two of pa­trons, so reser­va­tions well in ad­vance are essential.

At Hideki Ishikawa’s name­sake res­tau­rant in the geisha district of Kagu­razaka, you’ll find traditional kaiseki (Ja­panese haute cui­sine served as mul­ti­ple cour­ses) served by wait­resses wear­ing ki­monos. Like most high-end Ja­panese restau­rants, the menu

changes with the sea­sons, en­sur­ing the in­gre­di­ents are the fresh­est avail­able. Sit at the counter made from a 400-year-old cy­press tree taken from the Ise Shinto shrine in Mie, and let Ishikawa serve you his exquisitely sim­ple dishes, like seared lobster with vine­gar soy sauce.

Lo­cated around the cor­ner, Ko­haku is re­garded as the more casual sis­ter of Ishikawa. Chef-owner Koji Koizumi served as right-hand man to Hideki Ishikawa for years be­fore open­ing his own business at Ishikawa’s former premises. Koizumi is an in­no­va­tive kaiseki mas­ter who gives his dishes an avant-garde twist by combining in­gre­di­ents not usually as­so­ci­ated with Ja­panese cook­ing. One of his sig­na­ture dishes is au­tumn mack­erel, mar­i­nated with vine­gar for four days and lightly smoked over burn­ing rice.

The phi­los­o­phy of Ni­hon­ry­ori RyuGin owner-chef, Seiji Ya­mamoto, is that its cui­sine is a sym­bol of the rich­ness of Ja­pan, and “tast­ing its trea­sured in­gre­di­ents in their nat­u­ral state is the ul­ti­mate feast”. Us­ing pre­cise tech­niques per­fected over cen­turies, Ya­mamoto and his team take their art very se­ri­ously. The aro­mas are cen­tral to the ex­pe­ri­ence, so much so, that wear­ing per­fume or cologne is pro­hib­ited here. Also, if you have di­etary re­quire­ments or al­ler­gies that mean you can’t eat what’s served up, they won’t ac­cept your book­ing, as changes would com­pro­mise the qual­ity of the food. The res­tau­rant’s name, RyuGin, orig­i­nates from a Zen fa­ble in­volv­ing a pow­er­ful dragon, which is re­flected in the sur­round­ing art­work and pre­sen­ta­tion plates adorned with these myth­i­cal crea­tures.

At Kanda, chef Hiroyuki Kanda doesn’t have a menu. He is the menu. “All our cus­tomers have unique personalities, and per­spec­tives on life. They are dif­fer­ent ages and some­times come from dif­fer­ent cul­tures. There is no such thing as an ideal ‘one-size-fits-all’ ap­proach to cui­sine, there­fore we have no writ­ten menu. Each ex­pe­ri­ence is designed to make each cus­tomer happy,” he says. Ex­pect cre­ations such as Ja­pane­ses­tyle beef cheeks sim­mered in red wine, or sukiyaki with eggs whisked like snow.

With just six seats set out along a wooden counter, Akio Makimura cooks up a kaiseki de­gus­ta­tion of fish dishes at his res­tau­rant Makimura, as he has been do­ing for the past 28 years. His sig­na­ture dish is Tai Chazuke, sea bream rice with green tea, bought ev­ery morn­ing from Tsuk­iji Fish Mar­ket and pre­pared there to al­low the umami flavour to de­velop by the time he uses it in the res­tau­rant.

An­other Miche­lin chef who bases his cook­ing on the city’s culi­nary tra­di­tions is Jun Yukimura of Yukimura. He is espe­cially renowned for his shabu-shabu (a hot­pot dish named after the sound pro­duced when the in­gre­di­ents are stirred in the cook­ing pot), and snow crab in win­ter.

The flavour and fresh­ness of sushi in Ja­pan bears al­most no re­sem­blance to the kind we know in Australia, and Tokyo’s three-Miche­lin starred sushi restau­rants take it to a whole new level.

Sushi Saito, owned by chef Takashi Saito, is widely re­garded as the top sushi res­tau­rant in Tokyo. At Sukiyabashi Jiro Hon­ten you’ll find the ‘left-handed mas­ter crafts­man’,

Jiro Ono, star of the doc­u­men­tary Jiro Dreams of Sushi. He serves omakase ni­giri sushi and nothing else at his au­then­tic sushi res­tau­rant. Watch as ev­ery sin­gle piece is made in front of your eyes with care and pre­ci­sion. At Sushi Yoshi­take, skills honed over years of ex­pe­ri­ence by mas­ter sushi chef Masahiro Yoshi­take, the finest in­gre­di­ents are trans­formed into works of art.

If you’re game to try the ‘meal that can kill you in a heart­beat if not cooked right’ – the poi­sonous blow­fish – then three-star Usuk­ifugu Ya­ma­daya is cer­tainly the place to do it. Fugu (blow­fish) con­tains poi­son in its or­gans, so only chefs with a spe­cial li­cense are per­mit­ted to pre­pare it. Ya­ma­daya’s set course of a range of dif­fer­ent fugu dishes, in­clud­ing fu­gusashi (puffer­fish sashimi); karaage (deep-fried); and fuguchiri-zousui (a hot-pot meal of blow­fish, veg­eta­bles and rice) will al­low you to taste it in many ways.

Worth more than a de­tour

Miche­lin rates two-star restau­rants as ‘ex­cel­lent, worth a de­tour’, but they are much more than that, and rather than just trying to pop in after a day’s sight­see­ing, I would say they’re worth mak­ing them one of the high­lights of your hol­i­day. There are no less than 54 of these shin­ing stars in the Ja­panese cap­i­tal.

A long-time favourite is Nari­sawa, with chef Yoshi­hiro Nari­sawa at its helm. Nari­sawa has coined his own style of cui­sine, called ‘in­no­va­tive satoyama’, which is a term for the spe­cial place be­tween moun­tain foothills and farm­land. Nari­sawa ap­plies tech­niques learned through years of ex­pe­ri­ence work­ing with top chefs across Euro­pean to Ja­panese cui­sine. De­scribed as pre­cise, whim­si­cal, imag­i­na­tive and de­li­cious, his muse is the en­vi­ron­ment, with dishes named ‘Life and Death’ and ‘Gifts from the For­est’. Nari­sawa is also one of the best places in the world to ap­pre­ci­ate Ja­panese wine, with pinot noir from Nagano, ries­ling from Iwate, and aged Bordeaux-style blends from Ya­m­a­gata and be­yond.

Daigo is a two-Miche­lin-star res­tau­rant that serves ‘sho­jin’ food, or Bud­dhist veg­e­tar­ian cui­sine. This lit­tle res­tau­rant was es­tab­lished in 1950 and is lo­cated near the Seisho-ji Tem­ple at the foot of Mount Atago. Head chef Daisuke No­mura’s cui­sine is based on the concept of ap­pre­ci­at­ing sim­ple food; and the set­ting, over­look­ing a tran­quil gar­den, will un­doubt­edly leave you feel­ing com­pletely Zen.

One of the younger gen­er­a­tion of Ja­panese chefs who has made a name for him­self with his quirky and play­ful take on traditional cui­sine at his one-star res­tau­rant Den is Zaiyu Hasegawa. One of his sig­na­ture dishes is ‘Den­tucky Fried Chicken’, a gourmet ver­sion of the iconic fast food dish with chicken stuffed with dif­fer­ent types of mush­rooms, al­monds, and then fried. It’s served in a card­board box (with a pic­ture of Hasegawa on it) with lit­tle sur­prises per­son­ally picked for each diner.

Su­per star sav­ings

A de­gus­ta­tion at a three-star es­tab­lish­ment can set you back any­thing from $200 – $1,000 per per­son, but per­haps the best thing about eat­ing in Tokyo is that not all Miche­lin-rated restau­rants are su­per-ex­pen­sive.

Last year, the Miche­lin Guide Tokyo recog­nised and awarded a ra­men res­tau­rant a star for the first time: Tsuta, where a lip-smack­ing bowl of the award-win­ning noo­dles will set you back less than an av­er­age fo­cac­cia and cof­fee in a Syd­ney café. The se­cret to its tasti­ness lies in the broth (with hints of white truf­fle oil and red wine) and thin hand-made ra­men noo­dles made to an orig­i­nal recipe by owner Yuki Onishi.

Open­ing im­age: Nari­sawa ‘Life & Death’.

Left: Ni­hon­ry­ori RyuGin Spring menu.

Op­po­site page from top right: Fugu (blow­fish) at Ya­ma­daya; Mas­ter sushi chef Masahiro Yoshi­take.

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