The essence of Japanese cuisine lies in stripping it down to its basic elements to allow individual flavors to shine through. (Roger Lim/iStock)
A year after Michelin launched its Tokyo guide in 2007, it awarded the city 227 stars — more than Paris, New York and London combined. Many in those rival capitals grumbled that the high mark was merely a marketing ploy to sell more Michelin guides in Japan as the company expanded into Asia.
But for Tokyoites, it confirmed what we already knew: the city’s 160,000 restaurants serve some of the world's best food.
Michelin stars aside, it’s not the high-end restaurants that set Tokyo apart, but the lower-to-middle end eateries. From the corner noodle shop to the local sushi bar, the food is prepared and served with the kind of care that would demand top dollar in the rest of the world.
In most of Asia, cooks use heavy amounts of seasoning and sauce to enhance the flavor of the food. But the essence of Japanese cuisine, called washoku by the natives, is stripping ingredients down to their basic elements to allow individual favors to shine through.
Even Japan’s most famous spice, wasabi, isn’t that hot if you eat the real thing. Ground fresh from the stem at your table, it has an almost sweet aftertaste very different from the sting of the green, Chinese mustard-packed paste that passes for wasabi abroad.
While sushi remains Japan’s most famous culinary export, noodle restaurants are everywhere in Tokyo, serving quick and inexpensive fare with a bewildering assortment of accompaniments. In a city known as one of the world’s most expensive, you can get a bowl of noodles for under $5 in even the priciest districts.
Navigating the menu can be a struggle in restaurants outside the central districts, where fewer people speak English. Your saving grace, at least at the cheaper places, will be the photos on the menu and the plastic replicas of the dishes on display at the entrances. Just smile, nod and point.
Around the corner: Hiroki
The omelet-like okonomiyaki served at this down-home eatery has been one of my favorite Japanese dishes since my first bite 12 years ago. I came across Hiroki by chance, but it’s well known among locals, who line up for more than an hour for the Hirohsima-style okonomiyaki filled with fried noodles and whatever vegetables and meat they choose.
The two Japanese characters that comprise the restaurant’s name mean “grill” and “like,” which sums up the dish perfectly: grill what you like. But unlike most okonomiyaki restaurants, where you cook your own omelet on a hot pan in the center of the table, the dish comes ready-made. All you do is add sauces.
Table turnover at this 16-seat restaurant is quick, so it’s not the place to linger over an after-dinner cocktail. Wash down your okomomiyaki with a black-label Sapporo or Ebisu beer and continue your conversation at one of the numerous bars down the street.
A four-minute walk from Shimo-kitazawa station, it’s not easy to find. But if you get lost, ask someone in the neighborhood to steer you in the right direction. They may even walk you there in person — one of many reasons the Japanese are known for hospitality.
Tokyo – Setagaya
Meal for two: 2,500 yen ($27.50)
Ambience: Moderately noisy
Comfort food: Kuimono-ya Wan
Tokyo overflows with izakaya, an umbrella term for a wide range of cheap to upscale restaurants where you order dishes and alcohol as the mood takes you.
One of my favorites is Kuimono-ya Wan, with its large communal areas, quiet private rooms and dimly-lit corridors lined with sliding paper doors.
The menu offers dozens of delicious options such as salmon and mushroom sushi, mushroom tempura and deep fried tofu. The mark of any good izakaya is the edamame — soya beans served in their pods that go perfectly with beer. Wan does not disappoint.
One of the advantages of izakaya is you can try a variety of Japanese cuisines, under one roof. Besides okonomiyaki, noodle dishes and sushi, Wan even serves collagen gyoza (a kind of dumpling) popular among patrons who want to improve their skin.
If navigating the Japanese-only menu is too daunting, try one of the seven course meals that often include unlimited alcohol for a two-hour period. Fortunately for non-Japanese speakers, the Japanese word for “course” is “course.”
It’s a two-minute walk from the east exit of Shinjuku Station in the basement of the building.
Tokyo – Shinjuku
Meal for two: 4,500 yen ($50)
Ambience: Lively in the open seating areas, quiet in the private rooms
Tell no one: Nagamine
Kaiseki, one Japan’s traditional cuisines, is a meal of multiple small courses prepared with an attention to detail unrivaled by anywhere else in the world. The food of ancient tea ceremonies, kaiseki is essentially edible art.
At Nagamine, hostesses greet you in soft-colored kimonos and guide you to private cubicles or dining rooms, depending on your party’s size. The courses, served in lacquer boxes, are made with fresh, organic vegetables the owners grow themselves.
The dishes change monthly, depending on what produce is fresh that season, and often include fish. The lunch courses, scaled-down versions of the evening fare, start at $30 per person. If the vegetable sushi course is available when you’re there, don’t miss the chance.
Nagamine recently added an English menu and has English-speaking waiters who explain every course in detail as it is served. If you have a Japanese friend who can help you navigate their website, you can also order online in advance.
It’s a two-minute walk from the A2 exit of Higashi Ginza station, down the street from the Mitsukoshi department store.
Ginsho Building B1F 4-9-5
Tokyo – Ginza Chuo-ku
Reservations: Recommended for dinner
Meal for two: 10,500-38,000 yen ($115-425)
With an English menu: Gonpachi
This upscale but lively izakaya is where former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi took George W. Bush for yakitori (grilled chicken) in 2002. It was also Quentin Tarantino’s inspiration for the split-floor levels of the House of Blue Leaves restaurant where Uma Thurman avenges the death of her unborn child in the bloody battle scene in “Kill Bill.”
It’s touristy enough that a Japanese friend once commented, “The food is for Westerners who don’t really understand Japanese cuisine.” Well, so what?
Styled after an Edo-era (1603-1867) building with an attentive wait staff, it’s a pleasure to behold inside and out.
Gonpachi has a wide selection of sake and plum wine, and its izakaya-style menu heavy on yaki-niku (grilled meats) and soba (buckwheat) noodles rarely disappoints. My favorite noodles, homemade daily, are the ita soba that come with a cold sesame soup for two.
The third-floor sushi restaurant is a little quieter than the main floors, although the outdoor terrace overlooks Azabu crossing, a busy intersection that prevents it from being a total escape.
It’s near Azabu crossing down the road from Roppongi subway station. You can also consult its website, which has an English map.
1-3-11 Nishi Azabu
Tokyo – Minato-ku
Meal for two: 5,500 yen ($67)
Ambience: Noisy downstairs, quieter upstairs
Seating: Indoor with an outdoor terrace in the sushi bar on the third floor
Correspondent’s inspiration: Shin Hinomoto/Andy’s
This izakaya is packed every weeknight with Japanese office workers who call it “Shin Hinomoto,” and journalists from the Foreign Correspondents’ Club who call it “Andy’s” after its British owner.
But this is no expat hangout serving Western food to homesick foreigners. Andy, who inherited the restaurant from his Japanese in-laws, makes the dishes with fresh fish he buys daily from nearby Tsukiji — home to the largest fish market in the world.
The constant stream of locals who fill the place until the last train at midnight are testament to the quality and authenticity of the menu, which offers every fish dish you can imagine, and some you probably can’t.
If you’re adventurous, do what many regulars do and ask Andy to recommend something. Though be warned, you could end up with whale on your plate. Otherwise, try the eel tempura, grilled asparagus and steamed black cod.
The downstairs is about as boisterous as it gets in Tokyo izakayas, where you may find yourself shoulder-to-shoulder with businessmen letting off some after-work steam. The upstairs is generally quieter, with a large wooden table that fills up early with those who had the foresight to call ahead.
It’s under the arches by Yurakucho Station, across from the Yurakucho Denki Building near the Hibiya subway station.
Tokyo – Chiyoda-ku
Reservations: Recommended for upstairs
Meal for two: 4,000 yen ($45)
Dress: Business casual