When it comes to dining, few cities in Asia can match Tokyo, with its array of international and local fare prepared by chefs who study their craft as if it were painting or sculpture. A dizzying choice of local styles from teppanyaki to tonkatsu, as well as a rising overseas influence, has drawn some of the world’s top toques—leading some observers to call Tokyo the new culinary capital of the world.
Indeed, the city simultaneously creates dining trends while elevating existing concepts by adding unique Japanese approaches. The farm-to-table concept highlighting locally sourced ingredients, for instance, has led some Tokyo chefs to time their use of vegetables so precisely that “in-season” for some products has come to mean only a few weeks. Newcomer Teppei, in Kagurazaka, even has its own produce sommelier to ensure that quality never wavers.
In fact, non-Japanese speaking visitors should take this tack when ordering, asking for “shun no mono” (seasonal items) or “osusume” (the recommended dish), suggests Yukari Pratt Sakamoto, author of Food Sake Tokyo, an exploration of the city’s food culture that hits bookshelves next April. They’ll often get the most interesting dishes this way, she says.
More restaurants are embracing local branded meats and produce. While many Westerners are already familiar with Kobe beef, there are many other brands making inroads here from Matsusaka and Hida beef to Kagoshima black pork and Nagoya Cochin chicken. Restaurants have turned to these products for reliability as diners have become more discerning, says Seiichi Chada, CEO of Tokyo-based Michi Travel Japan, which specializes in customized itineraries, including culinary experiences featuring visits to farms and producers.
“The food industry in Japan recognizes the power of products with strong brand names,” says Chada. Among those employing this trend is newcomer Kagurazaka Shugo, an Italian restaurant near Ushigome-Kagurazaka Station, where a menu heavy with Japanese produce and meats is complemented by an Italian wine list.
Last year, Chef Marcus Samuelsson debuted the first Asian branch of his New York-based Aquavitin Kita-Aoyama, bringing to Tokyo a taste of his Scandinavian menu in a light, airy space. The Big Apple’s Grand Central Oyster Bar set up its second branch in Marunouchi and steakhouse chain Ruth’s Chris opened its first outpost in the country, in Kasumigaseki.
Seoul eatery Sosonjae brought a sibling to Azabu-Juban, serving Korean dishes with purported medicinal qualities, including miso aged for 10 years, while Chef Paul Haeberlin (formerly of France’s well-knownz
Troisgros) took to the stoves at L’Auberge de L’ill Tokyo, the Nishi-Azabu branch of a well-known Alsatian restaurant. The past few years have seen the openings of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Roppongi, and Beige, Chef Alain Ducasse’s Ginza collaboration with luxury goods designer Chanel.
Some of the city’s most significant restaurant openings in the past few years have been in posh high-rise hotels. Take Gordon Ramsay on the 28th floor of the Conrad Tokyo (Conrad.Hilton.com/tokyo) in the Shiodome district, where the floor-to- ceiling windows afford dramatic views that are dwarfed only by the prices. Head Chef Shinya Maeda, who also oversees the more moderately priced adjacent sibling eatery, presides over a space with enough cache to attract both trendy couples and expense-accounters. Conrad Tokyo also boasts the avant-garde, Michelin-starred China Blue—under Chef Albert Tse—a Chinese eatery with such amenities as a walk-in wine cellar and three private dining rooms with views of Hamarikyu Gardens and Tokyo Bay.
Peter, in the new Peninsula Hotel in Yurakucho, accents its dramatic views with high-tech theatrics that include a screen of interactive video images. But if you find all that too techy, you can retreat to the hotel’s Michelin-starred Hei Fung Terrace, where Chef Frankie Tang raises the bar on Cantonese cuisine in a Suzhou garden setting.
Other lofty hotel dining options include the Michelin-starred Hinokizaka, on the 45th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo, where staff in traditional kimonos serves contemporary Japanese fare, and theShangri-La’s Nadaman, a branch of the Kansai-based Japanese chain.
“Tokyo is a huge city with thousands of wonderful places to eat,” says Jeff Aasgaard, president of Toyko-based Rediscover Travel, which focuses on cultural experiences within Japan. “Many of these are small places with seating for only a few guests, but the food is excellent and well-priced.”