Thanks, Michelin, but we already knew Tokyo is top

by Robbie Swinnerton

So it’s official: Tokyo is the gourmet capital of the planet. That is the incontrovertible message of the new Michelin guide published Thursday, which awards the city a total of 191 of its coveted stars — compared with 98 in Paris and just 54 in New York.

Judging by the extent of media coverage around the world, this is big news. For those of us who make Tokyo our home, the reaction can only be, “What took the rest of the world so long to catch on? Why else do you think we live here?”

It’s long been commonplace that French restaurants here, whether bistro, formal or haute cuisine, are the equal of those in France — often cheaper and with better service, too. The same applies for Italian or many other cuisines, with the possible exception of Chinese. However, few were expecting the fogies at Michelin (this being the general perception of their faceless inspectors) would actually recognize this.

The bigger surprise, though, is the weight given to Japanese restaurants. When news first surfaced that the guide was in preparation, it was thought that only Western cuisines would be ranked. After all, it was reasoned, no French guide could properly understand Japanese cuisine. Now the results are in and of the 150 starred establishments listed by Michelin, 89 serve Japanese cuisine, twice the number of French restaurants.

Among local chefs and gourmets alike, the initial reaction has been one of jubilation tempered with relief. But after the excitement has worn off, puzzlement may also set in. Tokyo has over 100,000 restaurants to choose from: Are there only 150 that are truly worthy of mention? It’s an absurd ratio.

Having eaten my way around the city for over a quarter of a century, I could list dozens of alternatives every bit as deserving of star ranking. Of course I would agree on the worthiness of such starred establishments as L’Osier, Pierre Gagnaire, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Les Saisons or Tofuya Ukai — as reviewed in the Tokyo Food File, my column in this newspaper, over the past decade.

The remit of a column is necessarily different from those of the Michelin inspectors. My focus has always been on the hidden holes in the wall, traditional craftsmen and up-and-coming chefs. It is those places, just as much as the heavyweight, three-star names, that make Tokyo truly remarkable as a restaurant city.