Another year comes to an end, with the usual round of Christmas and bōnenkai “drink the old year to oblivion” parties. Except, of course, it was not just another year. And though we will all be glad to put it behind us, 2011 will not be easily forgotten.
That has certainly been the case for Tokyo’s restaurants, which suffered badly as customers lost their appetites throughout the spring and summer, especially for high-end extravagances. Nonetheless, plenty of new restaurants were launched this year — and many of the best were those that arrived last.
The most exciting opening of all came right at the end of the year with the unveiling of Ivy Place. This is the latest project from the TY Harbor Brewing group and chef David Chiddo, and it’s a hands-down winner.
Situated right at the heart of the superb new T-Site development in Daikanyama, Ivy Place occupies a handsome, low-rise, freestanding building that includes both a full-fledged restaurant and a casual all-day cafe, with a late-night bar sandwiched in between. Both ends of the operation spill outside, with ample deck space and a terrace overlooked by massive trees. Far from any street, these will be fine places to sit as soon as the weather permits.
The restaurant is sleek but casual, with private rooms and lots of timber decor. The menu covers an interesting gamut, from Middle Eastern appetizers to mainstream Italian and North American dishes. If you’ve ever eaten at Chiddo’s other excellent restaurants, Cicada in Nishi-Azabu or Beacon in Shibuya, you already know what to expect. Just factor in the full range of TY Harbor craft beers for an extra level of fun.
But the big news is over on the cafe side. Open from 7 a.m. daily, it serves proper breakfast: smoked salmon on rye bread; ham and eggs, fried or scrambled; and, above all, great buttermilk pancakes — and be sure to order the extra toppings of fresh fruit, thick cream and maple syrup. At last Tokyo has credible competition for the ever-popular Bills in Yokohama and Shichirigahama.
Ivy Place, 16-15 Sarugaku-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6415-3232; www.tyharborbrewing.co.jp/en/ivy. Open: 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (Sat., Sun. and holidays till 4 p.m.) and 5:30 p.m.-midnight; cafe: 7 a.m.-2 a.m.; bar 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. Nearest station: Daikanyama (Toyoko Line). English spoken.
This was the year genuine American barbecue finally rode into town. Back in January, the Bashamichi Taproom in Yokohama laid down the template for flavorful, slow-and-low smoked meats, with great craft beer to wash it down. Now, Tokyo has its own real down-home Texas BBQ fare, thanks to White Smoke, which opened to great acclaim last month (11/11/11 to be precise) on the Roppongi side of Azabu-Juban.
The kitchen and smokehouse are on the ground floor, visible from outside. That means the delectable, tantalizing aromas of the meats assail your nostrils before you even get through the door, wafting out onto the street and up the stairs to the spacious dining room.
Beef brisket, ribs, turkey breast, chicken thigh and drum: All the right cuts are present and correct. Massive dinosaur ribs, too, gleaming with their rich glaze of BBQ sauce. Don’t sleep on the Big-Tex smoked burger either, with its gooey, glistening layer of melted cheese: It’s one for the connoisseurs.
There’s a good range of side dishes, and a substantial wine list. Even vegetarians are catered for, with smoked tofu served at lunchtime. Needless to say, White Smoke has been doing great business from the get-go and there’s rarely an empty table in the house.
White Smoke, 3-11-2 Moto Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6434-0097; www.thebettertable.com. Open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; cafe: 3-5 p.m.; dinner: 5:30-11:30 p.m. (last order food 10:30 p.m., drinks 11 p.m.); closed Tues. Nearest station: Azabu-Juban (Namboku and Oedo lines). English spoken.
Just a short walk away on the other side of the main Azabu-Juban crossing, a grill of a rather different stripe has been quietly making its mark. At Wakanui, the meat is all from New Zealand — cuts of prime lamb and steaks of flavorful grass-fed beef, all aged with the greatest care and arrayed for your inspection as you enter.
This sleek, sophisticated basement steak house, just a stone’s throw from the Tokyo American Club, actually opened in April. But it has only been since the autumn that the word has started to spread in earnest. With its appetizing menu and considerable cellar — from the top New Zealand wineries of course — and its secluded location, Wakanui has everything going for it. Expect a full report in the Food File in the New Year.
Wakanui, Towa Igureggu Bldg. B1, 2-23-14 Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 3568-3466; www.wakanui.jp/en. Open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m.; 6-11 p.m.; closed Mon. Nearest station: Azabu-Juban (Namboku and Oedo lines). English spoken.
A couple of my favorite casual Japanese restaurants sprouted spin-offs this year, and both are well worth knowing. The only drawback about the excellent Namikibashi Nakamura is that it’s too popular. The new Nakamura Shokudo, halfway between Akasaka and Nogizaka, doesn’t try to replicate the sophisticated feel of the original. Instead it offers a more casual and affordable version of the traditional izakaya tavern experience.
The look is simple but comfortable, with low tables and closed-circuit monitors showing close-ups of the chefs in the open kitchen at the rear (it’s housed in a former teaching kitchen). Atypically for an izakaya, it’s spacious, well lit, friendly and all no-smoking — and children are welcome.
The menu is simpler than at the parent restaurant, revolving around hearty izakaya staples such as oden hot-pot. The common theme here is the focus on quality ingredients and premium shōchu and sake sourced from small-scale breweries around the country.
In an area as busy as Ikebukuro, it’s always good to have a reliable standby where you know you’re going to get good food and sake to match. Uraya, the newest venue from izakaya specialist Noriharu Nozaki, fulfills that brief to a tee.
Like his eponymous restaurant in Shinbashi, Uraya is cheerful, unpretentious, affordable and usually filled with the happy hubbub of people enjoying themselves. That’s not surprising, given the extensive stocks of quality sake, the satisfying traditional fare and the very reasonable prices.
Nakamura Shokudo, 6-15-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5575-0026. Open daily 5:30-11:30 p.m. Nearest station: Akasaka (Chiyoda Line). Japanese menu; little English spoken. Uraya, Daini Sasaki Bldg. B1, 2-27-6 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; (03) 5960-7141. Open 5-11:30 p.m. (Sun. and holidays 4:30-10:30 p.m.). Nearest station: Ikebukuro (various lines). Japanese menu; little English spoken.
You’ve got to love a place with a name like Me Me Me. And when you actually see this quaint little bar/diner on the outskirts of Shibuya you’ll love it even more. From the name in lights over the door to the eclectic retro furnishings and eccentric inscriptions (in both English and Japanese), it’s one of a kind.
The same quirky, leftfield approach is also to be found on the menu. Me Me Me’s food is all simple, tasty home cooking, with a heavy bias toward yōshoku (Japanized versions of Western cuisine). But how can you not want to try dishes with names such as Let’s Hit the Octopus, Radish Rush Salad or Creame Me Me Brown Gratin?
Over the last few years, the Kamiyama-cho and Tomogaya area (basically, the street from Tokyu Department Store to Yoyogi-Hachiman Station) has become one of the most interesting little neighborhoods in the city. Me Me Me is a great addition to that scene. Look for it tucked away behind the Creston Hotel.
Me Me Me, 10-8 Kamiyama-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; (03) 6407-8773; theme-me-me.blogspot.com. Open 3-11 p.m. (Sat and Sun: noon-11 p.m.); closed Mon. Nearest station: Shibuya (various lines). English menu; English spoken. Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.foodfile.typepad.com/blog.