Where Tokyo’s top chefs wine and dine

by Melinda Joe

Special To The Japan Times

Chef Shinobu Namae rarely eats at the same restaurant twice. Like a lot of chefs, he spends most of his time in his own kitchen, overseeing lunch and dinner service at L’Effervescence, his Michelin-starred French restaurant in Tokyo’s Aoyama. When he does venture out, he chooses his destinations carefully. Many chefs see dining as an opportunity to discover new techniques, ingredients or trends. For Namae, that usually means checking out high-end restaurants, and picking a different place each time.

“I have a list of many restaurants to go to,” he says, but notes that there are a few places he likes to revisit. “I wish I could go to Sushi Araki (in Ginza) again because his anago (conger eel) and akami-maguro (bluefin tuna) are unforgettable. The vegetables at Tempura Kondo (also in Ginza) are also really great — especially the pumpkin, fried in large chunks so that it’s almost like a confit.”

Naturally, Namae doesn’t dine exclusively at expensive restaurants. These days, he’s partial to a small cafe in Shibuya called Café Bleu, which he recommends not only for the buttery scrambled eggs and toast, but also for the extensive list of Japanese wines, available by the glass from 10 a.m.

Although he seldom drinks alcohol, he has little difficulty facing down the five-wine tasting of bottles from Yamanashi and Hokkaido that owner Hisae Iwakura has set up for him when I join him on a recent autumn morning.

“I’m interested in pairing Japanese wines with my dishes, so I want to learn more,” he explains. According to Namae, it’s all part of the job.

Similarly, Chilean chef Francisco Araya describes his culinary experiences in Tokyo as “research into what Japanese people eat and how the chefs work with ingredients.”

Araya says that the emphasis on clean flavors and natural textures in Japanese cuisine recalls the minimalist style of cooking he learned at Mugaritz in San Sebastian, Spain, where he started his career. The young chef takes the same approach in the creative cuisine he serves at 81, an eight-seat casual fine-dining restaurant that opened in Ikebukuro in early November.

Since moving to Japan in May, he has eaten at a wide range of restaurants — from cheap izakaya (Japanese pubs) to high-end, Michelin-starred establishments — but the meal that impressed him the most was at Hanaya, a family-run restaurant in Koenji.

“The food is so simple, like a dish of steamed pumpkin with only a touch of seasoning to highlight the natural flavors,” he says.

Other chefs prefer to return to the same places again and again, often opting for casual restaurants where they can relax. Although Daisuke Nomura is known for the refined shōjin-ryōri (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine) he serves at his Michelin-starred restaurant Daigo in Tokyo’s Kamiyacho, he can’t resist the tonkatsu (deep-fried pork cutlets) at Ponta Honke, a small restaurant in Ueno specializing in yōshoku (Japanese-style Western dishes).

“Look at the color,” he enthuses, pointing to the crisp, golden-brown crust. “This shows that the oil is fresh. You can eat this without adding anything.”

Nomura has been a regular ever since meeting Ponta Honke’s fourth-generation owner and chef, Yoshihiko Shimada, a few years ago. He usually orders the tonkatsu, but he’s also a fan of the creamy prawn croquettes and the tender pork-tongue stew.

Because Ponta Honke closes at around 8 p.m., Nomura can only visit on his day off. After work, he tends to frequent a handful of late-night eateries in Shinbashi. Among his favorites are yakiniku (Korean-style barbecue) specialist Futago and Chinese restaurant Ranen.

Shimada, on the other hand, doesn’t have a usual after-work haunt. On special occasions, though, he favors Daigo and raves about one of Nomura’s stuffed-daikon dishes. “I never knew daikon could be so delicious. His technique is amazing,” he says.

When Katsunori Yashima, owner of the Yakitori Hachibei chain, wants to treat himself, he heads to Rokukakutei in Ginza for skewers of deep-fried seafood and vegetables, which he washes down with gems from the restaurant’s excellent wine list. “I love the skewered sweet peas, scallops and octopus in particular,” he says. “I always leave thinking that I’ll work harder the next day.”

Unsurprisingly, most chefs get their recommendations from other chefs, rather than relying on restaurant guides. When chefs from abroad come to Tokyo, Masayo Funakoshi, formerly of Cujorl in Shibuya, takes them to a tiny izakaya with no seats in Kachidoki called Kanemasu. There’s often a line to get in, but Funakoshi insists that the abalone grilled with soy sauce and butter and the sea urchin wrapped in seared wagyū beef are worth the wait.

While the food is the main draw, she also loves the restaurant’s down-home atmosphere: “You bump into new people all the time, and everyone is instantly friends,” she says.

Funakoshi is relocating to Kyoto, where she plans to open her own restaurant, Kiln, at the end of the year. But before she goes, she’ll have one more meal at Kanemasu.

“It’s my ideal place to eat,” she says.