Before we usher out the Dragon and ring in the Snake, it’s time to pause, look back and appreciate all the fine eating that Tokyo has provided this year. Gongs and rankings are meaningless in a city the size of Tokyo: How can anyone visit and compare more than a fraction of even the best restaurants? Here, though, are some of the places that thrilled — or at least caught the eye and taste buds — during 2012. Expect to read more about many of them in upcoming columns.
Among Japanese meals, two of the best I had all year were at Kagurazaka Ishikawa. Master-chef Hideki Ishikawa is operating at peak capacity, with many bookings from abroad, now that gourmet tourism is rebounding strongly from last year’s collapse. Even so, his cooking remains profound and flavorful, a benchmark for high-end kaiseki (traditional course meal) cuisine in the capital. (03) 5225-0173; www.kagurazaka-ishikawa.co.jp.
Zaiyu Hasegawa, one of the younger generation of Japanese chefs, has also been making a name for himself this year with his contemporary and often quirky take on traditional cuisine. Den, his intimate little restaurant in Kanda-Jinbocho, looks set to become a classic in no time. (03) 3222-3978; www.jimbocho-den.jp.
Another young chef who is cooking up a storm of creativity is Hiroyasu Kawate at his bijou restaurant Florilege, in the residential back streets of Aoyama. An alumnus of Quintessence in Shirokanedai, Kawate makes inventive modern dishes that take flight well beyond the usual parameters of French cuisine. Two examples: his homage in miniature to ishi-yaki imo (winter sweet potatoes baked in their skins); and his manjū dumplings stuffed with pigeon simmered in port wine. (03) 6440-0878; www.aoyama-florilege.jp.
At emuN in Ebisu (it’s pronounced as strangely as it’s spelled, as “emu”), chef Nobuyuki Sasajima’s signature dish is his brilliant Exposition, an array of 40 different vegetables, each prepared a different way. But the item that lingers most lovingly in memory is his presse of duck foie gras served with fresh figs and a superb, intense reduction sauce. (03) 6452-2525; www.emu-francaise.jp.
Notwithstanding the current diplomatic posturing, one of the highlights of autumn in Japan is Shanghai hairy crab. And one of our favorite places for eating these fierce-looking creatures is at the wonderful, idiosyncratic Chef’s in Shinjuku Gyoenmae. With the exception of the overly sweetened scrambled eggs with tomato, everything on the menu is great. Don’t miss the negi (scallion) ramen: It’s as comforting and healing — though definitely not as kosher — as chicken soup with matzo balls. (03) 3352-9350.
Among the many openings this year, top of the list has to be Esquisse, the swish restaurant launched by former Troisgros chef Lionel Beccat. Despite the glitzy setting, on the seventh floor of a new building called Royal Crystal in the heart of Ginza, Esquisse feels calm and understated, with pastel walls, beams across the ceiling and massive windows giving glimpses of sky and roof. A perfect setting for Beccat’s exquisite, though pricey, tasting menus. (03) 5537-5580; www.esquissetokyo.com.
Fans of Bill Grainger’s hotcakes, eggs and other new Aussie comfort foods made the latest offshoot of bills, in Harajuku, one of the hot-ticket tables of 2012. But the real attraction of the spiffy Omohara Tokyu Plaza building is on the floor below: an outstanding rooftop garden with trees and shrubs (and private nooks popular with dating schoolkids). (03) 5772 1133; www.bills-jp.net.
Cicada, a longtime Food File favorite, recently upped and moved. Its new premises in Omotesando, a block back from Aoyama-dori, are larger and sleeker but the menu remains much the same — apart from the sherry list, which sadly has been whittled back to just a single Manzanilla. On the plus side, there is plenty of alfresco seating, and an outside bar that will be dispensing ales and IPAs from the TY Harbor Brewery just as soon as spring temperatures arrive. (03) 6434-1255; www.tyharborbrewing.co.jp.
This was the year craft beer achieved critical visibility in Tokyo, and three bars in particular stood out. Good Beer Faucets has proved a massive hit, thanks to its extensive selection of draft microbrews, a handy location right next to Bunkamura in Shibuya and a Middle Eastern-tinged food menu that improved noticeably over the year. GBF just celebrated its first anniversary with bargain pints and wall-to-wall revelry. (03) 3770-5544; www.goodbeerfaucets.jp.
Watering Hole more than makes up for its less than scenic location on the Yoyogi stretch of busy Meiji-dori with the warmth of its welcome and the 30-plus taps dispensing handcrafted beers from around the country. From next year, it should be serving its own brews too, made right next door. (03) 6380-6115; www.wateringhole.jp.
And, finally, the Brimmer Beer Box proved that small may not be beautiful but good beer tastes great no matter how basic the setting — in this case, a converted shipping container in a car park on Aoyama-dori. The beer is all from Scott Brimmer’s sterling little brewery in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. It’s all excellent. www.brimmerbrewing.com.
All that remains is to wish Japan Times readers good fortune, good health and good eating in 2013. I’ll be back next week with somewhere tasty to start you off.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at Tokyo Food File.