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Tokyo’s best eating experiences in 2015

by

Special To The Japan Times

Another great year for dining out draws to a close. But before the bōnenkai (forget-the-year parties) erase the 2015 hard drives for good, let’s take another look at some of the highlights of the past 12 months.

Noma Japan

Without question, the most memorable meal of 2015 was one of the very first. Noma Japan’s groundbreaking residency at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo opened in early January to great anticipation and excitement. Chef Rene Redzepi set numerous precedents, not just by bringing his entire team (60-plus people, including children) over from Denmark for a month, but also by creating a new menu from scratch.

It was breathtaking to see how ingredients sourced within the long and fertile boundaries of this country could be reinterpreted in a way so radically different to traditional Japanese cuisine. But the ultimate mark of Noma Japan’s success is that it is still being talked about, not just in Copenhagen but also here in Tokyo.

Openings

If a measure of a city’s dining scene is the number of new restaurants appearing each year, then Tokyo is vibrantly healthy. Among the stand-outs in this bumper year was Abysse (4-9-9, Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-6804-3846; http://abysse.jp), which netted a Michelin star for Kotaro Meguro’s confident seafood-based French cooking within 10 months. Yujiro Takahashi took even less time to get his star. Since launching Le Sputnik (7-9-9 Roppongi, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-6434-7080; le-sputnik.jp) in July, his eclectic modern-French cuisine has continued to soar.

One arrival that flew under many people’s radar was Celaravird (2-8-1 Uehara, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3465-8471; www.celaravird.com). Koichi Hashimoto’s multicourse modernist cuisine reflects influences from his stints with Noma and the legendary El Bulli in Spain, as well as the Tapas Molecular Bar here in Tokyo. The backstreet location may be far from the bright lights, but it didn’t take long for the word to spread.

Reopenings

Until this summer, you had to seek out Hidetoshi Nishioka’s discreet, one-counter restaurant in a shabby corner of Shinjuku if you wanted to taste his precise Japanese-inflected Shanghai delicacies. Now he has not only moved to the mainstream, he has raised Renge (Ginza 745 Bldg. 9F, 7-4-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-6228-5551; no website) to a whole new level. Book well ahead of time if you want to try his extended tasting menus.

Another chef who has decamped into central Tokyo is Koji Kobayashi. Having closed Antica Trattoria Nostaligica in Meguro (and his exclusive, one-table dining club in Nagano Prefecture), he is now serving some of the finest Italian cuisine in Ginza at his new Ristorante Feffe (Velvia-kan 8F, 2-4-6 Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-6228-6206; www.fogliolinadellaportafortuna.com).

Meanwhile, Florilege (Seizan Gaien Bldg. B1, 2-5-4 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6440-0878; www.aoyama-florilege.jp) emerged like a butterfly from a chrysalis, with its new stunning, spacious location boasting counter seating and a massive open kitchen that perfectly highlights Hiroyasu Kawate’s inventive, theatrical cuisine.

Collaborations

The idea of kitchen collaborations reached critical mass this year, notably at the ever-excellent Bulgari il Ristorante (2-7-12, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-6362-0555; bulgarihotels.com). Resident chef Luca Fantin was joined by some of Italy’s finest stars of the kitchen, among them the superbly innovative Massimo Bottura from Osteria Francescana in Modena. This series, called In Cibo Veritas (“In food, truth”), will continue next year with guest chefs already booked from as far afield as Spain, Chile and Australia.

Collaborations are often a way for restaurants to provide an extra, deluxe perk for their most loyal customers. But they also act as a laboratory for fermenting and cross-fertilizing culinary ideas — especially when the chefs in question are Zaiyu Hasegawa (from Jimbocho Den), Susumu Shimizu (Anis, in Hatsudai) and Hiroyasu Kawate (Florilege). These close friends put together three dream-team tie-ups this year, two of them at the new Florilege. For the lucky few who attended, these were among the meals of 2015.

Best beef

New meat-centric restaurants have been cropping up all over town. In terms of media hype and length of waiting lines, the opening of the year had to be the much-anticipated arrival of Shake Shack (2-1-15 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-6455-5409; www.shakeshack.jp). During the opening days there were waits of up to three hours for the U.S. chain’s trademark burgers. In Ebisu, Hugo Desnoyer (3-4-16 Ebisu-Minami, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6303-0429; hugodesnoyer.jp) flew the flag for French beef, with considerable panache.

But for sheer flavor and inventiveness, Henry’s Burger (1-36-6 Ebisu-Nishi, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-3461-0530; www.henrysburger.com) may be hard to beat. This offshoot of Sumibiyakiniku Nakahara (www.sumibiyakinikunakahara.com) arrived in December, serving patties made with 100 percent wagyu beef — no filler or additives. Premium burgers are everywhere these days, but Henry’s are a cut above.