Let us raise a toast to six of the best in 2002


Just as, after a leisurely banquet, conversation inevitably turns to storytelling and reminiscing, in much the same vein we like to devote our final column of the year to the highlights of the past 12 months. During the course of 2002, we have cast our spotlight on more than 60 restaurants, bars and cafes. All, in their own way, are worthy of note, some of them are excellent — and just a very few we would judge brilliant.

So here, for no other reason than to celebrate the existence of fine food in this city, are the Food File’s six of the best for 2002.

Toto-an has to be one of our all-time favorites, in this or any other year. And to a great degree, that is because of the setting. It is certainly possible to dine on modern kaiseki of the highest quality in central Tokyo — but you have to travel out to the furthest city limits to find such an atmospheric setting.

Toto-an is housed in a stately 400-year-old rice storehouse constructed of wood and plaster, standing in its own grounds, set off from the road and neighboring buildings by stands of ancient, tall zelkova trees. You reach it, as if approaching a teahouse, through two thatched wooden gates and along a narrow path of polished paving stones.

The restoration and conversion from crumbling farmhouse to modern restaurant has been carried out superbly. The ground-floor dining room consists of a small, crescent-shaped counter, equipped with striking, tall-backed chairs and nothing to look at but an exquisite arrangement of seasonal wild flowers. Upstairs is equally serene. You sit beneath sloping roof timbers, either on rustic European furniture or at low tables on rush matting.

The Toto-an style is sophisticated but relaxed, contemporary yet rooted in the rural tradition, an approach we like to call “country kaiseki.” The highlights of any meal will be the charcoal-grilled river fish imbued with extra aroma from smoldering bamboo leaves; and the melt-in-the-mouth Matsuzaka beef seared on river stones heated to a high temperature.

Toto-an is the kind of place where you take most favored guests who are visiting Tokyo, to show them that Kyoto does not have it all. Despite its distance from the center of town, it’s worth a pilgrimage at least once every season.

Toto-an, 633 Ogawa, Akiru-shi, Tokyo; tel: (042) 559-8080. Nearest station: Higashi-Akiru (JR Itsuka-ichi Line). Open 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. (last order); closed Tuesday. Lunch courses 3,800 yen, 5,500 yen, 7,500 yen and 10,000 yen; dinner courses 8,000 yen, 10,000 yen and 15,000 yen.

On a totally different level, but no less excellent in its own way, is Toriyoshi. Again, this is not a new place, but one that is now among our best-loved yakitori shops. Tradition rules here, not just in terms of its simple, undemonstrative layout and decor, but also in the food they serve.

There are no exotic new-wave flourishes. They don’t offer unusual fowl from foreign climes, serve French-style chicken liver pa^te or stock a range of wine. But everything is of unimpeachable quality, prepared from the free-range Date chicken, seasoned with subtlety and grilled expertly over premium bincho charcoal.

All the regular blue-collar cuts are available here, including organ meats, skin and cartilage, as well as excellent tsukune, balls of coarsely ground minced chicken. At the other end of the spectrum, they offer tori-wasa, delicate breast meat lightly blanched and served with wasabi. But do not fail to try the preparation known as chochin (lantern), which consists of regular yakitori meat interspersed with pieces of liver, with the whole yolk of an egg dangling off the end like a mysterious yellow globe — bizarre but memorable.

Toriyoshi is by no means unique in Tokyo — how could it be? We’re just happy to salute good food wherever we find it. And with such attention to all the details, surely this is the ultimate neighborhood yakitori shop.

Toriyoshi, 2-8-6 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 3716-7644. Nearest station: Naka-Meguro (Hibiya & Toyoko lines). Open 5-11 p.m.; closed Tuesdays.

One of our best discoveries this summer was Salsita, a diminutive hole-in-the-wall in Ebisu that seats only 14 people but boasts (to our mind) the best Mexican snack food in all the city. The guacamole is first-rate, served with freshly made tortilla chips, and so is the homemade chorizo. Tacos, enchiladas and quesadillas, all are present and correct here, and made with remarkable authenticity.

For that we have to thank owner-chef Koji Moriyama, who is a devotee of all Mexican flavors. Every year he flies back there to replenish his stocks of habanero sauce and dried chipotles, and to pick up new ideas for recipes. He also brings back an array of rare tequilas which he displays prominently on the counter of his lovingly run cantina. As the sign outside says: “Que rico!” — which in our vernacular dictionary translates as “pretty damn tasty!”

Salsita, 1-3-2 Ebisu Nishi, Shibuya-ku tel: (03) 5489-9020. Nearest station: Ebisu (JR & Hibiya lines). Open 6 p.m.-midnight; closed Sunday.

At last Kazuhiko Kinoshita has the premises to match the excellence of his inventive cuisine. During the summer, he closed down his shabby old bistro in Hatsudai and reincarnated as a thoroughly modern restaurant that is far more spacious and stylish. The move was long overdue.

That doesn’t mean it’s gone totally upmarket. He still offers his prix-fixe lunch at 1,800 yen, as well as a bargain 3,800 yen dinner. But now he has the room to pull out the stops, as you will see if you try his 5,000 yen four-course “B” menu, or the superb chef’s special (7,000 yen and worth every yen).

As we wrote after our most recent dinner there, Kinoshita’s cooking is “fresh and inventive, and often it is touched with magic dust.” But best of all, he remains as unpretentious as ever. And although he is justifiably popular, and reservations can be hard to pin down, you can often get in by phoning around 7:30 p.m. to see if tables are freeing up. It’s definitely worth the effort.

Restaurant Kinoshita, Estate Bldg. 1F, 3-37-1 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 3376-5336. Nearest stations: Sangubashi (Odakyu Line) or Yoyogi (JR and Oedo lines). Open 12-2 p.m. (last order); 6-9 p.m. (last order); closed Monday. Lunch 1,800 yen (weekdays only; Saturday and Sunday same as dinner menu); dinner courses at 3,800 yen, 5,000 yen, 7,000 yen.

Takayoshi Kamatani is one of the new generation of chefs who are redefining French cuisine here in Tokyo. He cooks with a simplicity and subtlety of touch rarely found in most European (or North American) restaurants. He treats vegetables as primary ingredients, not just as supplementary adjuncts to the meal, and seasonings are light. In short, he is redefining the genre from a very Japanese perspective.

Comme d’habitude, Kamatani’s smart little restaurant in Naka-Meguro, is a place by and for people who are serious about their food and wine. It expertly bridges the divide between pompous formal dining and bistro casual. It’s just the sort of place for holding small gatherings, to celebrate a graduation, an engagement party or other such special occasions. But you can also feel quite comfortable dropping in solo for a couple of courses and a glass or two of wine.

Comme d’habitude, 3-16-1 Kami-Meguro, Meguro-ku; tel: (03) 3791-3681. Nearest stations: Naka-Meguro (Hibiya and Odakyu lines). Open 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. and 6-9:30 p.m. (bar from 6-11 p.m.); closed Monday. Lunch from 1,500 yen; dinner courses 5,800 yen, 6,200 yen, 7,300 yen, 7,500 yen; also a la carte.

Our outright favorite new eating spot in all of 2002 was Ristorante Terauchi, down in Nishi-Azabu. Here again, we see the European tradition reproduced and reformulated with a wonderfully clean, clear-cut sensibility that is entirely homegrown Japanese.

Chef Masayuki Terauchi adopts a back-to-basics approach. He takes top-quality ingredients and prepares them in ways that bring out and enhance their inherent flavors. His principal tools are his oven and his grill. You can choose from pork, lamb, beef, chicken, duck or fish. Every single main dish he offers is either oven-roasted or charcoal-grilled. It’s all prime quality — and the results are delectable.

It’s a small place, as simply decorated as an Italian farmhouse, and filled with the wonderful aromas that waft through from Terauchi’s open kitchen. Cell phones are discouraged; there’s no background music; and the service is polished but self-assured and friendly — striking a happy medium that’s all too rare here in Japan.

But more than anything, the reason why we like it so much is that nothing is allowed to detract from the business at hand — the fundamental pleasure of eating. The good news is that more and more people in Tokyo are recognizing that food doesn’t have to be flash to be fabulous. The bad news is that advanced reservations at Terauchi are essential.

Ristorante Terauchi, 1-4-7 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; tel: (03) 5414-1808. Nearest stations: Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines); Hiroo (Hibiya Line). Open 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. (last order) and 6-10 p.m. (last order); closed Sunday.