As 2013 draws to a well-replete coda, there’s just enough time to stop, pause and ponder the culinary highlights of the past 12 months. Tokyo has never been better for eating out, and this year has brought a further glut of excellent restaurants at every point on the budget spectrum. Here are a few, both old and new, that hit the gastronomic sweet spot for me. Expect to see full reviews for many in this column over the coming months.
When it comes to washoku — and where else to start, given UNESCO’s recent recognition of Japan’s traditional cuisine — one of the standout meals for me was at Kojyu (Carioca building 4F 5-4-8, Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-6215-9544; www.kojyu.jp). Chef Toru Okuda’s superb kaiseki cuisine is as good as it gets. But since moving his flagship restaurant into new premises in the ritziest heart of Ginza, it now has the sleek, highly polished setting worthy of its three Michelin stars.
Not that Okuda is resting on his laurels in any way: In September, he opened a new eponymous restaurant in Paris. At the helm is his trusty lieutenant, Shun Miyahara, the talented young chef who up to now has been in charge at the Kojyu “second restaurant,” Ginza Okuda. Our loss is a gain not just for Paris but for all those keen to spread the word worldwide about washoku in its highest manifestation.
Tokyo’s most anticipated opening of the year was actually a second coming. L’Osier (7-5-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-3571-6050; losier.shiseido.co.jp) is back in Ginza, after an almost three-year hiatus while its parent company, Shiseido, rebuilt its Ginza headquarters. Like the building itself, the restaurant looks very different. Fans of the plush old premises may be underwhelmed by the new basement dining room, airy and light though it is. But they should have no complaints about the kitchen: Head chef Olivier Chaignon formerly worked with Pierre Gagnaire (in Paris, London and from the start in Tokyo) but will not be veering too far from the classic high-end cuisine that has always been L’Osier’s forte.
Another important new arrival in Ginza this autumn, though it opened to rather more muted fanfare, is Dominique Bouchet (5-9-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-5537-3290; www.dominique-bouchet.com/tokyo) The Parisian chef’s first overseas branch is a dual-level operation, with all-day dining in the first basement and a more serious restaurant on the floor below.
Tokyo has never lacked for great sushi restaurants, but that doesn’t mean there’s no room for more. And few spring from more exalted lineage than Takumi Shingo (2-2-15 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-6434-0074; r.gnavi.co.jp/ggbef2zj0000) Sushi master Shingo Takahashi learned his knife skills — along with those amazing aging techniques for the fish — at the renowned Sushi Sho in Yotsuya.
More than ever, this has been the year of casual gastronomy. The brilliant little Anis (1-9-7 Hatsudai, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6276-0026; www.restaurant-anis.jp) in Hatsudai is the standout example but there are plenty more — not least Ata (2-5 Sarugakucho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo; 03-6809-0965; www.ata1789.com) Just a stone’s throw from the Namikibashi Crossing, between Shibuya and Ebisu, this friendly French-accented grill looks as basic as a neighborhood bistro. But the cooking is so good and the ambiance so laid-back it’s drawing those in the know from all across the city.
On the other side of town, tucked away in the low-rise residential grid to the north of Asakusa, chef Nobuo Arai is also punching well above his considerable weight at Hommage (4-10-5 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo; 03-3874-1552; www.hommage-arai.com) This intimate 20-seater may look simple, but Arai’s intricate, inventive cuisine draws customers from well beyond the catchment area of his immediate neighborhood.
Shopping for Japanese provisions and packaged foods in Ginza? Forget the department-store basement floors and just head straight to Akomeya (2-2-6 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 03-6758-0270; www.akomeya.jp). The basic concept is of a rice store (komeya in Japanese, hence the name) that also offers a range of other goods.
And what a range it is. From sauce, spices and seasonings to condiments and curries, if it’s Japanese there’s every chance you’ll find it here. It also has a simple but tasty diner-style cafe/restaurant, plus a great little stand-up sake bar. Just the place to drop in for refreshments when you’re shopping for ayu fish sauce (Japan’s answer to Thai nam pla) or spicy Yuzusco (think Tabasco-style hot sauce, but with yuzu citrons in the mix).
As the craft-beer movement matures, it’s developing a tasty new food niche to go with it: craft pizza. At the new branch of DevilCraft (2-13-12 Hamamatsucho, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 03-6435-8428; www.en.devilcraft.jp) in Hamamatsucho, that means thick, deep-dish Chicago-style pies. Over at the latest Craft Beer Market (2-9-1 Kanda-Tsukasamachi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 03-5577-3046; www.craftbeermarket.jp/store_awajicho.html), in Awajicho, the inspiration is more Neapolitan; and the rest of its menu is great too, from bagna càuda to ale-steamed mussels.
And finally, a sad farewell — or at least an abrupt hiatus. One of Tokyo’s iconic restaurants, Kanda Yabu Soba (www.yabusoba.net), burned down in February. It was founded in 1880; the premises dated from the 1920s. The owners promise to reopen by next autumn, but there can be no re-creating that wonderful, atmospheric old wooden building. We will not see its like again.
Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com.