Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Change — the only constant for Tokyo restaurants in 2016

by Robbie Swinnerton

What a year it has been. Thankfully, the world of gastronomy hasn’t followed the same spiral of sadness, frustration and despair as the political and popular music arenas. Even so, it’s high time to get the Year of the Monkey off our backs with a rundown of some of the ups, downs, ins and outs at Tokyo’s top restaurants.

In with the new

Among the exceptional openings this year have been a clutch of new and worthy sushi counters. Amamoto (03-6885-2274; 1-7-9 Higashi-Azabu, Minato-ku, Tokyo) stands out, by dint of chef Masamichi Amamoto’s training in sushi at the excellent Umi in Aoyama and in traditional cuisine at some of Kyoto’s top restaurants.

Raising the bar for high-end Japanese cuisine has been Oryori Miyasaka (03-6805-0058; 4-26-12 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku). This offspring of Kyoto’s revered and impossible-to-reserve Michelin-three-star restaurant Mizai, opened in late 2015 but has really come to the fore this year, deservedly winning two Michelin stars.

It was only a matter of time before innovative French chef and ardent Japanophile Thierry Marx (5-8-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku) made his move here from Paris, channeling his expertise as a Michelin-starred chef into the heart of Ginza with a serious fine-dining restaurant alongside a brilliant neo-bistro that boasts one of the city’s finest vantage points.

Among the local big-hitters, the boldest statement this year came from Yuichiro Watanabe, a former longtime chef at Joel Robuchon’s Le Chateau restaurant in Ebisu who finally set up his own intimate haute cuisine restaurant, Nabeno-Ism (03-5246-4056; 2-1-17 Komagata, Taito-ku), turning his back on the usual upmarket parts of town in favor of a location overlooking the Sumida River in Asakusa.

On a more casual level, we have plenty of new places to celebrate. At Alternative (03-5772-7272; 3-1-19 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku), chef Takayuki Saito’s excellent modern cuisine makes a compelling case for a leisurely evening in Roppongi. And in Shinbashi, the Danish-inflected French dishes of Junichi Kato have been drawing a stream of customers well beyond their usual dining haunts to the immodestly named Sublime (03-3578-8831; 5-7-7 Shinbashi, Minato-ku).

Meanwhile, Tokyo is finally cottoning on to the fact that a growing number of people who love high-end dining are happiest when skipping straight to dessert. In spring, Janice Wong (03-6380-0317; 2F 4-1-6 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku) scratched that itch by bringing her signature sweets from Singapore to the impressive NEWoMan complex above Shinjuku Station. This was closely followed by Esquisse Cinq (03-5537-7477; 5-2-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku; Tokyo Food File review), which opened in April in the brand-new Tokyu Plaza Ginza mall.

Out with the old

It’s always sad to see old favorites disappear. One of this year’s disappointments was the demise of Beard, Shin Harakawa’s mellow little one-man bistro in lower Meguro. However, all is not lost: he has hooked up with Jerome Waag (ex-Chez Panisse in California) for a new project that will hopefully result in a restaurant in the near future. Watch this space.

Onward and upward

On a happier note, a number of Tokyo’s most popular venues have returned, sometimes after long gaps and often in sparkling new guises. Reikasai (03-6228-6768; 1-7-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku) disappeared from Roppongi Hills a couple of years ago, but has now re-emerged to offer its classical Chinese Imperial court cuisine in Ginza. And Shinsuke Ishii’s yearlong hiatus since closing the cult-classic Bacar finally came to a happy conclusion with the opening of Sincere (03-6804-2006; 3-7-13 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku; TFF review), just north of Harajuku.

Yakitori specialist Takashi Imai called it a day at his compact one-counter grill in Sendagi — a favorite of locals — but resurfaced in late November with sleek new premises in Jingumae that are considerably larger, if more impersonal. That said, the quality of the chicken, vegetables and all the other ingredients at Yakitori Imai (03-6447-1710; 3-42-11 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku) remains consistently high.

In an even greater upheaval, chef Zaiyu Hasegawa has left his iconic address and also moved to the Jingumae district after nine years in Jinbocho. The new incarnation of Den (03-6455-5433; 2-3-18 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku; TFF review) looks and feels very different, but Hasegawa’s Japanese cuisine is as adventurous as always, and the welcome is every bit as warm.

And for those craving contemplative immersion in the culture of green tea, Shinya Sakurai‘s remarkable Japanese Tea Experience (03-6451-1539; 5-6-23 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku) became much easier to find, having moved into the Spiral Building, close to Omotesando. His new address has now justifiably entered many tourist guides, so you are advised to call ahead unless you’re ready for a long wait.

Pop-ups and tie-ups

A growing number of chefs from abroad have also been heading to Japan. Some come to observe and find inspiration in the food culture. Others prefer to roll up their sleeves and get to work, often together with local chefs. One of the most memorable collaborations this year was the groundbreaking dinner by Brazilian superchef Alex Atala (D.O.M. in Sao Paulo) at Restaurant Narisawa. Held in February in anticipation of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, it introduced exotic fruit (and Amazonian ants) to Tokyo’s assorted luminaries and gastronomes, along with signature dishes such as palm heart fettuccine.

Another highlight was the three-day event hosted by Florilege‘s Hiroyasu Kawate with Gert de Mangeleer from Hertog Jan, one of the few Belgium restaurants regularly awarded three Michelin stars. The event was a brilliant meeting of minds between two chefs who are treading parallel paths on either side of the world, and who seemed to spur each other on to new heights.

Meanwhile, Japanese sommelier Yukiyasu Kaneko returned to Tokyo after two years at renowned Copenhagen restaurant Noma to curate a sell-out two-week pop-up along with Australian chef Luke Burgess (ex-Garagistes, in Tasmania) at Verre Vole in Meguro. Kaneko made sure the wine — all natural, of course — flowed, while Burgess and his partner conjured up magic from the minuscule kitchen. All those who were there will likely be clamoring for similar collaborations in the Year of the Rooster ahead.

Robbie Swinnerton blogs at www.tokyofoodfile.com

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