Food & Drink

A new generation of Japanese chefs comes to the fore at Asia's Best 50

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

Just as surely as spring brings blossom and fresh foliage, it also heralds the announcement of the annual Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings. And this year there was intense celebration by many of Japan’s top chefs to match the festivities going on underneath the billowing sakura (cherry trees) back home.

The glittering, gaudy casino enclave of Macau was the setting for the sixth edition of these regional awards on March 27. It was a fitting location for this increasingly glamorous occasion, described — only semi tongue-in-cheek — as “the Oscars of the Asian restaurant industry” by William Drew, the group editor of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants organization, which runs the event.

While many observers were predicting change this year, that wasn’t borne out at the very apex of the listings, where the No. 1 spot went to Bangkok’s Gaggan for a remarkable fourth year in a row. But snapping at its heels are two Tokyo restaurants, Den (in second place) and Florilege (third), both relative newcomers in terms of international standings. They were part of a strong contingent from Japan occupying 11 places on the 50 Best list.

Den has become a firm favorite among both locals and visitors who come for chef Zaiyu Hasegawa’s innovative, light-hearted Japanese dishes but return for the warmth of the hospitality from its front-of-house team. Reflecting his playful personality, Hasegawa stepped up on stage at the ceremony wearing a face mask in the image of his beloved chihuahua, Puchi Jr., the mascot of his restaurant.

At Florilege, it is the modern French cuisine of chef Hiroyasu Kawate that has propelled its popularity, enhanced by the theatrical setting of the spacious open kitchen. By a strange and happy coincidence, Den and Florilege are within a minute’s walk of each other in Tokyo’s Jingumae district, and the two chefs are long-time friends and collaborators.

They are followed in the listings by two restaurants that have flown the flag for Japan on the world stage for a decade or more, Narisawa and Nihonryori RyuGin, both perennial top 10 placements. The former, which took top spot in the very first Asia rankings, won further recognition this year as owner-chef Yoshihiro Narisawa was picked for the Chefs’ Choice Award. Meanwhile, another special prize, the Sustainable Restaurant Award, went to the 20th-placed L’Effervescence, where the innovative French cuisine incorporates many traditional Japanese elements.

Two new faces from Japan, Osaka’s La Cime and Tokyo’s Il Ristorante Luca Fantin, were joined by La Maison de la Nature Goh in Fukuoka, which returned to the list after a year’s absence. All three have been strongly engaged in collaborations with restaurants in other countries, including Gaggan, Hong Kong’s Ta Vie, and Mume in Taiwan.

Collaborative four-hands pop-up dinners of that kind reflect the growing network of connections that are bringing together chefs, restaurants and diners around the continent. And while there may always be disagreements and disgruntlement about the Asia’s 50 Best list, few will dispute that it has played a major role in helping to cross borders and bridge differences, at least in the field of gastronomy.