Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Sio: Confident, modern cuisine making up for lost time

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

If a restaurant is a reflection of its chef, then it’s no surprise that Sio stands out — and as somewhat of a paradox, too. Located well away from the center of Tokyo, out in the quiet backstreets of Yoyogi-Uehara, it is compact and simply furnished. But it boasts a sense of style that would be the envy of many places in far buzzier parts of town.

That is all due to owner-chef Shusaku Toba. Having built up a name for himself as the man in charge of the kitchen at the highly popular natural wine specialist Gris, he bought the place last year and took over the excellent location. He’s done more than just change the name (pronounced “shio”), though. He’s raised his game, given greater depth to the menu and imbued the restaurant with a powerful new identity.

By any standards, Toba’s route to becoming a chef was unorthodox. His first love was soccer, and he was set on a career in the J. League. When that failed to pan out, he became an elementary school teacher, but later quit and started work in a cafe in Tokyo’s Daikanyama district.

This brought him into contact with the world of chefs and inspired him to move in another new direction — into the kitchen. He was already 32, an age at which many chefs are 15-year veterans, often with restaurants of their own. But that certainly hasn’t held him back.

Signature starter: Sio
Signature starter: Sio’s ‘baniku (horse meat), beet, plum’ appetizer.

Toba started in the kitchen at Diritto, a chic, mid-level Italian restaurant in Kagurazaka. He went on to spend time at Florilege — at that point still in Aoyama — exploring the possibilities of modern French cuisine under Michelin-starred chef Hiroyasu Kawate. Then, returning to Italian cuisine, he became sous chef at Tacubo, in Ebisu — which now also boasts a Michelin star — before taking the reins at Gris.

At Sio, Toba is now integrating all those strands into a cuisine that blends French and Italian with plenty of Japanese and other influences. Call it “innovative” if you wish — that’s what the local food guides do — but really this is just good modern cuisine that has the confidence to go in whatever direction it chooses.

One of his signature starters is an appetizer that he simply calls “baniku (horse meat), beet, plum.” On a grain cracker base, he arranges chopped horse meat in a style closer to Korean yukhoe than to a European tartare, topped with powdered beet and seasoned with the acidity of the plum. It is just a single bite, but an impressive statement of intent.

The exterior of Sio in Yoyogi-Uehara.
The exterior of Sio in Yoyogi-Uehara.

If you’re there in the evening, that appetizer will be the first of 10 separate dishes in Sio’s inventive tasting menu (from ¥10,000). His abbreviated six-course weekend lunch menu (from ¥5,800) is even better value. Both will include a serving of handmade pasta and a small risotto, along with fish and meat courses.

A pro tip: For an extra ¥2,000, you can trade up from pork to premium pigeon from Landes, France, for your main course. Like all Toba’s cooking, it is brilliantly executed, and well worth the extra outlay.

Set dinner from ¥10,000; weekend lunch from ¥5,800; no menu (English drinks list); some English spoken