Food & Drink | TOKYO FOOD FILE

Dining out in 2019: The world came to Tokyo, and the city answered

by Robbie Swinnerton

Contributing Writer

The Christmas trees are packed away and the New Year kadomatsu decorations are now in place. The city is winding down for the holidays, to rest and recharge for the year ahead. But before we leave 2019 behind, there’s just time to look back on the past 12 months of dining out in Tokyo. And to wish all The Japan Times’ readers good luck, good health and good eating in the year ahead.

A major highlight of 2019 has been the remarkable Cook Japan Project in Nihonbashi. Housed in the erstwhile premises of Sant Pau, this revolving series of premium pop-ups has brought in some of the world’s finest chefs, including Yannick Alleno (Paris), Alex Atala (Sao Paulo) and Dani Garcia (Marbella, Spain).

The world's best are Tokyo-bound: Three-Michelin-star chef Mauro Colagreco held a sold-out residency in Tokyo in December for Cook Japan Project. | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT
The world’s best are Tokyo-bound: Three-Michelin-star chef Mauro Colagreco held a sold-out residency in Tokyo in December for Cook Japan Project. | COURTESY OF COOK JAPAN PROJECT

It reached a memorable crescendo this month with a sold-out, six-day residency by Mauro Colagreco from Restaurant Mirazur (Menton, southeast France), which won its third Michelin star this year and topped the annual World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But it’s not over yet: Before closing in late January, it will host Vladimir Mukhin (Moscow), Virgilio Martinez (Lima) and a one-night-only final appearance by the legendary founder of Sant Pau, Carme Ruscalleda (Catalonia).

When it comes to new restaurants, there have been too many to keep track of. Media focus has been on the high-rise malls mushrooming in Shibuya: first Shibuya Scramble Square; then Shibuya Parco; and lastly the reborn Tokyu Plaza, which features (among others) a new branch of Akomeya Kitchen, here called Akomeya Shokudo, and an open-air viewing platform complete with a sleek, modern bao bar by Singapore’s Ce La Vie.

Other notable openings include three standouts: Sushi Shin by Miyakawa (in Nihonbashi), Sushi Wakon (Hibiya) and Sushi M (Omotesando/Aoyama). The new ShinoiS in Shirokanedai features contemporary Cantonese cuisine by chef Hiroyuki Shinohara, formerly at Lohotoi in Hiroo and Hei Fung Terrace. And fans of South Indian cooking will be happy to know that Nirvanam now has a branch in Ginza.

In March, tonkatsu (pork cutlet) master Seizo Mitani closed Narikura, his hugely popular basement in Takadanobaba, resurfacing in July in residential Minamiasagaya. His premium pork cutlets are pricier now, and you need to book online ahead of time, which has eliminated the long waiting times. The original Narikura has since reopened under one of Mitani’s apprentices, now with a first-come first-served ticket queue system, which has made the lines more manageable.

Can't keep a good oden down: Otafuku's oden master, Sakae Funadaiku | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Can’t keep a good oden down: Otafuku’s oden master, Sakae Funadaiku | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Meanwhile, century-old oden specialist Otafuku has finally returned home, after over two years in temporary digs. The good news is that the beautiful copper simmering pans are back where they belong; the sad news is that the classic, timeless atmosphere of the old place is lost forever.

There was plenty of movement by more big-ticket names, too. Sant Pau marked its 15th anniversary by relocating to the gleaming new Kitano Hotel (near Nagatacho), and held on to its two Michelin stars. Chef Kotaro Meguro did likewise with his French seafood cuisine at Abysse, retaining his star despite his move to a plusher setting in the Ebisu/Daikanyama area.

This year saw the end of many favorites: Since Esquisse Cinq closed its doors, award-winning patissier Kazutoshi Narita has been working at the La Liste-topping Sugalabo in Kamiyacho. Moving down-market, many a glass was raised in sayonara to the classic no-frills standing bar Fujiya Honten and its Grill Bar, as it finally fell victim to Shibuya’s relentless redevelopment. Pappon Kitchen‘s excellent home-style Thai cooking has also gone, replaced by Fuku-Daitouryou’s fiery pork vindaloo.

Anticipated openings: Atsuki Kuroda will open Caveman in February 2020 — watch this space | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Anticipated openings: Atsuki Kuroda will open Caveman in February 2020 — watch this space | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Tokyo also said farewell to two legendary characters with massive legacies. Following chef Kenichiro Nishi’s passing in the summer, Kyoaji (Shinbashi) has now served its last meal. Natural wine advocate Shinsaku Katsuyama will also be sadly missed, but fans will be reassured to know his life’s work lives on at his pioneering wine bar Shonzui (Roppongi).

Looking ahead, 2020 promises to be another busy year, with several major projects on their way. In Harajuku, the Gyre building will open a beautiful new dining floor. Chef Kan Morieda has parted from Salmon & Trout, but we’ll be seeing plenty from him in the new year. And patissier Natsuko Shoji has just moved her tiny, exclusive restaurant Ete to a smarter and slightly larger space in Shibuya.

In another exciting project, a refurbished old financial building in Nihonbashi’s Kabutocho area will become home to a number of new bars and restaurants. Look out for Caveman, a spinoff of Kabi with Atsuki Kuroda (ex-Maaemo in Oslo) at the helm. Opening in February, it’s going to be great.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.
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