Food & Drink

Top 5: Tokyo's most affordable Michelin-starred restaurants

by Claire Williamson

Staff Writer

It’s no secret Tokyo has some of the best food in the world. With 226 starred restaurants spanning 25 different cuisines in the Michelin Guide Tokyo 2020 — the most stars of any city — its restaurant scene has the accolades to back up that claim.

Of course, diners wishing to eat at many of these establishments must swallow the steep price tags. So what’s the equally discerning — but less fiscally endowed — foodie to do? Fortunately, there are a handful of Michelin-starred restaurants offering astonishingly affordable meals.

The meals for each of the following Michelin-starred restaurants are all under ¥3,000, before tax and drinks. (Although Tokyo also has a whopping 238 so-called Bib Gourmand establishments, this list only includes restaurants awarded at least one star.) They’re also accessible — all but one allows reservations, either online or by phone, thus removing the need to queue, as is often the case for Japan’s most popular restaurants.

Buckwheat bliss: A bowl of salty, satisfying karasumi (dried mullet roe) soba at Akiyama, which opens Sundays as a lunchtime a la carte soba restaurant. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Buckwheat bliss: A bowl of salty, satisfying karasumi (dried mullet roe) soba at Akiyama, which opens Sundays as a lunchtime a la carte soba restaurant. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Akiyama

Although it only opened in 2018, Hideto Akiyama’s kappō Japanese restaurant, with its unusual indigo interior, has already set itself apart from the pack. Chef Akiyama’s usual modus operandi is omakase– (chef’s choice) style, except on Sundays between 12 and 2 p.m. when he presents diners with an affordable a la carte soba menu, offering several varieties of handmade noodles as well as upscale takes on seasonal izakaya bar staples.

Take your chair at the intimate seven-seat counter and place your order for a few small dishes — the simmered daikon on the winter menu is particularly lovely — as well as a bowl of noodles. Then sit back and watch Akiyama as he deftly slices and arranges plates of sashimi or grills up anago eel. The karasumi (dried mullet roe) soba comes heaped with a generous amount of the salty, almost cheese-like topping and portions are satisfying, if not immense.

Given the nature of the menu it’s easy to accidentally overstep ¥3,000, particularly if you want to dip into the sake cellar. But it’s equally easy to just enjoy a few dishes while chatting with the affable Akiyama or other locals who’ve also popped in for a casual, high-quality meal.

Sakura Shirokane 101, Shirokane 6-5-3, Minato-ku 108-0072; 03-6277-0723; akiyamashirokane.com

Not just a simple soup: A seasonal kikuimo (Jerusalem artichoke) soup at one-Michelin-starred restaurant Ciel et Sol, where a 'Dejeuner' lunch course only costs ¥3,000. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Not just a simple soup: A seasonal kikuimo (Jerusalem artichoke) soup at one-Michelin-starred restaurant Ciel et Sol, where a ‘Dejeuner’ lunch course only costs ¥3,000. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Ciel et Sol

At ¥3,000 (before tax), French restaurant Ciel et Sol’s “Dejeuner” lunch just clears the “bargain” delineation. But you get a pretty spectacular four-course (five if you count the amuse-bouche) meal out of it — soup; vegetables; a fish or meat main; and dessert, with tea or coffee.

Exact dishes are apt to change, but chef So Otowa’s concept of “natural cuisine” means the meal will heavily feature traditional Nara Prefecture area ingredients such as kikuimo (Jerusalem artichoke), ankō (monkfish), yuzu citrus and sakekasu (sake lees), albeit in innovative ways.

The minimalist dining room’s floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the quiet Shirokane backstreets let in plenty of natural light, and the space’s subdued color palette lets you relax and focus completely on the food.

Shirokanedai 5-17-10, Minato-ku 108-0071; 03-6721-7110; www.tokinomori-nara.jp. Due to the expiration of the contract between Nara Prefecture and its management company, Ciel et Sol’s last day of service is March 22, 2020.

Perfect bite: Three pieces of mackerel oshizushi (pressed sushi) with a layer of gari (pickled ginger) and a small piece of konnyaku (devil's tongue) at Nagumo | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Perfect bite: Three pieces of mackerel oshizushi (pressed sushi) with a layer of gari (pickled ginger) and a small piece of konnyaku (devil’s tongue) at Nagumo | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Nagumo

Although located just a block or so from Mejiro Station, if you weren’t specifically searching for Nagumo you’d easily miss its inconspicuous wood-lattice door, tucked behind a trellis of ivy. Owner-chef Kenichi Nagumo trained in Kyoto, and his “Pressed Sushi and Nyumen” lunch (¥2,500 after tax) condenses the best qualities of kaiseki ryōri — seasonal ingredients, elegant presentation and refined flavor — into a simple, satisfying three-course meal.

The lunch opens with two seasonal tsukidashi (as otōshi starters are called in western Japan), followed by a bowl of nyūmen (thin sōmen noodles in a soy sauce broth) and three beautiful pieces of mackerel oshizushi (pressed sushi). The sushi remains on the menu year-round; the fish is toothsome, and the layer of gari (pickled ginger) between the fish and rice adds that perfect vinegar tang. It makes the warabimochi (soft mochi cakes with kinako soybean flour and brown sugar syrup) that closes the meal taste all the more sweet.

Feel free to linger, relax in the simple dining room and enjoy chef Nagumo’s impeccable hospitality.

Mejiro 3-14-18, Toshima-ku 171-0031; 03-5983-0083; bit.ly/nagumomichelin

Fine dining: A bowl of rich, sesame-heavy tantanmen noodles at Chugoku Hanten Fureika | OSCAR BOYD
Fine dining: A bowl of rich, sesame-heavy tantanmen noodles at Chugoku Hanten Fureika | OSCAR BOYD

Chugoku Hanten Fureika

First impressions of Cantonese-Shanghainese restaurant Fureika’s ornate, wood-paneled interior is that it’s a dramatic elevation above typical Chinese takeout.

Fureika’s weekday “Noodle Course” (¥2,500 before tax) is an excellent, flavorful introduction to what upscale Chinese cuisine can offer. After three seasonal appetizers and two perfect, juicy gyōza dumplings, pick from one of six varieties of noodle — tantanmen; pickled cabbage and pork; chicken stew; vegetable, seafood and pork; hot and spicy; or Shanghai-style tomato and egg.

The tantanmen, while not terribly spicy, has a rich sesame flavor that marries perfectly with the pork, while the hearty Shanghai-style bowl is packed with colorful chunks of vegetables and egg. If you can still manage more food, there’s a (fortunately light) dessert to close your meal. The selection of fragrant Chinese tea, served in a clear pot, adds that extra touch of elegance.

Higashiazabu 3-7-5, Minato-ku 106-0044; 03-5561-7788; bit.ly/fureikamichelin

Where sardine is the star: The furai teishoku (fried set meal) at Shinjuku Kappo Nakajima features chunks of perfectly crisp iwashi sardine. The meal is rounded out with a bowl of white rice, soup, a side of tsukemono pickles and endless cups of tea. | TROY STADE
Where sardine is the star: The furai teishoku (fried set meal) at Shinjuku Kappo Nakajima features chunks of perfectly crisp iwashi sardine. The meal is rounded out with a bowl of white rice, soup, a side of tsukemono pickles and endless cups of tea. | TROY STADE

Shinjuku Kappo Nakajima

Nakajima is perhaps Tokyo’s best-known “cheap Michelin” restaurant — you’d be hard-pressed to find a more affordable meal of any caliber. This is the only shop on the list that doesn’t accept lunchtime reservations, so you’ll have to queue to take advantage of its teishoku (set meal) options, which start at just ¥880 (including tax). Evening courses at Nakajima start at ¥8,800, meaning this lunch is beyond a bargain.

Iwashi (sardine) is the star of the show, and you can choose from one of four preparations: thinly sliced sashimi, deep-fried, simmered or as Yanagawa nabe (hot pot) — a dish that dates back to the Edo Period (1603-1868) where fish and egg come simmered together in a shallow pot. A small bowl of rice, miso soup and tangy tsukemono pickles round out the meal.

There’s both counter and table seating, but expect to share the latter with other customers during the lunchtime rush: It just adds to the entire “family-style” experience.

Hihara Bldg. B1F, 3-32-5 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku 160-0022; 03-3356-4534; www.shinjyuku-nakajima.com

Hidden in plain sight: The unassuming exterior of Akiyama belies its bold indigo interior and impeccable attention to decorative detail. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON
Hidden in plain sight: The unassuming exterior of Akiyama belies its bold indigo interior and impeccable attention to decorative detail. | CLAIRE WILLIAMSON

Honorable mentions

For those looking for a more quick and casual affair, the cozy Lugdunum Bouchon Lyonnais (Kagurazaka 4-3-7, Shinjuku-ku 162-0825; lyondelyon.com) offers a weekday “Le Menu Express” (¥1,950), which comes with a delightful green lentil mixed salad and your choice of seasonal main dish.

Meanwhile, the weekday “Pasta Course” (¥2,600) at L’Asse (Verona Meguro B1F, Meguro 1-4-15, Meguro-ku 153-0063; lasse.jp) gives Japanese ingredients the Italian treatment, closing with an exceptional array of desserts and petit fours.

And, of course, there’s the three one-Michelin-starred ramen restaurants — Konjiki Hototogisu, Tsuta and Nakiryu — though the queue to get a seat can often try even the most devoted fan.


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.
Coronavirus banner