Late summer is always a fallow season for dining out in Tokyo. The lingering heat still smothers the city and its residents’ appetites, while the bounty of autumn lies too far ahead to generate any great excitement. But that makes it a good time to stop and take stock of where we stand in Year One of COVID-19.
Even though little about the future remains certain, Tokyo’s restaurants are mostly still hanging in there, albeit with reduced clienteles and belts pulled in tight. Nonetheless, there have been several high-profile casualties. One of the first was Mimiu, the refined Osaka-based udon noodle chain, which shuttered all six of its Tokyo area branches in May, although its operations in Kansai continue.
A month later, Heinz Beck abruptly announced its departure from its plush Marunouchi premises overlooking the palace moat. Its high-end, Michelin-starred modern Italian fine dining will be missed, as will the excellent, casual cucina served by its ground-floor sibling, Sensi.
There was much sadness, too, when Inua’s closure was confirmed in July. Despite its all-too-brief tenure of just two years, head chef Thomas Frebel and his team scored some massive achievements, not least two Michelin stars and a place on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. But more than that, Inua blessed the city with its radical infusion of new Nordic ferments and creativity. Frebel has indicated he’s working on a new project here; hopefully that will come to fruition before long.
Meanwhile, fans of The Blind Donkey have been saying their farewells to chef Shin Harakawa, who leaves at the end of this month. Co-owner Jerome Waag will continue at the helm, while Harakawa is heading to Nagasaki Prefecture, where he has plans to revive his much-loved restaurant, Beard.
The pandemic hasn’t halted the stream of new openings since the spring. One of the most impressive has been Keisuke Oyama’s Patisserie Ease in Kabutocho. Oyama began his career under the legendary Hidemi Sugino, and until recently was head pastry chef at Sincere. Now he’s turning out some gorgeous creations under his own name.
His superb summer basil-mango-lemon kakigōri (shaved ice) parfait will only be available until the end of August. But Oyama prepares a dozen fresh confections each day, most of which are available for both take-out and eat-in — but be prepared to queue. Don’t miss his signature Amazon chocolate ice cream-filled choux pastries, which can also be ordered year-round through Ease’s online shop.
After six years building up a powerful reputation in Kyoto for his creative modern Spanish cuisine, chef Tetsuo Azuma has now moved his restaurant, Aca, to Tokyo. Look for his plush, exclusive counter restaurant in Nihonbashi Muromachi, behind the main Mitsukoshi department store.
Sushi chef Masashi Yamaguchi, formerly the man in charge at Sushi Wakon, has opened his own independent restaurant, Sushi Masashi, in Gaienmae. And Ramen Thank has added a third outlet for its admirable chicken ramen, called Chiritoma (short for “chili-tomato”) Ramen Thank.
Looking ahead, the new Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Otemachi opens its doors on Sept. 1, offering many compelling reasons for riding the elevator up to its 39th floor lobby. At Pigneto you will find great fresh pasta dishes and wood-fired pizzas, plus a sky-high, open-air terrace with stunning views across the city.
The hotel’s other restaurant, Est, serves the innovative French cuisine of Guillaume Bracaval who was, until the end of 2019, head chef at the now-closed two-star Cuisine(s) Michel Troisgros in Shinjuku. Inspired by the quality of Japan’s produce, Bracaval has developed a new menu that minimizes meat and cuts out dairy altogether, focusing instead on premium seafood and vegetables.
This has also been the year of the neo-yokochō — restaurant floors with clusters of small, casual dining bars with counter seating. In Harajuku’s new Jingumae Comichi building (opening Sept. 11), look for Sincere Blue, chef Shinsuke Ishii’s first branch, focusing on sustainable seafood.
Last, but certainly best, the most keenly anticipated opening of the autumn will undoubtedly be the upcoming collaboration between two of Tokyo’s hottest chefs, Zaiyu Hasegawa of Den and Hiroyasu Kawate of Florilege. Longtime friends and fishing buddies, they each have very different styles: Hasegawa’s is innovative Japanese cooking, while Kawate’s is superb modern French. Their new place will draw on both influences, melding the two cuisines together over the grill and on the plate through the medium of kushi (skewers). Hence the name: Denkushiflori. The world awaits with bated breath and chopsticks poised.