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What a year. And what a relief to reach the end of it. But before we consign 2020 outright to the reject bin of history, it’s worth looking back for a moment. In hindsight, there were plenty of culinary highlights that helped bring notes of optimism and positivity to these difficult months.

For better or worse, this has been the year of the neo-yokochō. The idea of creating cheerful, bustling floors of closely clustered restaurants and bars — no matter how well-designed and carefully curated — now flies in the face of social-distancing wisdom. Nonetheless, the concept has struck a popular chord, from last year’s Chaos Kitchen to the triple-decker delights of Shibuya’s redeveloped Miyashita Park.

Arches and eels: In the new Hibiya Okuroji yokochō, Nagoya offshoot Unafuji Yurakucho serves a version of hitsumabushi (charcoal-grilled eel over rice). | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Arches and eels: In the new Hibiya Okuroji yokochō, Nagoya offshoot Unafuji Yurakucho serves hitsumabushi (charcoal-grilled eel over rice). | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

The most recent addition to the genre, Hibiya Okuroji, boasts an atmospheric setting under the refurbished brickwork railroad arches of the Yamanote Line. Sadly, the dining options are not as exciting as the architecture. The main highlight is Unafuji Yurakucho, an offshoot of a noted Nagoya eel specialist that serves the signature regional dish hitsumabushi, charcoal-grilled unagi (eel) over rice.

This year, new restaurants have played a key role in kick-starting the revival of entire neighborhoods, as witnessed in the Nihonbashi-Kabutocho district since the launch of the K5 development project early this year. Meanwhile, the Waters Takeshiba complex has given a kiss of life to a rundown stretch of bayside Tokyo. Back a block towards Hamamatsucho you’ll find the new Cielito Lindo, where a former chef from the Mexican Embassy offers an upmarket take on the cooking of his homeland.

On the other side of town, change has come a lot more organically to the down-home, low-rise Nishihara shōtengai shopping street close by Hatagaya Station. In February, Path alumnus Hokuto Mitsuyasu moved here to open Will o’ Wisp, offering casual, eclectic, French-based cuisine much in the style of his alma mater.

Upscale Andes: Noted Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez is planning to open a Tokyo-based restaurant, Maz, next year. | KEN MOTOHASI
Upscale Andes: Noted Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez is planning to open a Tokyo-based restaurant, Maz, next year. | KEN MOTOHASI

Walk a little farther and you reach Freeman Shokudo, a super little no-frills diner “dedicated to pit-smoked barbecue, craft beer and small plates operating at the intersection of Japanese and American soul food.” As soon as Brooklyn emigre Jeremy Freeman fired up his oven in October, word spread fast about his juicy, dry-rubbed ribs and pulled pork sandwiches, the fridge full of good craft beer and the easygoing ambiance. A great addition to this mellow, understated neighborhood.

Another of this year’s hit openings, at least for carnivores, is Hikiniku to Come. The lure? Hamburg steaks charcoal grilled to order and served over bowls of rice, in a striking space inside a spruced-up building in Kichijoji. The catch? Tickets for each day’s seat allocation (both lunch and dinner) are handed out from 9 a.m., and are snapped up fast.

Meanwhile, fans of South Indian cuisine were given two more reasons to cheer this year, with the arrival of new branches of the excellent Erick South chain. One is in the basement of Toranomon Hills Business Tower; the other, under the train tracks in Koenji, bills itself as a Hyderabad-style “biryani center.” Both offer take-out and a selection of curries, which can also be ordered from the online shop.

Name brand: Kazutoshi Narita, formerly of Esquisse Cinq, now has a place of his own again in Azabu Juban. | COURTESY OF SCENE KAZUTOSHI NARITA
Name brand: Kazutoshi Narita, formerly of Esquisse Cinq, now has a place of his own again in Azabu Juban. | COURTESY OF SCENE KAZUTOSHI NARITA

Pandemic or not, Tokyo’s carousel of chefs and restaurants continues unabated. Master patissier Kazutoshi Narita, formerly of Esquisse Cinq, now has a place of his own again, in Azabu Juban: Scene Kazutoshi Narita serves pastries and bread, along with some of the sophisticated sweets that won him recognition as Asia’s Best Pastry Chef of 2017.

Kan Morieda, until last year the chef at Salmon & Trout, can now be found at Thai restaurant Chompoo on the fourth floor of Shibuya Parco. Meanwhile, his place in the kitchen at Salmon & Trout has gone to Takuto Nakamura, who was previously at Comme d’Habitude and Yakumo Saryo.

New arrival: British chef Daniel Calvert has left Belon, in Hong Kong, to open a yet-unnamed restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi in spring 2021. | COURTESY OF DANIEL CALVERT
New arrival: British chef Daniel Calvert has left Belon, in Hong Kong, to open a yet-unnamed restaurant at Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi in spring 2021. | COURTESY OF DANIEL CALVERT

While next year looks set to bring more of the same coronavirus strictures, there is plenty on the horizon to whet our appetites. The Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi will close its current restaurant, Motif, on Jan. 12. After refurbishment, it will reopen under a new name in June, helmed by British chef Daniel Calvert, who took Belon in Hong Kong to fourth place in the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants rankings.

Another keenly anticipated opening will be Maz, from the noted Peruvian chef Virgilio Martinez, whose flagship Central Restaurante in Lima is rated among the best in South America. As at his restaurants in London and Dubai, expect premium versions of classics such as ceviche, along with influences from the Amazon and Andes. Bring on 2021!

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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