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What a roller coaster the past year has been for Tokyo’s long-suffering restaurants. In early July, chefs and customers alike toasted what seemed like the return of better times. But within a fortnight those hopes were dashed yet again, with pared-back opening hours and the reimposition of requests (read “heavy pressure from the powers that be”) for all establishments to stop serving alcohol.

The state of emergency — currently the city is under its fourth to date — will be in effect at least until the end of August, leaving us in a limbo of uncertainty, without even the glimmer of an Olympic windfall. And yet, despite the gloom, there have been bright rays of positivity, with a steady trickle of excellent new openings.

Without a doubt, the star of the first half of 2021 has been Sezanne, at the Four Seasons Hotel Tokyo at Marunouchi, with British chef Daniel Calvert worthy of every glowing article and social media superlative. But it hasn’t been the only new arrival of note.

After six years in charge of the kitchen at the Michelin-starred Sublime, chef Junichi Kato has found a prime stage for his new restaurant, L’Argent, taking over the space vacated by the sadly shuttered Bistro Marx. Kato formerly worked under renowned chef Pascal Barbot at the three-star Astrance (Paris) and with Danish chef Soren Selin at two-star AOC in Copenhagen. Now, he has a setting worthy of his finely crafted, French-meets-Scandinavian cuisine.

One of the highlights of 2021’s new openings has been Daniel Calvert’s high-end French restaurant, Sezanne. | FOUR SEASONS HOTEL TOKYO AT MARUNOUCHI
One of the highlights of 2021’s new openings has been Daniel Calvert’s high-end French restaurant, Sezanne. | FOUR SEASONS HOTEL TOKYO AT MARUNOUCHI

Over in Shinjuku, sushi maestro Koji Kimura has opened an offshoot of his eponymous two-star restaurant in Futako-Tamagawa. But, as its name indicates, Kimuradon is not a sushi counter: It specializes in donburi featuring Kimura’s trademark cured, aged or simply marinated seafood over bowls of sushi rice.

The set menus (from ¥3,500 at lunch; ¥12,000 dinner) include a selection of starters, plus a choice of seafood donburi. There is also a seasonal rice bowl, currently featuring slices of Akigawa-gyū beef (¥4,800). Located on the 14th floor of the Takashimaya Times Square complex, Kimuradon looks bland inside but boasts a panoramic view over Shinjuku Gyoen park toward Tokyo’s brand new Olympic (National) Stadium.

Notwithstanding its old-school name and location in the heart of Ginza, Oryori Yuzan Keiichiro Kurobe is a venture breaking totally new ground. Chef Keiichiro Kurobe is Japanese by nationality, but was mostly raised and trained in the U.S. Drawing widely from this bicultural background, he serves multicourse omakase (chef’s choice) menus with light, colorful dishes that strut their SoCal and Mexican influences.

Chef Keiichiro Kurobe, of the eponymous Oryori Yuzan Keiichiro Kurobe, holds out a clay pot filled with spicy charcoal-grilled chicken and tomato on rice. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON
Chef Keiichiro Kurobe, of the eponymous Oryori Yuzan Keiichiro Kurobe, holds out a clay pot filled with spicy charcoal-grilled chicken and tomato on rice. | ROBBIE SWINNERTON

Kurobe has taken over the former premises of a small, upscale yakiniku grill, complete with traditional fixtures and open kitchen. This may be the very first kappō-style restaurant in Tokyo to serve tepache (a fermented pineapple drink), arancini (deep-fried rice balls) topped with uni urchin, or donabe (clay pot rice) in the style of arroz con pollo (with spicy charcoal-grilled chicken and tomato). It is certainly the first to sport a Jimi Hendrix poster on the wall and funk music issuing (at a restrained volume) from the sound system.

Three spin-offs of note: Roppongi’s Bricolage Bread & Co. has opened its first branch inside the refurbished Food Show deli hall below Shibuya’s iconic Hachiko statue. The excellent Apero. Wine Bar in Aoyama has launched a home catering service, and also a wine shop, on the other side of the city, in Sumida Ward. And the essential Paddlers Coffee in Nishihara now has a sister outlet in Nakano, called Lou (it rhymes with “brew”).

However, the news hasn’t all been cheerful. The saddest development this summer has been the demise of Anis in Hatsudai. After eight years producing some of the finest meat dishes in the city, chef Susumu Shimizu has called it a day. Fans pining for his remarkable skills on the plancha will be happy to know that he has already begun holding pop-up versions of his legendary monthly “Meating” dinners, most recently at restaurant Florilege.

Despite the ongoing uncertainty, Tokyo is looking ahead with fingers crossed to two big openings later this year — pandemic and immigration authorities willing. Chef Virgilio Martinez of Central Restaurante in Lima is still waiting for the go-ahead to launch his modern Peruvian restaurant Maz.

Meanwhile, Italian superchef Massimo Bottura is all geared up to open Gucci Osteria Tokyo, the third of his collaborations (after Florence and Beverly Hills) with the high-end fashion house. The restaurant space is ready and waiting inside Gucci’s gorgeously decorated new building in Ginza. Now all that’s needed is the green light. It’s one a lot of people are waiting for.

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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