I think of myself as fearless in pursuit of gastronomic thrills. I have conquered my dread of imagined mob scenes to sample airy fried puchkas in Kolkata, India. I’ve braved the winding roads to a religious retreat in the mountains of Sichuan province for vegetarian esoterica. Showed up for lunch in lawless Macao as rival gangs took potshots at each other for a bite of Macanese chili shrimp. But I just couldn’t get myself to the gastronomic nirvana of Japan, so spooked was I by tales of indifference to outsiders and stratospheric prices.
Then Richard Bloch, an architect pal who commutes regularly to commissions in Tokyo, offered to guide me to secret places where tourists rarely go. And Japanophile friends in New York City set up food-world connections willing to lead my mate, Steven, and me on delicious detours. We headed off, determined to discover the best of the best Tokyo has to offer, at price levels high and low, from the exclusive and obscure to the raffish and humble.
At 10 p.m., barely three hours after landing at Narita, the odyssey begins at Sushi Takumi Okabe, in the city’s Asakusa neighborhood, where a duo of sushi adepts wait at an unprepossessing nine-seat counter. To begin, we sip icy cold Koshinozeki sake, premium fuel for the Edo-era masterworks of Kaichiro Okabe. The chef, we are told, is the mentor of Masa Takayama, whose $450 sushi omakase has thrilled Manhattan sushi cognoscenti since his restaurant, Masa, opened in 2004. Hearing Takayama’s name, the chef smiles and proceeds to cut thin slices from a silver needlefish, painting them with a red-pepper-and-sesame sauce. The fish’s liver follows in a puddle of soy, then a parade of small bowls: bits of raw shrimp that cling voluptuously to the tongue; mackerel chunks topped with spikes of nori; crab eggs laced with pungent seaweed. These surprising textures and flavors are just the prelude to sushi, morsels of fish that arrive slicked with the chef’s “special sauce”—universal code for “I’m not giving away my secrets.” Squid comes stuffed with chopped egg, Edo-style. Vinegar tempers the sweetness of raw shrimp on warmed rice. A big hit of wasabi on fatty tuna goes right to my brain. My senses go into overdrive as so much complexity is delivered at a ceremonial pace, one piece at a time. Or is it the sips of sake in between? I’m thrilled to be launching our quest on such a high note.
The next day, we check in with our designated foodie gurus, and everyone I talk to seems to have a favorite sushi bar, robata grill, or temple of kaiseki (little tasting portions in exquisite bowls and saucers). The Japanese are as obsessed with food as we Americans are—possibly more so. I see them lined up to buy $60-a-pound green tea at Takashimaya when we stop to explore the store’s vast food hall of international edibles. We sample gyoza (pork dumplings) hot off the griddle. Clerks direct us to the Fauchon display and to the big barrels of Japanese pickles sold by the gram. I don’t see anyone actually buy a $100 melon, but they are indeed displayed in ruffled tissue like Fabergé eggs.
I realize we can eat five or six times a day to cover every category of cooking in Tokyo alone, where Michelin has awarded 320 stars—more than Paris, more than any other city in the world. This is a city where specialization becomes maniacal, with restaurants that just do eel or fugu (the blowfish that can kill you if not properly detoxified), noodle shops for udon, others for soba, joints for ramen, tempura, breaded pork cutlets, chicken parts. Should we disregard the Japanese passion for Italian cooking and gooey layer cakes? Ignore Michelin’s darling, Joël Robuchon? Yes: After all, we can go to Robuchon’s Atelier back home in New York.
I’m more curious about tempura. Can even the best be thrilling enough? In my New York experience, tempura is rarely as exciting as a good fritto misto, never as transporting as sublime sushi. But a friend has insisted we experience a tempura evening at Kondo, a favorite of hers in Ginza. I hope for a deep-fried revelation.
There are only 15 seats at the U-shaped counter (booked far ahead) atop one of those needle-like towers. But we get a bow from Fumio Kondo himself, planted in front of the frying station next to a mountain of pebbled flour, his arms folded like a middle-aged warrior. Young women deliver drinks and amuses-bouches from the kitchen. Then, once everyone is into the prologue, Kondo tenses, swivels his head like a baseball pitcher on the mound, and swings into action. Powder flies as he drags sea creatures through the hill of dry tempura coating or liquefies a batch of soft wheat flour into a batter. He sets a small tray in front of me, drops a rectangle of parchment on it, and delivers a pair of crisped shrimp heads. Then a clean paper for the shrimp bodies, sweet and wondrously tender. He gives instructions to the two of us in English: “Use salt,” he says. “Now, sauce.” “This time, lime.”
Here come deep-fried lotus root, asparagus tips, a lily bulb. Kondo constantly stops to wash away the floury mix that sticks to his fingers. “No sauce,” he commands for a mild little fish. Scallop, clam, whiting, eggplant slivered and fanned. Fat-splotched parchments disappear and clean ones arrive. Kondo selects an odd, green, acorn-like object from a basket of early spring vegetables (seasonal was a Japanese mantra long before American chefs got religion). “Butterbur,” he says, as if that would explain it. He presses the battered bulb flat as it fries, so it emerges looking like a giant brooch. Its taste? The essence of green, with a surprise flash of bitterness at the end. I’m starting to understand.
The next evening our architect friend Richard leads us down a little alley past a gas station to Owan, which is obscured behind a dramatic façade of weathered steel and glass. It’s clear he loves this small oasis, not just for the gently priced omakase menu of delicious dishes—just $50 per person—but also for his rapport with the amiable owner, Kuniatsu Kondo, a man who clearly reveres design too. The staff’s terra-cotta-colored aprons echo the terra-cotta-painted walls, and the bowls he sets before us mirror the precious antique pottery and lacquerware on the illuminated shelves. The chef chooses a sake cup for me from a collection on a tray. A menu scroll is held open with two smooth black stones. An assistant behind the 12-seat counter carves ice into shapes the chef requires; an artful chunk goes into my plum wine spritzer.
Kondo puts out special salts for a gossamer opener of freshly made tofu, followed by mizuna salad with shavings of dried bonito. Black seaweed the chef marinates himself comes on the sashimi plate, the fish excitingly smooth and firm, the temperature perfect. Scallop, oyster, and broccoli rabe stud a soft steamed dumpling floating in a dashi broth. Shrimp sandwiched between lotus slices is rolled in batter and deep-fried for tempura. Pork is rolled in napa cabbage. I sense the chef is moving toward a classic Japanese finale of layered egg. “Each chef prides himself on his egg mixture,” Richard observes. Unlike the blobby cut of omelette I avoid at home, this one is warm, and not sweet at all, with grated radish alongside.
I had planned to immerse myself in Japanese food, to explore the mysterious ways of miso, tofu, mochi (sticky rice paste). We eat a few too many delicious kushiage, fried things on skewers, the specialty of Rokukakutei, above Barney’s in the Ginza, where an impressive collection of imported wines are poured into expensive goblets. The chef is full of surprises: lotus deep-fried, then skewered; shiitake and salmon; a piece of beef wrapped around a string bean. Each of us gets a bowl of raw vegetables to crunch between deep-fried morsels.
I haven’t come this far to eat French, nor counted on the Japanese passion for foreign cuisines. But a food-obsessed man-about-town invites us to lunch at Restaurant Kinoshita, where the devotion of affluent sophisticates has made owner Kazuhiko Kinoshita a star. “But he’s a star chef who’s always in his kitchen,” our host observes. Though the 32 seats are usually booked far in advance, we have managed to snare three last-minute spots at the communal table with a good view of Kinoshita. Athletic in his white T-shirt and an apron tied over jeans, he personally tweaks every plate, his mustache and goatee setting off a shiny hairless head.
After a trio of amuses-bouches, a delicately jellied lobster cocktail makes me realize I’m grateful for a break after a week of soba, marinated fish, and pickled tidbits. A lush seafood bisque positively smells like France. The six-course tasting menu doesn’t add up to a poetic progression, but I’m a fool for blood sausage, as well as the chef’s peppery calamari. A tender venison fillet, served rare alongside a caul-wrapped venison patty, is followed by tangerine segments on a shallow island of crème brûlée. Pretty amazing from a chef who has never even been to France.
Before my visit, I’d been warned that there are Tokyo restaurants so esoteric, so exclusive, so expensive that only royalty and moguls are welcome. But on my quest for foodie epiphany in the Japanese capital, I was dazzled by the astonishing range of high and low dining, and charmed by the rituals of fawning attention. From the enthusiastic welcome in fast-food ramen joints to the graceful surroundings of ceremonial kaiseki, wherever we ventured, food was the main event. Food that is, above all, seasonal, but also provocative, exotic, and deliriously good.
Gael Greene is the author of Insatiable: Tales from a Life of Delicious Excess (Warner Books).
Kondo Sakaguchi Bldg., ninth fl., 5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/5568-0923; dinner for two $290.
Owan Okada Bldg., 2-26-7 Ikejiri, Setagaya-ku; 81-3/5486-3844; dinner for two $157.
Restaurant Kinoshita Estate Bldg., 3-37-1 Yoyogi, Shibuya-ku; 81-3/3376-5336; dinner for two $144.
Rokukakutei Kojun Bldg., fourth fl., 6-8-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/5537-6008; dinner for two $360.
Sushi Takumi Okabe 5-13-14 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku; 81-3/5420-0141; dinner for two $300.
Takashimaya Nihonbashi 2-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku; 81-3/3211-4111.