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.