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).