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Tasting Tokyo

For all their culinary cross-dressing, most Japanese restaurants in Tokyo continue to be defined by a particular genre of cuisine. Ever obsessed with skill and quality, locals will seek the top tempura at, well, a tempura-ya, dedicated to deep-frying; supreme soba at a place specializing in buckwheat noodles. But while the respect for tradition still borders on fetish, the Japanese appetite for the new assures that classic formats are being redefined faster than you can snatch up a pair of Prada sunglasses. Tokyo in the year 2003 might just be the most exciting place to eat on the planet.

The flavor of millennial Japan is best experienced through its essential cuisines—soba, izakaya pub food, tempura, robata grills, and kaiseki—in places where it's clear that rules are made to be broken. Zen serenity?No way. How about Meiji-era tastes retooled for space-age surroundings?Welcome to the world's next great restaurant capital.

Soba Perfected in 16th-century Buddhist monasteries, Japan's signature buckwheat noodles became the country's national starch during the construction of old Edo (Tokyo), providing laborers with cheap, filling meals. These days, soba-as-sustenance thrives at a million proletarian noodle shops, while soba-as-sacrament is savored in the hushed neo-rustic surroundings of upscale soba-ya. In mass-produced soba, buckwheat is usually stretched out with another flour, such as yam. On the high end, expect the nutty 100-percent-buckwheat sensation of te-uchi (handmade) noodles.

WHERE TO FIND IT Head for the Ginza branch of Matsugen, a dim and narrow space with an old grinding stone on display and a communal table set with neo-primitivist sculptures. Seated at the counter of smooth African wood, contemplate whether to order the tasting menu, cut straight to the noodles, or just gawk at the beautiful Ginza belle adorned with what could well be the entire contents of a Cartier shop.

The set-menu route might include a silky, decadent morsel of sea urchin-topped tofu, a spoon holding one impeccably crisp fish-roe croquette, and a stone dish of soft, fatty grilled buri (yellowtail). Buckwheat chips with foie gras, and sobagaki (soba dumplings) afloat in a pearlescent bowl of yuzu-tinged broth announce that this is a new-wave soba-ya. Yet Matsugen's cut-to-order, freshly milled soba remains militantly authentic, best ordered inaka (country) style: robust and flecked with plenty of chaff. Get it kake (hot), perhaps with braised duck, or mori (cold), embellished with anything from anago (conger eel) to tororo (grated yam). As tradition dictates, the meal ends with a hot bowl of soba-yu (cooking water) to cleanse the palate. Pure ritual, pure vitamin E. Ginza Green Bldg., fourth floor, 7-8-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/5568-8989; dinner for two $90.

Izakaya Pub Food The izakaya (literally, "a place to be with sake") is Tokyo's answer to a Dublin pub or Madrid tapería: in its old-school incarnation a smoky, loud drinking den packed with salarymen, stacked with tokkuri sake flasks, and offering inexpensive, eclectic cuisine, such as grilled sardines, one-pot nabemono stews, and rib-sticking regional specialties.

WHERE TO FIND IT Daidaiya is to a back-alley eating bar what Gehry's Guggenheim Bilbao is to a community art center. Carved out of a former bunny (girlie) club, Tokyo's most dramatic restaurant interior presents a wonderland of Japonica motifs catapulted into the 21st century, then reinfused with Zen. A rectangular counter framing two stone pyramids rises from a raked sand garden. Then—past modern tatami rooms partitioned with blood-red gauzy scrims—a narrow proscenium lit by twinkling lights leads to the bar: gilded and impossibly long, it glimmers against a transparent wall inlaid with delicate blossoms and twigs.

True to the izakaya genre, the well-edited sake and cocktail list accentuates the food. Geometric cubes of soft fish cake arrive decorated like Fabergé eggs, with a minuscule dice of papaya, tiny red berries, and flower petals. Two brilliant tempura morsels (chile and fish roe) share a tray with a bowl of slender Nagano soba. The menu might also include "kneaded" tofu—it tastes like a sweet, springy custard—in a glass bowl of iced soy milk, and miso-steeped sablefish with a daikon pudding suffused by the fragile citrus perfume of the yuzu zest in which it has steamed. For dessert a wooden chest scattered with maple leaves holds a quivery soy-cheese-mousse surprise. Ginza Nine Bldg. No. 1, second floor, 8-5 Ginza, Chuo-ku; 81-3/5537-3566; dinner for two $115.

Tempura Deep-fried battered seafood arrived in Japan with Portuguese missionaries in the 1700's, evolving from typical street food to a venerable subgenre of Japanese gastronomy. Though there's no shortage of greasy-spoon tempura parlors hawking sweet potato and whiting, haute tempura-ya tend to be refined and expensive, offering exquisite morsels of seasonal seafood and vegetables enrobed in a whisper-light batter of eggs, flour, and ice water.

WHERE TO FIND IT Actually, it's hard to concentrate on tempura while strolling through Shunkan, an eating mall that feels less like a dining multiplex than a giant conceptual-art installation, sprawled over two floors of MyCity Department Store. Here, amoeba-shaped light sculptures bathe the hallways in a neon-blue glow. A panoply of surfaces delineates the various restaurants: filigree latticework; assemblages of painted computer parts worthy of Louise Nevelson; walls of bamboo; and panels of Op Art stripes that echo the Shinjuku skyscrapers outside. It's like coming to the Venice Biennale—to eat.

Traditionally tempura is appreciated at a spare blond-wood counter, but at Tsunahachi Rin, an outpost of Tokyo's famous tempura empire, a nouvelle-leaning roster of greaseless fritters is presented in a post-industrial boîte of backlit frosted glass. To mix with the dipping sauce, there is a cloudlike mound of daikon oroshi (grated radish), plus an almost Catalan foamy tomato pulp. The kitchen also sends out an assortment of colored salts to sprinkle on the lacy octopus-stuffed green chiles, and shrimp so fresh it practically jumps into your mouth. Still, the art of frying is showcased in the single clam on a shell lined with mushrooms and swished into sizzling oil just long enough to seal in the briny, elusive sweetness. Shunkan Restaurant Complex, MyCity Department Store, seventh floor, 3-38-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/5269-1111; lunch for two $65.


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