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Tasting Tokyo

Robatayaki Mention this country cuisine and Japanese food lovers will start waxing lyrical about cozy high-roofed farmhouse restaurants in Kansai and Kyoto where the action revolves around a square clay grill (robata translates as "hearth," yaki means "grilled"; this style of cooking usually features seafood and vegetables slicked with teriyaki or miso glaze).

WHERE TO FIND IT Hidden away in the blindingly sleek new Marunouchi shopping and office tower, Daigomi might well be a robatayaki from a different planet. Entering, one gasps at the workmanship lavished on the still lifes arrayed across the counter. Silvery gills glisten over ice, absurdly fresh asparagus protrudes from bamboo receptacles, tiny buttered potatoes sit jewel-like in a gorgeous clay bowl—all surrounded by floral arrangements and anchored by a vast gilded vase.

If you choose not to sit at the bar, a kimono-clad waitress will cart a market's worth of raw meat, shellfish, and vegetables to your table. Point, smile, and nod; or get the set menu, which might kick off with globefish roe marinated in sake and progress to an elaborate sashimi arrangement. After sesame-oil-drizzled seaweed salads that resemble intricate flower beds, but before the blond box hiding pickles and rice, a glazed-ceramic charcoal grill is ceremoniously lit at your table. Sizzling skewers of lacquered chicken balls, immaculate okra and leeks, buttery wagyu beef—this is food-on-a-stick raised to an art form. Marunouchi Bldg., fifth floor, 2-4-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/5219-7011; dinner for two $140.

Kaiseki These are difficult times for this fiercely expensive, highly ritualized meal consisting of tiny seasonal courses and dating back some 500 years to Kyoto Zen Buddhist tea ceremonies. Shrunk are the corporate pockets of business travelers willing to splurge in the rarefied atmosphere of a ryokan. Waning is the public's patience for ceremony. Geisha guilds are even putting up Web sites, for heaven's sake.

WHERE TO FIND IT One of the city's most stunning examples of reinvented kaiseki is found at Kozue, the lofty restaurant on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel—all glass, amber wood, and sweeping vistas of the West Shinjuku cityscape. This is miles away from the hyperdiscreet tatami rooms of a traditional kaiseki ryotei, where the only clue to who is inside is provided by the shoes left at the entrance.

Chef Kenichiro Ooe's tasting menu does follow the traditional sequence: an amuse-bouche, clear soup, something raw, something grilled, something simmered, and something fried, followed by rice. But Ooe infuses the often rigid meal with his own quirky sensibility, composing portions large enough to be shared. The seating is Western, the prices are clearly marked, and you don't have to worry about the state of your socks. But this is where the familiar gives way to the uncanny. A scholar of ikebana and traditional tableware, Ooe presents his elaborate creations on museum-quality earthenware pieces. And he derives great pleasure from challenging diners to interpret his flavors. That mysteriously delicious ball with the texture of glutinous rice and the color of sea urchin?It's smoked salmon. A magnificent taro leaf-lined basket arrives laden with such delicacies as sea cucumber, blowfish sushi, and kanimiso (crab innards). It's a relief to taste the simplicity of the Yonezawa beef (better than Kobe) done as an exquisite shabu-shabu. Not to mention the joy of still being able to feel your legs. Park Hyatt Hotel, 40th floor, 3-7-1-2 Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; 81-3/5323-3460; dinner for two $200.


Though dedicated sushi-ya are more common in California than they are in Japan—where diners often opt for a raw fish course at a regular restaurant—kaitenzushi, or conveyor belt sushi, is gaining popularity in Tokyo. The city's newest shrine is Tokyo Shokudoo Central Mikuni's Sushi Train (Tokyo Station Marunouchi, South Gate, floor B1, 1-9-1 Marunouchi, Chiyoda-ku; 81-3/5218-5123; lunch for two $60). Here, rice confections glide by to a bossa nova sound track. Grab a bowl of chirashi sushi with a topping of foie gras, or snag a "rock-and-roll" with unagi (eel) and avocado. Most unusual offering?The Paris roll: a mini croissant on a cushion of sushi rice, tuna salad, and Camembert, with a smear of wasabi. Vive la différence!


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