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Tokyo Cuisine: Hip New Trends

Tetsuya Miura

Photo: Tetsuya Miura

Crazy for Pastry

After being turned away from Sugino, and then from Gucci Café—ah, those coveted chocolate Gucci logos—we have roughly a trillion other spectacular patisseries to console ourselves with. At the Marunouchi salon of idol-pâtissier Sadaharu Aoki, I admire the slender green-tea éclairs. At the elegant Mikimoto Lounge, inside the company’s new tower in Ginza, we plump for a pearl-themed dessert—fromage blanc, passion fruit, tapioca—among bejeweled neighborhood belles and their steamer-trunk–size Dior shopping bags. Still, if one held a popularity contest for Japan’s favorite sweet, the mont blanc (a rococo arrangement of chestnut purée, sponge cake, and meringue) would beat napoleons and macaroons by a landslide. “That’s because its chestnut flavor bridges the gap between traditional wagashi and French pastry,” explains my friend Maki, editor of Sweet Café, a glossy magazine entirely devoted to pastry trends. One day we convene at Patisserie Satsuki, at the New Otani Hotel, for a mont blanc degustation that includes a Milano (Italian chestnuts, ricotta, Gorgonzola crust); a Tokyo ( Japanese chestnuts and sticky rice sponge); and a Paris (marron glacé over a meringue base). The winner?Actually, it’s a fourth version, from the adjacent Pierre Hermé shop. France’s top pastry provocateur, Hermé is a household name in Tokyo, with several boutiques and a swank marbled Bar Chocolat created by Wonderwall, the cutting-edge design firm behind Uniqlo stores. Why do Gallic confectioners even bother with France?

Pork is the New Kobe

The prized Ibérico swine is consumed in Japan with such gusto you wonder if there are any of the acorn-munching black hogs left in Andalusia. The idea of Ibérico pork turned tonkatsu—as in proletarian panko-breaded fried pork cutlet—might offend Spanish snobs, but just let said snobs taste it at Butagumi. Literally translated as “pig gang,” this new-wave tonkatsu temple occupies a quaint timber-framed house in a quiet residential enclave near big, bright Roppongi. Besides tonkatsu Ibérico—limited, of course, to just a few servings a day—a roster of domestic pork cutlets proudly showcases hand-reared hog from Japanese boutique farms. Order a “Butagumi-zen” menu and you get five mini-tonkatsu stuck with tiny flags identifying their provenance. This is pork with a Ph.D.

Drinking While Standing

Tachinomiya, standing-room-only bars, have evolved from dives filled with pickled salarymen (groping guaranteed) to sleek watering holes where the notoriously shy young Japanese can strike up conversations over glasses of Austrian Grüner Veltliner, Australian sparkling Shiraz, or artisanal sake. At the dark, designy, one-person-deep Buchi, near Shinjuku Station, the ravishing female bartender introduces us to the “one-cup sake” trend—single servings sold in colorful little jars. “It keeps the sake fresh, and the cute labels attract female drinkers,” she explains. (Do any consumer trends in Japan target men?) Buri, Buchi’s sister establishment in Ebisu, has an entire wall of color-coordinated miniature sake containers behind its handsome circular bar. Natty gaijin (foreigners) and Japanese hipsters alternate slugs of their junmai and daiginjo with bites of pork-cheek yakitori, sautéed sea urchin and watercress, and fugu (blowfish) roe preserved in sake lees. A fashion executive next to me tells us that the cup-sake craze even inspired a lingerie company to create cup-sake–themed bras. Barry drinks to that.

Spam-tastic!

A perfect slab of standard-issue Okinawan Spam lovingly griddled in butter is tied with a nori ribbon to a mustard-slicked rice ball in possibly the most perversely delicious sushi I’ve ever encountered. We and Robbie Swinnerton, food critic for the Japan Times, are enjoying it at Teppei, a blond, narrow haunt semihidden in the folksy Kagurazaka neighborhood. Here, lost on the low-rise-lined backstreets, one can still imagine Old Edo. Teppei isn’t your average Spam-centric Okinawan greasy spoon, but a connoisseur’s izakaya specializing in esoteric shochu spirits and 10 kinds of ume-shu (plum) liqueur (“a trend in the making,” Robbie opines). Best of all, Teppei employs the services of a certified Vegetable and Fruit Meister, a.k.a. produce sommelier, Japan’s budding food profession. Spam sushi with a tempura of absurdly perfect asparagus?Only in Tokyo.

Anya von Bremzen is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure.

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