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.
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.
SUSHI: ON A ROLL
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!
For fans of soba noodles, texture is key, and noodle shop Matsugen is reputed to have perfected it. Located on the third floor of a Ginza office tower, Matsugen attracts a business lunch crowd with its quiet ambience and low-key decor: dark wood furniture with strong lines. The three Matsushita brothers—who own this and 15 other Tokyo restaurants, as well as Matsugen's Honolulu outpost—achieve noodle perfection by grinding the buckwheat for the noodles in house. They're generally served cold (heat causes them to fall apart) with a dipping sauce and sushi, tofu, and soba-noodle dumpling soup.
Impressive views of the Tokyo skyline are the backdrop for Japanese fine dining at Kozue, located on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt Hotel. Blond wood and bamboo furnishings and accents, ambient lighting, and ceramic or lacquer tableware handmade by artisans all over Japan help create expectations for the carefully considered menu of Chef Ooe. Sashimi served on ice, tableside shabu-shabu (thin strips of meat and vegetables cooked by being swished in hot broth), and a traditional four-course meals come to the table artistically presented and served by kimono-clad waitresses.
A sleek and elegant izakaya (drinking place) on the fifth floor of a Marunouchi skyscraper, Daigomi features an upscale robata-yaki (charcoal grill) where expense-account diners choose the fresh ingredients for their meal from the gorgeous display in front of them. Beverages such as beer or sake are served next as diners watch from the wooden bar, where the chefs prepare the meal. Fresh seafood, Waygu beef, and grilled vegetables are some of options typically on hand. Diners can also opt for one of the private rooms for lengthy meals or parties.
Blending traditional elements of Japanese design—such as shoji screens and tatami mats—with dramatic contemporary art and lighting, Daidaiya is a popular izakaya (drinking place) where the fashionable after-work crowd gathers to experience creative Asia-fusion "nouvelle Japanese" cuisine against the backdrop of its noteworthy interior. While many come for drinks (sake served in small glasses mounted in lacquer boxes) and small dishes, the menu is uncharacteristically broad for a Japanese restaurant: steak, sushi, sashimi, or tofu, combined with unexpected accompaniments such as kimchi or cured ham. Daidaiya seats 300 in different "zones," each with distinctive decor.
One of the last vestiges of pre-war architecture in Shinjuku, the building housing the flagship Tsunahachi tempura restaurant (there are now dozens of them all over Japan) stands out amid the nearby skyscrapers. Inside, diners sit at a no-frills counter watching as white-uniformed chefs deep fry shrimp, squid, lotus roots, mushrooms, and a variety of fresh-caught fish, served in large portions with dipping sauce and clam miso. Diners choose the number of courses (some include sashimi.) Private tatami rooms are available for larger parties.