Tokyo is a city of a hundred stories, a thousand alleys, and a million flavors. All that matters is who you are and what you want—which is why the chef’s tour I took with Paul Liebrandt, David Kinch, and Steelite CEO John Miles courtesy of Steelite, took so many different paths. One had us coursing through winding neon-lit alleys to find hidden eateries in Roppongi; another found us settling into the luxury of hotel fine-dining 40 stories above the Shinjuku neighborhood, overlooking the quiet majesty of Mount Fuji.
Once you choose your path—or paths—it’s hard to resist documenting every bite, every dish, every sip along the way. But traveling with Kinch and Liebrandt, whose palates took unfettered joy in the simple act of surrender, was helpful. I captured as much as I could, but I also learned to let go, to let the experience reach me, and teach me—even something as simple as how to eat sushi. Like most Westerners, I was thrilled to be tasting quite possibly the freshest fish in the world. But what I didn’t know, and what Chef Mitsuhiro Araki taught me, was that all these years I haven’t been eating sushi correctly. The right way is with a simple, but essential, twist of the wrist, so that the fish—the central product—is the first thing to meet your tongue.
This wasn’t just etiquette or experience. It was a lesson in the spirit of Japanese cuisine, and its emphasis on particularities of product, preparation, and, as with my sushi revelation, consumption. Unlike the West, where top tier fine dining borrows technique and blurs boundaries, Tokyo is a mosaic of restaurant types, each tending toward the perfection of one idea. And we tasted all of it—or as much as we could, everything from ramen and tempura to sushi and yakitori, each restaurant exemplary a prototype. Ishikawa is kaiseki at its most reverent and expressive, with a menu that reads like an ode to Japanese products; the three-Michelin-star Araki is a temple to fresh fish, almost literally (its long, wooden sushi bar contains pieces of a 400-year-old Japanese cedar believed to have holy value); Aragawa is a steakhouse of unapologetic, irresistible luxury; and the 10-seat 7chome Kyoboshi is the world’s first, only three-star Michelin tempura restaurant (which had us wondering once again how Michelin awards its stars). The moral of the story: when technique drives a restaurant, tastes become sublime.
Exceptions to the rule are, inevitably, exceptional. Kozue melds the veneration of kaiseki with molecular gastronomy; Narisawa is a conceptual dream; and L’Effervesence applies the foraging purism of Michele Bras with Tokyo’s rainbow array of products. And that product is unparalleled. No wonder so many chefs are inspired by Japan—nowhere else in the world is product so revered, or diverse. At Sushiso Masa, Chef Masakatsu Oka served us firefly squid (both grilled and raw), monkfish liver that lived up to its “foie of the sea” nickname, and the best geoduck clam I’ve had: so clean, toothsome, and crisp, it was like tasting a fresh bite of the sea. And I’ve had trouble with uni for years, tasting something sharp and metallic where the rest of the world seemed to taste buttery saline, but Tokyo taught me what I was missing. I would bathe in it if I could.
Tokyo’s pantry goes well beyond the sea (though every chef should envy it for that alone). We had richly marbled Sanda beef, hearty tempura-fried mountain vegetables, delicate sakura (cherry blossoms), tender minced mitsuba leaves, bonito gelée, and even delicately earthy matcha cheesecake. At Takazawa, we tasted a reinterpretation (purification?) of Ratatouille that exemplifies the wealth of Japanese produce and particularity of preparation.
That particularity doesn’t end in Tokyo’s restaurants. Of the bars we visited—as hard to find, and as worthwhile, as anything we experienced—we noticed the same exacting preparation, the same dedication to ingredients. Case in point, the famous house-made absinthe at Bar de Peche, which we almost missed as we walked up and down a tiny alley in Roppongi (a place Kinch would have been happy to keep secret). And at Bar High Five, a mixology hub tucked incongruously inside a corporate office building, Hidetsugu Ueno served us a cocktail so simple and yet so painstakingly precise, it was easily the best of our trip.
All of this against the cultural backdrop of Tokyo, where things like “cosplay” find Goth girls dressed like dolls (or bringing actual dolls to dine with them at Michelin-starred restaurants), meeting up with men done up like 1940s movie stars. And it all felt right, because Tokyo taught me, among so many things, to expect the unexpected.
As you dive into Tokyo with us, keep your nominations for chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers coming. We'll be traveling to coastal New England, San Francisco, and DC in the upcoming months. And follow us on Twitter and Facebook, for real-time updates on the food and drink that inspires us every day.