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tokyp tips

Tokyo Tips

Tokyo may very well be the greatest food city in the world. It’s right up near the top, anyway, with New York, Paris, and Bangkok. (In fact, many of the best things to eat in those cities have been painstakingly recreated, ingredient by ingredient, in Tokyo.) And the Japanese win for being the people most obsessed about what they put in their mouths. But the culinary treasures of Tokyo are not always easy for outsiders to find. The city is an endless maze of winding streets,

Photograph by Marcus Naubur

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unsigned buildings (or buildings signed only in Japanese), hard-to-find addresses, and impenetrable menus. Then there’s the bewildering etiquette that leaves hapless foreigners hopeless and hungry. While you could limit yourself to areas popular with English speakers or restaurants that have English menus and staff who speak a word or two, by doing so you would miss out on the city’s real food treasures.

Here then are some notes to help you navigate your way to some delicious dining experiences in Tokyo. They’ve been compiled from notes I took on two recent visits. There are myriad other wonderful dining options to be sure, but I’ll personally guarantee a satisfying meal at any of the places listed below.

For a knock-down, drop-dead, blow-out contemporary Japanese dining experience head over to the Park Hyatt Tokyo and eat a meal at their fine Japanese restaurant, Kozue. (The hotel’s New York Grill is also first rate, but you can get that kind of food at home.) Let everyone flock to the new Grand Hyatt at the billion-dollar, multi-tiered experiment in community living going on at Roppongi Hills. I’d rather eat at the Park Hyatt any day. Although Kozue isn’t a secret, and the staff do very well with English, chef Kenichiro Ooe’s cooking remains ever inspired (and you don’t have to sit cross-legged to enjoy it!). Given the setting, the view of Mount Fuji, and the superb contemporary Japanese cuisine, the $200-plus-per-person tab is almost a bargain. Order the chef’s tasting (omakase) and put yourself in his exceedingly capable hands. Kozue: Park Hyatt Tokyo, 40th floor, 3-7-1-2, Nishi-Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku; telephone: 03-5323-3460; subway station: JR Shinjuku (south exit) or Keio Hatsudai station (east exit)

Eating at Daidaiya is fun. It reminds me of eating at some places in New York, in that, just being inside the expansive, creative, modern, elegant space makes you feel like you’re cool. The food is similar. It’s very modern, extremely creative, and very beautifully presented. The menu calls it “nouvelle cuisine japonaise.” Like many restaurants in Tokyo, it is part of a chain, but each Daidaya has a very different look and feel. At the one near Ginza, you can sit around a Zen sand garden, or in a heavily draped room, or at a 60-meter sushi bar. Some of the dishes require you to grill your own food, others involve breaking open pastry shells to get to the goodies inside. Dinner’s about $80 per person, another good deal in this pricey place. Daidaya: Ginza Nine Building 1, 2nd floor, 8-5 Saki Ginza-Nishi, Chuo-ku; telephone: 03-5537-3566; subway station: Shimbashi.

Noodles are a whole category of Japanese cuisine in and of themselves, and within that category are several sub-categories. Soba, Udon, and Ramen are the important ones. Each has it’s own particulars about how to order (hot or cold, with crunchy fried bits to stir in or extra pork or maybe duck), how to condiment (gauzy kombu shavings, spicy pepper, pickled ginger, cooking water, to list only a few options), and how to eat (slurping or not). Since most of the best noodle places don’t have English menus and the staff don’t speak English, I think it is good to show up, observe what’s going on for a few minutes, and then when you’ve drawn a few conclusions, point and smile to get what you want. Here’s a couple of suggestions. For soba (buckwheat flour noodles) try Toshi-an 5-17-2 Shirokanedai, Minato-ku; telephone: 03-3444-1741; subway station: Meguro. For the thick, ropy, hand-cut wheat noodles called udon, check out Muguinbo 2-25-7 Kami-uma, 1st floor, Setagaya-ku; telephone: 03-3975-4588; subway station: Ikijiri Ohashi. For a bowl of satisfyingly soupy ramen, head over to Kyushu Jangara Ramen 1-13-21 Jingu-mae, 2nd floor, Shibuya-ku; telephone: 03-3779-3660; subway station: Harajuku.

To enjoy the freshest sushi, you should have it for breakfast and you should have it at Sushi-dai in the Tsukiji fish market. (Go the first day or two after you arrive in Tokyo; the jet-lag will have you up early, anyway.) There are only 12 seats. There is no menu. Some of the fish is so fresh you can almost see it still moving. Sushi-dai: Tsukiji Fish market, 4-5-1-Tsukiji, Chuo-ku; telephone: 03-3452-1111; subway station: Tsukiji.

For tonkatsu, fried pork cutlet—yes, it’s a Japanese specialty—check out Tonki, the best known and most fun of the city’s tonkatsu restaurants. There’s only a couple of things on the menu, so you can’t go too far wrong. The fried cutlet comes with the traditional accompaniments of shredded cabbage, pickles, and rice. And you can watch as it’s all being made with the precision and discipline of an army drill. Tonki: 1-1-2 Shimo Meguro, Meguro-ku; telephone: 03-3491-9928; subway station: Meguro

If chicken’s your thing, you must have yakitori at Toritake. You will be the only foreigner in the place, and there’s no English spoken. But that shouldn’t stop you. The restaurant is small and casual enough to be accommodating. Just say omakase and skewers of various chicken parts will arrive. They are perfect with any of the hundreds of beers, sakes. and shochus (like Japanese vodka) on available. Toritake: Star Building, 1st floor; 5-14 Maruyama-cho, Shibuya-ku; telephone: 03-3461-5475; subway station: Shibuya

If you want to have a whirlwind tour of Japanese cuisine, just head to the basement of any department store. There you’ll find a fascinating array of food courts, grocery stores, and gourmet concessions to tantalize you. (You’ll also find plenty of inexpensive things to eat for lunch or dinner.) My favorite depachikas, as they are called, are located below the Ginza flagships of Matsuya and Mitsukoshi, and in the Takashimaya Times Square in Shibuya.

Whenever you are finished eating, don’t forget to say: Go chiso sama deshita, which means “Thank you very much for the delicious food.”


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