Tokyo’s thriving restaurant scene roots most immediately in the vibrant mercantile culture emerging here in the late eighteenth century. In Edo, as the old city was known, a modern society of wealthy townsmen pushed its way onstage, happy, boisterous, and with a hunger for life’s pleasures. The samurai, austere and aristocratic, despised them. But the upstarts took little note, busy as they were with such new, intensely stylish forums for fulfillment as kabuki theaters, brothels, and, indeed, elegant restaurants. By the 1850s, when the first eateries serving Western food opened, and samurai power was on the ebb, the once strictly bourgeois vogue for dining out had become a standard routine of city life.
How many restaurants are there in Tokyo today? I’ve seen numbers from eighty thousand to twice that. If we assume city hall has a good idea of what’s going on, one hundred thousand seems a reasonable figure for the twenty-three central wards. The mayor’s numbers cite upwards of five thousand sushi bars, over two thousand Korean barbecues, eight thousand coffee shops, six thousand noodle restaurants, ten thousand Chinese restaurants, more than eight thousand generic Japanese eating places, and last not least roughly six thousand Western restaurants. Each category begs for definition (Denny’s serves miso); not many beg for customers.
Are they all equal? Hardly, though if you avoid the chains the firm custom of cooking with fresh ingredients usually guarantees at least a nourishing meal. Well, then, unavoidably: Who is best? Undaunted by the potential absurdity of the quest, in 2006 Michelin red guides charged a squad of five inspectors with finding out. The guide’s inaugural expedition in Asia, it was a movable feast that would take over a year to finish.
The first step, a practical and sensible one (and controversial because no rationale was given) was to shorten the list to fifteen hundred. As customary in these matters, the inspec- tors dined incognito, sometimes revisiting. Identities were divulged only after the decision to include a restaurant in the guide. All cuisine types were eligible. Comfort and service, the introduction says, were not relevant to the award.
The result of the undertaking? All restaurants listed in the guide, one hundred fifty in sum, received either one, two, or, the highest ranking, three stars. Food bastion Paris takes first with ten three-star establishments (Tokyo claims second with eight). Still, the sheer number of fine restaurants in the Japanese capital is staggering: its total of one hundred ninety-one stars surpasses Paris and New York combined. By far, Michelin’s Tokyo is the best-fed city on the planet.
The guide’s breakdown of restaurants according to type reflects the breadth of the city’s culinary strength. Naturally enough, Japanese restaurants predominate. Yet here it is striking to see how many distinct categories there are of the native cuisine, each having reached a remarkable level of development. In addition to the 52 general Japanese restaurants (all serving exquisite, varied arrangements of seasonal vegetables and seafood) (68 total stars), we find: Contemporary, incorporating elements of foreign cuisines (4 establishments; 5 stars); Fugu, specializing in the magnificent puffer or blowfish (4 and 6); Soba Kaiseki, an elaborate, delicious way of eating buckwheat noodles (3 and 3); Sushi, in the familiar style born in Tokyo known as edomae, raw fish (as opposed to marinated) atop small balls of seasoned rice (15 and 22); Tempura, a gone-native frying style likely learned prisolation from visiting Portuguese (5 and 5); Teppanyaki, beefsteak or, fabulously, lobster fried on a hot steel plate (5 and 5); and, finally, Unagi, the delightful world of Japanese eel, possibly the most tasty of which is hamo, or pike eel (1 and 1). Of these restaurants, three in the Japanese category and two from Sushi were crowned with three stars.
Yet this is only eightynine of the stellar one hundred fifty. To boot, there are five Chinese restaurants (six stars total), eight Italian (nine stars), two Spanish (three stars), and two steakhouses (one star each). Not to forget, the Michelin also rates forty-four French restaurants. These, both traditional and contemporary, net a total of fifty-six stars.
Among the grandes maisons, a number of internationally famous names stand out: La Tour d’Argent, Paul Bocuse, Michel Troisgros, Joël Robuchon, Beige (Alain Ducasse in collaboration with Chanel), Pierre Gagnaire. In a faux chateau in the city’s Ebisu section, the formidable Robuchon runs both a three-star operation and his two-star Atelier. Elsewhere in town he sets the one-star Table. His compatriots, each master in 2007 of three-star restaurants at home (Ducasse has two), do not rise quite so high here, and were it not for Robuchon’s example, we might wonder if these weren’t cases of too many kitchens in the cook. Tying Robuchon for top honors by a French chef in Tokyo is Bruno Menard, of L’Osier.
For all these imported winners, though, what the Michelin notably makes clear is the flair for cooking French of the Japanese. Native chefs run most of the starred French kitchens, their triumph bearing out dedication and depth of understanding, and generous, gifted teaching in France, where many Tokyo chefs have studied. It also argues conclusively that French cuisine thrives under a Japanese touch. Joining the top group is neo-French Quin- tessence, run by Shuzo Kishida, who at thirty-three may already be best of the best.
How did Tokyo’s spectacular ascendancy take place? Several ingredients seem necessary, among them the city’s long experience with restaurant cooking. Add to this Japan’s admirable cultural continuity. Elements of its cuisine, such as multi-course kaiseki, brightly echo the medieval tea ceremony, and rice, whose preparation for sushi takes years to master, has been eaten in Japan for two millennia. Seminal educator Shizuo Tsuji (1933–93) also made inestimable contributions. The key, though, could be the Japanese bent for long, faithful relationships. Many of the honored restaurants have depended for years on the steady visits of loyal customers, raising the delectable thought that a great restaurant grows most readily not from solitary genius or the contest between star-power chefs but from the give and take of a talented kitchen and a discerning, regular clientele. At least one Tokyo three-star, now booked impenetrably, has admitted that a stream of one-time eaters, dining not to their own desires but, instead, chewing, swallowing, and paying up in simple obeisance to received opinion, may not benefit the food. Remarkably, some restaurants that would have been awarded stars refused the distinction out of similar concerns, to the
sighing relief of their fans.
Prices at the listed restaurants range from a demure ¥1,365 (roughly U.S.$13) for a Japanese lunch at one-star Abe to a brazen ¥80,000 ($750) plus wine at one-star steakhouse Arakawa. Michelin’s disclaimer on restaurant comfort seems sincere: three-star sushi bar Sukibayashi Jiro occupies a windowless basement and shares a bathroom with a fried chicken outlet.
The Tokyo red guide appeared here simultaneously in two editions, English and Japanese. The latter version sold out immediately, and was hotly discussed in the food press and blogs. The enticing question has been how well foreign palates would judge the subtleties of fugu, for instance, or the complex visual beauty of kaiseki. With two Japanese inspectors on its team, Michelin was covering its potential to misunderstand. Even so, while three Japanese restaurants (one strictly traditional) and two sushi bars did achieve the top ranking, fugu, seen by many here as the essence of J-cuisine, did not. Similarly, cognoscenti were quick to ask why several sushi bars easily better than the guide’s fifteen weren’t mentioned, or whether favoritism worked against a number of highly regarded Italian restaurants. The simplest conclusion is that they weren’t inspected, probably because there was neither time nor room in the book–or maybe the inspectors never found them. Still, the odd fact that starred restaurants turn up in only eight of the city’s twenty-three wards, those frequented most often by foreigners, and the tendency, also odd, to list restaurants encouraging omakase dining, where the customer leaves the complicated but often pleasur- able choice of dishes to the chef, has persuaded some the inspections were less appreciative and thorough, and possibly less informed, than they might have been. As someone living in this bewildering place, I think Michelin was just being realistic. Its market, after all, is gourmands understandably lacking the leisure and, probably, the culinary or linguistic knowledge to go it alone. The book gives these sympathetic souls the chance to eat a great, maybe life-altering meal. Nevertheless, a tantalizing thought remains: had Michelin had the time and space . . . how long would this list be?
A star is a star is a star. Michelin believes a macaron represents the same level of quality regardless of place, a universal standard. If this is the case, it’s interesting to compare the cost of a starred dinner in Tokyo, whose high prices are legend, with that of a similar dinner elsewhere.
Average Dinner Prices at Michelin-starred French-(1)
Restaurants in Select Major Cities
New York City
Bay Area and
(Tokyo: 3, Paris: 10,
NYC: 3*, SF: 1*)
(Tokyo: 6, Paris: 13,
NYC: 2, SF: 6*)
(Tokyo: 35, Paris: 40,
NYC: 5*, SF: 6*)
Tax (%) 5 19,6 8,375 7,25 10,06 Service/Tip (%) 10 15 16,75-(5) 14,5-(5) 14,06
The prices include tax and service charge. Local tax rates and service or tip are given for reference, foreign currency values for convenience. (Exchange rates were current at the time the table was created, i.e., ¥107=US$1; € 0.675=US$1.)
(1) The question posed was: What would it cost to eat a French dinner? This question, of course, begs another, swampy one: What is a French dinner? For Tokyo, data was taken on the restaurants Michelin itself categorizes as either French or, as a subcategory, French Contemporary. In New York and San Francisco, however, Michelin categorizes only a total of eight starred restaurants as French; Contemporary is a separate category. As a result, neither New York nor San Francisco possesses an “officially” French three-star establishment, and San Francisco no two-star French. To overcome this limitation, I have in the asterisked cases in- cluded prices from any starred restaurant in these cities with a menu that strongly echoed French culinary tradition (Le Bernardin, New York City) or was French by implication (L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, New York City) or restaurant history (Chez Panisse, Bay Area), although the guides themselves group these menus under Seafood, Contemporary, Californian, or something else.
(2) The forthcoming Paris 2008 red guide as well as Paris 2007 were unavailable to me. Thus, I have taken the three-star data from the December 2007 issue of Ryouri Tengoku (Cuisine Kingdom), a Japanese food magazine. Working from a list of starred res- taurants provided by a Michelin web site, I assembled the remaining Paris prices from various places on the Internet, including restaurant web sites and travel guides.
(3) Because the New York and San Francisco red guides indicate meal price with symbols (e.g., $$$$) rather than actual currency values, I have taken the price data for these cities from various places on the Internet, including restaurant web sites and travel guides.
(4) At the single restaurant listed here, service is included. Hence, I have only added tax. 5 In the U.S. it is customary to tip an amount twice the tax.
Naturally, this survey neglects many interesting things, people, ideas. Still, not a few diners (and restauranteurs) today question the high cost of dining at Michelin-starred estab- lishments and wish to know–the niceties of a particular meal aside–whether they might have paid less “star-wise” somewhere else. By this count, Tokyo’s French one-stars seem overpriced; its two- and three-stars, however, are good values.
As a fair summary of the Japanese capital’s bounty, the Tokyo red guide could tempt you to visit. If so you may wish to make use of its brief section on international hotels. I can also recommend the Michelin for armchair gourmets and Japanese food fans–yes, especially these–whom an enthusiasm for sashimi, dashi, or Kobe beef has wondering what such delights can mean on their home ground. Even without engaging our noses and tongues, the book’s descriptions (one menu meticulous and ornate, the next improvisa- tional, spare) and its photographs (here, tournedos Rossini in a sumptuous salon; there, morsels of sake-steamed abalone on a bare cedar counter) are alternately satiating and appetizing, and always an enlightening, engrossing pleasure.