So on to my next exciting adventure. Saying a fond farewell to Tahiti, where I have been based since January, I boarded a plane bound for Tokyo, heading for an eight day restaurant marathon.
Day one of my trip was supposed to include dinner at the 2 Michelin star restaurant Pierre Gagnaire, but unfortunately, due to me not reading my travel itinerary properly and forgetting that I would be flying over the international date line, like the dim-witted Nerf Herder that I am, I was still over the Pacific while Pierre was patiently awaiting my arrival. So this was my first meal.
Not bad for plane food and served with actual razor sharp metal cutlery. Apparently, terrorists don’t travel business class, so its fine to hand out knives and forks with which, given a year or two, a terrorist could easily hack his way through the 2 foot thick Kevlar plated cockpit door.
Landing at Tokyo’s Narita airport was uneventful, although due to my dismayingly random and increasingly severe fear of flying that I am developing for apparently no reason, it took the entire flight crew to undo my grip on the arm rests.
Getting from the plane to the hotel was a breeze. Everything seems so calm and professionally done. Immigration was a doddle and my bag was the first to come through the baggage claim. Straight through to get my ticket for the bus which departed 10 minutes later and dropped my on the hotel’s doorstep. My first impressions are good. It’s a very clean city with none of the panicked rush of other cities like London. The traffic all seems to be moving at the same pace with no one speeding. All the cars are pristine, as are the roads.
My first restaurant visit, having missed out on Gagnaire (though hopefully rebooked for lunch the next day) was to the 1 Michelin star Mikawa Zezankyo tempura restaurant. I decided to get a taxi to this one even though the hotel had very kindly given me very detailed maps and instructions on how to get to all my restaurants using public transport. Only a few hours after a 12 hour flight, I wasn’t quite ready to tackle Tokyo’s metro yet. Also this place was quite far away and in a residential area of the city. Another lesson for other cities was given by my taxi driver. Seated in his immaculately clean car we drove across town. He had GPS and also the Japanese map I gave him with the restaurant clearly marked. This tiny place is located on a residential side street and took us a while to find, but never showing any signs of fluster, my taxi man went to great effort to make sure he got me to my destination. Twice getting out of the car and walking up and down streets looking and asking people if they knew where it was. I think the taxis here take great pride in their job and probably would rather commit seppuku than not get a fare to their destination. I fear that the same set of circumstances in a London cab would yield an entirely different and infinitely more stressful experience. Anyway, we got there.
I have been intrigued by some of the restaurants that I have made reservations here in Japan. In particular, the small ones with maybe only eight covers and one chef that have earned one, two and in a couple of cases three Michelin stars. How is it possible for one guy with a deep-fat fryer and a tub of tempura batter to gain a star. One star restaurants are defined by the Michelin guide as ‘A very good restaurant in its category’. That sounds easy enough, but the one star restaurants that I have visited in the past have mostly demonstrated extensive and sometimes complex menus coupled with extensive wine lists and exceptional service. How could this be achieved by just one man and his wife?
I was the last of nine guests to arrive and, after removing my shoes, was seated at the counter. Apparently the hotel concierge had done a great job when making my reservations as I was seated in the middle of the counter directly in front of the chef, an elderly man wielding a long, thick set of chop-sticks.
In my research of this restaurant, it had been reported by a few people that no English is spoken. So my first reaction on being seated was to desperately look around for a western face. None were to be found. All the other guests appeared to be locals. Confronted by various small bowls, plates and little tea pots containing various accompaniments, I really had no clue what to do. So I played the old waiting game and started waiting to see what those around me were doing. After a few minutes of just sitting there looking confused (my default expression) I was eventually rescued by my neighbor who, thank the lord, was American Japanese. He was a likably guy there with his wife on holiday from Colorado. After explaining to me that I should put the grated Japanese radish in my bowl and mix it with the soy in the tea pot, then add a spoon of salt to the plate provided so that I had two options for dipping my tempura, his first question to me was how did I find out about this place. Apparently this chef was famous throughout Japan as a tempura master but not many westerners came through the door. We were all eating the same set menu and as each piece of tempura was cooked, our chef would place it in front of each guest on a little stand where we would grab the tasty morsels and dip and scoff. It was a very simple set up. Just a large platter behind the chef containing what ever was the best in the market that morning. Asparagus, Japanese sweet potato, chilli peppers similar to the Spanish padron peppers and aubergine. The seafood started to come, first some tempura shrimp, the bodies cooked first and then the heads.
The tempura was incredibly light with the outside of the shrimps crisp and the interior barely cooked. Apparently the secret to tempura success is to not break the batter with your chop-sticks before dipping it in the hot oil. Therefore you will not let any oil seep into the fish and it should fry on the outside and steam from the inside. One after the other, the best of Tokyo’s Tsukiji fish market, cooked by the best tempura chef in Japan, appeared on the stands in front of us. Cuttlefish, squid, sea eel, baby octopus and oysters. There were a lot more fish that came but, due to the effects of the sake that was eagerly being toped up all the time by the chef’s lovely wife, they slip my mind. The equivalent of the meat course was a large juicy cep mushroom cooked and sliced in half. That was followed by more of the vegetables and finally the rice course which was similar to congee, a broth of fish and rice. Dessert was a bit disappointing as it only consisted of three large sweet beans. Nice, sort of, but it was no sticky toffee pudding. As the chef held court clearly regaling his guests with hilarious anecdotes in Japanese, green tea was served. I was ready to leave by then. Full to bursting and getting more and more paranoid as, with increasing frequency, each hilarious punch line was delivered with a nod towards me, the geijin. Upon my departure I was given the menu which had been hand drawn by the chef and contained beautiful calligraphy and pictures of the fish we had been served.
At 18,500 Japanese Yen, it wasn’t cheap, but I fear there will be heavier bills to come. Regarding the Michelin star, it certainly ticks the boxes. It was certainly a very good restaurant in its category. Just dismayingly simple. Is that really all it takes, one man, one fryer and the freshest of ingredients? It seems too easy. But I don’t want to detract form the restaurant as simple or not, it is certainly deserved.