In 2007, Michelin published its first-ever restaurant guide to Tokyo and awarded the city more stars than even Paris. Jean-Luc Naret, Michelin’s editorial director at the time, was emphatic: Tokyo, he said, was “by far the world’s capital of gastronomy,” a comment that seemed as much an indictment of Paris, and of France, as it was a nod to Tokyo.
Back then, it was no secret that the French had lost their edge in the kitchen, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Summer 2013 issue. “The fear is that the muse has migrated,” The New Yorker magazine’s Adam Gopnik wrote of the perceived crisis in French cuisine as early as 1997.
In 2009, I published a book on the topic called “Au Revoir to All That,” which chronicled the many ways in which France’s food culture had deteriorated over the preceding two decades -- from the disappearance of traditional bistros and brasseries to the country’s seemingly insatiable appetite for Le Big Mac. (By 2008, France had become the second-most-profitable market for McDonald’s Corp., after the U.S., according to the company.)
With its 2013 guide, Michelin has again affirmed that the “muse” has relocated to Tokyo: The French food bible awarded three stars, its highest rating, to 14 restaurants (compared with only 10 in Paris) and dished out a total of 323 stars -- more than to any other city in the Michelin firmament -- to 281 establishments overall.
Capital of Gastronomy
“Japanese gourmet cooking is even more creative, inspired and inventive than in the past,” declared Michael Ellis, Naret’s successor.
I traveled to Tokyo to see for myself if it deserved all those stars -- if it really was “the world’s capital of gastronomy.” Many thousands of calories later, I have come to understand why Michelin’s famously anonymous inspectors might have felt such an affinity for the city.
It turns out that the same qualities that put French cuisine on top -- impeccable ingredients, dedication to craft, an unwavering quest for perfection -- are also the cornerstones of Japan’s food culture.
For a disillusioned Francophile, Tokyo is an exhilarating discovery. It’s not the new Paris; it’s Paris the way it used to be. And the Gallic connection runs deeper than you might imagine.
It’s the end of my first full day in Tokyo, and all that neon has left me in a vaguely hallucinatory state -- a feeling amplified by the otherworldly sushi I am eating at Sushi-Sho, a minuscule restaurant of just 10 seats arranged around a brightly lit bar.
Chef Keiji Nakazawa is one of Japan’s foremost sushi masters, having helped revive a distinctive style of sushi called edomae, in which the fish is aged -- sometimes for as long as two weeks -- before being served. “Completely fresh fish doesn’t have any taste,” he explains.
Nakazawa, an energetic 50-year-old dressed in crisp chef whites, his undershirt visible just below the neck, maintains a spirited dialogue with diners as he nimbly fashions each piece of sushi -- gently shaping the warm rice, swiftly applying a dab of freshly ground wasabi, laying the fish on top and lightly coating it with soy sauce.
Upon placing each piece in front of me, he tells me where that particular fish came from (the tuna was caught near Nagasaki; the eel, off Osaka) and how it was caught (line or net). Nakazawa says he needs this information in order to properly age and serve the fish.
To illustrate the point, he mentions another fish he’s using: golden eye snapper. He prefers to serve it with the skin on, but to do that, he says, he has to know the depth at which the snapper was caught; below 200 meters (655 feet), the water pressure renders the skin too tough. What I don’t yet realize, but am about to discover, is that this obsessive attention to detail is nothing out of the ordinary in Tokyo. It’s typical -- and not just of the high-end restaurants.
One morning, I have dessert for breakfast at Patisserie Hidemi Sugino, which is rightly considered Tokyo’s finest pastry shop and whose namesake chef is so protective of his ineffably delicate creations that he will sell only to those who agree to consume them within 90 minutes of purchase. Some pastries he won’t even let out the door; they must be eaten in the adjacent tearoom.
Later that day, I go to Toritama, a basement-level yakitori joint in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka district. Yakitori is skewered grilled chicken, and there’s a lot of it in Tokyo. But in contrast to most yakitori restaurants, Toritama performs its own butchering and makes full use of the bird.
In fact, it serves 37 parts, including six different cuts from the thigh alone. (The restaurant helpfully provides an anatomy chart so that diners can pick out the parts they want.) It cooks the chicken over bincho charcoal, considered the gold standard, and the results are sensational.
First-rate charcoal, first-rate ingredients -- the quality of the fish, fruits, poultry, meats and vegetables in Tokyo is extraordinary; $100 melons and $180 mangoes are not unheard-of. What’s more, in contrast to the sometimes absentee chefs of Paris -- presiding over restaurants that span the world -- Tokyo’s top chefs are generally tethered to their kitchens. Not only that: You get to watch them work. Counter seating is the norm -- and not only for sushi.
No meal better captures the essence of Tokyo dining than the lunch I have at a tempura restaurant called Raku-tei. It has two Michelin stars, but you’d never guess that from its appearance.
It’s located on the ground floor of a beige, five-story eyesore of an apartment building on a quiet side street in central Tokyo. When I walk in, Shuji Ishikura, its 77-year-old chef, is on his hands and knees, pushing a case of wine under the small wooden bench that passes for the waiting area.
For two hours, I quietly watch this elderly master, aided only by his sister and a single apprentice, ply his craft -- gently depositing each vegetable and piece of fish in the batter, then the cooking oil (which he changes after every service) and finally onto hand-cut tempura paper.
Ishikura has raised fried food to the level of haute cuisine. But my lunch at Raku-tei begins with raw fish: a sashimi appetizer consisting of flounder and toro (tuna belly). When I compliment Ishikura on the astonishing quality of the fish, he volunteers that he’s about to replace the flounder with sea bream. That’s because flounder mating season has commenced and many of the nutrients in the fish will now be devoted to reproduction, which means the flesh won’t be as flavorful, he says.
The quality of Tokyo’s ingredients and the singular dedication of its chefs rival Paris of old. But Tokyo also resembles the City of Light in another way: It’s a source of fabulous French food, the result of a half-century of culinary cross-pollination between France and Japan.
This exchange began in the 1960s, when leading French chefs such as Raymond Oliver, Paul Bocuse and Jean and Pierre Troisgros regularly traveled to Japan and came away with ideas about cooking, presentation and service that helped inspire France’s nouvelle cuisine revolution. Other French chefs went to Japan and stayed.
Thanks to this beneficent invasion, the Japanese developed a passion for French food, which ultimately led many young chefs to pursue careers in it. By the 1990s, the finest restaurants in Paris were teeming with Japanese trainees, and there are now several Japanese chefs cooking Michelin-starred French fare in France.
Others who trained in France returned to Japan and opened French restaurants, bakeries and wine bars there. Most of these are in Tokyo, which has become a kind of second home for French cuisine.
That point was dramatically underscored when Michelin, in its inaugural Tokyo guide, awarded three stars to a restaurant called Quintessence, whose chef, Shuzo Kishida, now 33, thus became the first Japanese-born French chef to receive Michelin’s highest rating.
Although my meal at Quintessence is good, it isn’t the best French food I have in Tokyo. That distinction belongs to a restaurant called L’Effervescence. It currently has one Michelin star; it ought to have two, and possibly three. Shinobu Namae, the 40-year-old chef, trained under the brilliant French chef Michel Bras and also did a stint with the even more esteemed Heston Blumenthal at three-Michelin-starred Fat Duck in Bray, England.
Namae’s food shows Bras’s influence (a beautifully composed salad containing 37 different vegetables) but also has some playful, Blumenthal-like touches (a demitasse of tea in which one side is cold and the other hot, with nothing separating the two sides).
The dish that floors me, though, is duck breast served with blood orange, girolle mushrooms and daikon radish. The duck is flawlessly cooked and seasoned, and its interplay with the citrus, mushrooms and radish is masterful. It’s a dish that would stand out even at a top-tier restaurant in France.
Which raises a delicate question: Having already eclipsed Paris in Michelin stars, could Tokyo chefs one day eclipse the French at their own cuisine?
I put the question to pastry chef Sugino, who trained in France and is one of only four Japanese members of the prestigious Relais Desserts, an association of the world’s top pastry makers who meet regularly to exchange ideas.
’Losing the Basics’
Choosing his words carefully, he notes that pastry shops in France are having difficulty finding young people willing to put in the time and effort required to learn the craft. He also says that even top French patisseries are now taking shortcuts -- by using stabilizers in their desserts, for instance.
“They are losing the basics,” Sugino says. “It is possible that, 10 or 20 years from now, the French will have lost the art of pastry but that it will live on in Tokyo, in Japan.”
For this disillusioned Francophile, it’s a strange but gratifying thought.
After a week of gorging myself on Tokyo, I am persuaded: It is the most dynamic food city in the world. And the only outstanding question is: How soon can I return?
10 Most Wanted
No culinary tour of contemporary Tokyo is complete without a trip to these dining destinations.
Ginza Kojyu A three-Michelin-starred restaurant specializing in kaiseki, the most refined form of Japanese cuisine. Chef Toru Okuda’s presentations are as spectacular as the food. 81-3-6215-9544; kojyu.jp
Ishikawa Hideki Ishikawa, 48, adheres to the kaiseki protocol (appetizers, sashimi, soup, grilled fish, meat, rice, pickles and tea) but eschews the ornate plating typical of the genre. He calls it “Ishikawa style”; whatever you call it, the food at this three-star spot is sensational. 81-3-5225-0173; kagurazaka-ishikawa.co.jp
Kaduya Ramen is more than a food; it’s a Japanese obsession. This small, brightly lit restaurant is renowned for its homemade noodles and subtle, deeply flavored broth. 81-3-3716-2071
L’Effervescence Shinobu Namae’s one-Michelin-starred dishes illustrate the Japanese mastery of French cuisine. The setting, cater-cornered to a Shinto temple, is elegant and convivial. 81-3-5766-9500; leffervescence.jp
Patisserie Hidemi Sugino It’s perhaps the finest pastry shop in Tokyo -- better, even, than celebrated French imports such as Pierre Herme. 81-3-3538-6780
Raku-tei Shuji Ishikura, 77, produces ethereally light tempura dishes at his tiny, serene two-starred eatery. 81-3-3585-3743
Ryugin At this three-starred restaurant, Seiji Yamomoto updates the traditional kaiseki format with avant-garde flourishes -- a frozen candy apple filled with apple powder, for instance. 81-3-3423-8006; nihonryori-ryugin.com
Shima Chef Nabu Oshima is a wizard with hand-rubbed Wagyu; he also cures his own salmon at this small, clubby steakhouse. 81-3-3271-7889
Sushi-Sho Keiji Nakazawa is among Japan’s most innovative sushi masters, aging the fish for up to two weeks. Forget what you think you know about sushi. 81-3-3351-6387
Toritama Unlike most yakitori joints, Toritama butchers its own chickens, uses every last part of the bird and grills them over top-quality bincho charcoal. 81-3-6457-5131; toritama.net
(Michael Steinberger is author of “Au Revoir to All That.” The opinions expressed are his own.)