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Fine dining in Tokyo: where to go for haute cuisine

Book ahead for a table at Restaurant Nanpeidai, Ren, Kasumicho Yamagami, La Paix, Hommage, Narisawa, and Sushi Ishiyama.

RESTAURANT NANPEIDAI

Nanpeidai yoshoku

A sample of yoshoku.

Shibuya is nothing if not for its coordinated chaos (coordinated to locals but mayhem to us), with its jungle of steel, concrete and neon lights that spell a metropolis on steroids. If you’ve suffered heart palpitations and utter panic when trying to hunt down the iconic Hachiko statue in a hurry, you know what we mean.

But the bigger surprise is that just a leisurely 15-minute walk south of Shibuya station takes you to an oasis of tranquility – the quiet residential neighbourhood of Nanpeidai. Suddenly, it feels like we’re somewhere in Europe, standing outside an elegant country house with an electronic gate that slides open automatically when it senses your presence. A landscaped driveway (flanked by a long pond feature) leads to an entrance where you’re welcomed like a visiting dignitary by a bow-tied gentleman who guides you through a rabbit hole of old-world wonder.

From the quirky bunny figurines outside the restrooms (big for gents, small for ladies) to the deliberately retro decor and formal dining room (which looks out into a spacious garden and plunge pool), you can almost imagine what life was like in the Meiji era of the mid1800s, when the first Europeans arrived in the country and yoshoku – Japanese-inspired Western cuisine – was born.

While everyday favourites such as deepfried katsu, croquettes and hamburger steak have their roots in yoshoku, Restaurant Nanpeidai pays tribute to its heyday when Japanese chefs would prepare elaborate banquets only for the foreign and local elite.

But this being the 21st century with Japanese chefs already beating their Western counterparts at their own cuisines, Nanpeidai puts its own spin on yoshoku that has a whimsical turn-of-the-century vibe with razor-sharp modern Japanese technique.

Chef Nanahiro Takahashi shows his skill at yoshoku with an impressive showcase of ingredients which are brought to your table in a show-and-tell preview. There’s an emphasis on European ingredients as well as Japanese – the tray heaves with lobster from Brittany, French caviar, white asparagus from Loire valley, live abalone and lamb from Hokkaido.

Despite the European-style presentation, the food is Japanese-delicate to bring out the natural flavours of the produce. Caviar is presented in a heavy silver goblet but is refreshingly light with whipped mascarpone cream and finely diced medley of red cabbage, cucumber and bamboo shoots.

In a subtle assertion of its Japanese identity, each dish appears in a Western presentation but is easily eaten with chopsticks. French blue lobster appears in bite-sized nuggets of shellfish, citrus segments and snap peas in a calamansi dressing; hamaguri (clam) is deepfried in breadcrumbs sprinkled with sansho leaves; confit abalone is portioned into tender slices and paired with white asparagus and its own liver sauce; cold capellini pasta is tossed in a tangy sauce of blended tomatoes grown by a farmer in Ibaraki prefecture; and melt-in-the-mouth baby lamb is neatly apportioned into manageable pieces.

If the food bears a passing resemblance – in its minimalist, produce-driven approach – to the three Michelin-starred Ishikawa, that’s because Nanpeidai is part of chef-owner Hideki Ishikawa’s group of acclaimed restaurants. But while his influence is clear, Nanpeidai has its own identity.

With its combination of spacious villa-like surroundings and novel cuisine, it’s an experience you won’t easily find in Tokyo’s urban jungle.

For reservations, go through your hotel concierge or go to https://nanpeidai.jp and access ‘Omakase’. The staff barely speak any English, but will take good care of you nonetheless. Open for dinner only, and priced at around 25,000 yen to 30,000 yen per person.

6-7 Nanpeidaicho Shibuya-Tokyo-to

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REN

Ren grilled bamboo shoot

Grilled bamboo shoot at Ren.

From his cosy fourth floor perch in Kagurazaka where his two Michelin-starred Ren (which means ‘lotus’) sat in the same comfort zone as paternal restaurant Ishikawa and older sibling Kohaku, Chef Mishina Jun is now breaking new ground in the ritzy Ginza district. While the location is new, his cuisine remains steadfastly classic and understated. His uncomplicated approach can be seen in dishes from a clear dashi broth with a densely packed crab dumpling and grilled fugu shirako, to simply grilled whole young bamboo shoot. For the latter, watch him deftly handle the piping hot shoot as he lifts it off the grill with bare hands, carving it into bite-sized pieces while still in its sheath.

That said, he does deviate a little with more robust courses like soft shell turtle bits carefully mixed into sticky mochi rice, and delicious deep-fried battered fugu bone that’s great for nibbling on.

As the third restaurant after Ishikawa and Kohaku, Ren tends to be somewhat in the shade, but he’s been upping his game of late, with somewhat more elaborate menus and ingredients. With his new location in Ginza, he might be in a better position to be judged on his own merit for a change.

Open for dinner only. Priced around 27,000 yen.

B1F, Ginza 7 Chome-3-13, Chuo City Tokyo 104-0061

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KASUMICHO YAMAGAMI

Yamagami Fugu Shirako

Fugu shirako at Yamagami.

In March of 2018, Yasuo Suetomi – the overachieving chef-owner of Kasumicho Suetomi decided that he was burnt out and wanted to go on an indefinite hiatus. With his high-level skills that had some of his fans hailing him as the equivalent of the notoriously hard-to get-into Matsukawa, his decision to quit was sad news.

But since last May, his long-time sous chef has taken over the mantle with his former boss’s blessing and this hard-to-find tiny eatery in Nishiazabu is back in the limelight.

The food might be a little inconsistent, with some coming away with an excellent meal while others are slightly underwhelmed. But it’s hard to fault Chef Tomoaki Yamagami’s dedication to his craft, not to mention this is one of the few places in Tokyo that specializes in soft-shell turtle and fugu shirako. Not to be missed is the grilled marinated turtle with its unique soy marinade, and the grilled creamy fugu milt which will set you back a pretty penny but is worth it.

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Other highlights include crisp fried amadei fish simmered in clear thickened broth with minced spring vegetables and a seasonal Sakura mochi of chewy rice cake stuffed with red beans and steamed in a slightly savoury leaf.

It’s not quite the same level as the original Suetomi, but we reckon Chef Yamagami will be up to speed soon enough, if not already.

Open for dinner only. Priced around 30,000 yen

3F Yahata Building, 4-2-13 Nishiazabu Minato-ku, Tokyo

LA PAIX

La Paix gaufre foie gras

Gaufre of foie gras at La Paix.

That French food has to be expensive is a notion that Chef Ippei Matsumoto wants to dispel, going by the kind of quality you get at his tiny 20-seater, one Michelin-starred eatery not far from Mitsukoshi’s flagship department store in Nihonbashi.

Priced at 6,000 yen for a seven course lunch or 13,000 yen for an 11 course dinner, you get a satisfying menu of contemporary French cuisine prepared with seasonal Japanese ingredients.

Seasonality and a focus on local produce form the basis of Chef Matsumoto’s cooking philosophy. For example, cod milt or shirako – traditionally an ingredient in Japanese kappo restaurants – gets the most unusual treatment, served in a cheesy mushroom foam with lily bulb for added texture and topped with a shower of black truffle shavings. It doesn’t sound like it would work but it does perfectly.

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Tender raw hamaguri clam is served in a jelly of clam juices, with bavarois cream for smooth mouthfeel and acidity from pops of finger lime and oyster leaf. While we didn’t get to try it, his signature dish is titled Gaufre of Foie Gras, featuring goose liver sandwiched between two crisp wafers. But equally, if not more, impressive is his abalone and foie gras pie, where layers of tender abalone, pigeon breast and foie gras are encased in an exquisite puff pastry.

Chef Matsumoto, who hails from Wakayama, was the chef at Au gout du jour Merveille before leaving to set up La Paix, which means ‘peace’ in French. It ties in well with his pursuit of harmony in food and dining environment. It’s rare to find a chef who wears his heart on his sleeve, and delivers food that warms yours.

Open for lunch and dinner. https://lapaix-m.jp/

1-9-4, Nihonbashimuromachi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo

 

HOMMAGE

Hommage dish

Chef Noboru Arai serves beautifully composed dishes.

Is it any wonder that La Paix’s Chef Matsumoto and Hommage’s Noboru Arai are friends, given their similar humble temperaments and tiny restaurants emphasizing personal service.

Hommage – which is a 10-minute walk from the famed Asakusa temple – is an unassuming, cramped but charming twostorey space with the dining room on the upper floor. With two Michelin stars, it costs more to eat here, with lunch priced at 6,000 yen for three courses to 15,000 yen for five courses, while dinner is priced from 15,000 yen for five courses to 20,000 yen for six courses.

Chef Noburo puts together intricate and beautifully composed dishes, starting with elaborate snacks such as sawara sashimi in a crisp tart shell, beetroot crackers filled with smoky beetroot and cheese gougeres filled with Comte cheese mousse. Crispy wafers filled with foie gras and sweet miso are topped with a lovely floral salad, while a ball of Japanese lobster mousse wrapped in spinach leaves with a yoghurt dressing and sweet buttery wine sauce is delicious.

Like La Paix, Hommage is literally an homage to nature and its ingredients, whether from Japan or France. With his training in France and background as a born-and-bred Asakusa resident, he brings together a unique combination of European sophistication and down-to-earth sensibility that sets Hommage apart from the rest.

Open for lunch and dinner. www.hommage-arai.com

4-10-5 Asakusa, Taito-ku, Tokyo

NARISAWA

Narisawa prawn dumpling

Narisawa’s prawn dumpling decorated with rainbow vegetable strips.

For the longest time, we avoided dining at Narisawa when it had the fancier name of Les Creations de Narisawa and served us things like oak-flavoured water and a dissertation on air and its spiritual connection with a tree or some such cosmic theory.

But recently, we’ve completely changed our minds. Now that it’s just called Narisawa, it’s become more ingredient-focused going by its winter menu focusing on sustainable and innovative Satoyama cuisine.

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Drawing inspiration from the provenance of its products – such as softshell turtle from Saga, Ibaraki pigeon and Shizuoka langoustine – ingredients are the star while technique plays a supporting role, which is how it should be.

There’s still the self-baking bread, which is brought to the table to rise and bake in a hot stone bowl. (If you want more, there’s plenty you can ask for from the kitchen).

There’s still enough showmanship to entertain you, but the proof of the pudding is that the food is great.

The soft-shelled turtle meat is shaped into yakitori and eaten as a snack. Fat oysters from Nagasaki are served with creamy miso and delicious yuba.

A fluffy prawn dumpling looks like a work of art in a lacquer bowl filled with clear dashi and rainbow coloured vegetable strips draped over it. Deep fried fugu is prepared like fried chicken, served in greaseproof paper for you to gnaw the meaty flesh off the bones.

The meal seems to go on forever and the pricing isn’t exactly cheap at around 35,000 yen per person for dinner.

Although not everything is going to blow your mind, what matters is that Narisawa actually deserves all the hype it’s been getting. If you haven’t been for a while, it might be time to reschedule a visit.

Open for lunch and dinner.

Minami Aoyama 2-6-15, Minato-ku, Tokyo, 107-0062

SUSHI ISHIYAMA

Sushi Ishiyama Japanese Spring trout sushi

Japanese Spring trout sushi.

You may remember Takao Ishiyama from Sushiya, a tiny joint hidden in a back lane in Ginza where the tall chef tirelessly doled out nigiri sushi while hunched slightly over a counter that was too low for his height.

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After paying his dues in a restaurant that he took over in partnership with Shinji Kanesaka, he struck out on his own in the middle of 2018 with a spanking new restaurant behind the Apple store in Ginza – this time with his own name on the door.

The new place is much more spacious and elegantly decorated, and Chef Ishiyama now stands straight behind his customised hinoki counter.

While he used to have the tendency to be inconsistent in terms of the quality of his ingredients, he hasn’t disappointed of late and shows stronger confidence in technique and food preparation.

Go for the omakase rather than the nigiri sets if you want to check out the full scope of his abilities. Priced at around 25,000 yen, you will literally roll out of the shop with a range of sashimi and cooked dishes to start – cod milt, firefly squid, lightly grilled nodokuro or black throat perch among the highlights – and unique creations like creamy monkfish liver wrapped with homemade watermelon pickle to cut the richness. That’s followed by a long string of sushi which is perfectly good quality. It’s not Sushi Saito, but if reliability and satisfaction are what you require, Chef Ishiyama fits the bill.

Open for lunch and dinner.

4F, Ginza Moria, 3 Chome-3-6 Ginza, Chuo, Tokyo 104-0061

 

 

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Jaime Ee, Sushi Ishiyama, Narisawa, Hommage, La Paix, Kasumicho Yamagami, Ren & Restaurant Nanpeidai