I haven’t been in Tokyo for quite a few months, and the last time I was here I had to work a bunch, so I’ve been missing out on real Japanese food for a long time. In town for two weeks for a wedding with nothing to do, I was able to hit a bunch of my favorite places and some new ones too. If anyone wants to know more about any of these places feel free to ask – I’m gonna try and keep this as short as possible (honestly I did try):
1) Maisen (multiple locations) – Is probably my go to place in Tokyo. I have had better tonkatsu elsewhere but every time I go to Maisen I get exactly the same quality, and I love the way they bread their katsu: thick, light and rich. I wish the pork was a little thicker and there were more menu options, but I’ve never had a bad meal at Maisen. I think this is a very controversial first choice, but if you’re in the area I seriously doubt you’ll drop in and leave saying that it wasn’t good.
2) Tonki (multiple locations) – Was just as good as Maisen, but (I am going to catch hell for this) I don’t really consider what Tonki makes tonkatsu. Tonki dips their katsu in egg and flour three times, creating a watertight seal that absorbs virtually no oil and seals the juice in the katsu. This essentially steams the meat in what is a karaage-furai hybrid crust that falls apart after it’s cooked. It’s unbelievably light because without a lot of panko the oil can’t stick to it, making it very clean tasting, but it doesn’t really have the same richness as regular tonkatsu. Maybe that’s why I feel like I could eat it once a week.
3) Butagumi – Is very good but I made the mistake of ordering the Butagumi sampler on this, my third visit. The allure of eating five kinds of pork in one sitting was too great to resist, but this idea is better in theory than in practice. Five small pieces of pork will never cook as well as one big one, so in my opinion it would be better to order one big katsu per person and share with each other rather than try and fulfill a pork fantasy like I did. The regular-sized katsu I had on my last visit was better, and probably better than what I get at Maisen, but on this trip the best thing I had was the korokke that I had in addition to my five kinds of pork. Maybe I should have taken Uncle Y’s advice and had the Iberico menchi katsu.
Honorable Mention to Saki-Tei in the Isetan Shinjuku department store. For a chain restaurant (owned by Wako) this was pretty impressive. I would think twice about leaving Shinjuku Station to eat tonkatsu knowing Saki Tei is in Isetan. Of course I think Maisen is up there too, but I’ve never been to that location.
Soba – I had about 30 bowls of soba in two weeks. Usually I eat one cold and one hot serving per restaurant, and if it’s especially good I’ll have another cold one. Only two restaurants still stick in my mind:
1) Kanda Yabu – Is beautiful, historic, overpriced and just above average. The Yabu in Roppongi Hills serves much better soba (especially the sauce), but that restaurant isn’t 130 years old. Go once just to say you’ve gone. When you realize portions are so small that everyone orders three orders of seiro at a time you will realize the price customers are willing to pay for fame. In this instance it’s not warranted. Kakiage soba was very good though – I will give them a 9.5 on that one because of the tempura. I don’t want to believe my soba-shokunin friends, but they all say that Yabu uses some automation at some parts of their production. If that’s true they should be embarrassed.
2) Narutomi (Ginza) is becoming my favorite soba in Japan. The soba is great, the other food is excellent, and the dishes are beautiful. They use light soy sauce in their hot soba broth, which some may say is blasphemous, but this is the one of the only soba restaurants that I go back to. If anago nikogori is available try it. If you order hot soba and kamo-nanban (duck) is available get that too. Tempura is excellent. Seiro is as good as I have ever had, but some people may like theirs cooked 20 seconds more. Not me.
Only one restaurant, Kondo (Ginza), and it was transcendent. I see no reason to go anywhere else. My buddy said paying ¥10,000 for tempura was stupid before we went, and when we left he said it was cheap for what we got. If you’re on a budget skip the sashimi and appetizers, but saving ¥3,000 to go somewhere cheaper for a once-in-a-while tempura meal is an opportunity lost. As good as I’ve ever had. Unfortunately service was very cold.
I was in Tsukiji on business one morning and my friend insisted on eating sushi. The line at the top three was ridiculous. I don’t know when it went from fifteen people to seventy people wrapped around the building, but it’s ridiculous. Instead we went to Iwasa Sushi next to Yoshinoya, and it was mediocre. I rarely badmouth any restaurant on a public site, but if it saves one person from wasting their special meal in Tsukiji, I guess I should warn that person. It was below average. If you have to eat in the market, go to Dai, Daiwa or Bun or consider doing something else. Only wasted meal of the trip.
Okajoki (Nakano) is quickly becoming one of my favorite restaurants in Tokyo. Simple grilled fish that is perfect as far as I’m concerned. Resonably priced, and fun atmosphere to boot. Sit at the counter and enjoy the show. The same person has been grilling the fish there since they opened 40 years ago. He knows what he’s doing. If you like fish and you like Japanese food this is one of the few guarantees I can provide. I went twice. There are few better matches for cold sake than the food at Okajoki. I would go twice a week if I lived in Nakano.
I went to Kissou when I realized it was around the corner from where I was staying. Got there 20 minutes before they opened and about 18 people were in line for 10 seats. I waited a total of 50 minutes. It was very good but whether or not it is superior to the other top 20 tsukemen places in the ramen database is a matter of opinion. I can’t see any reason they should have such a gap in scores between them and the next best place. I personally don’t think it’s worth a 40 minute wait when you can eat (what I admit is) world class tsukemen in other places without waiting nearly as long. I ate at Tetsu without waiting a couple days later, and while I like Kissou, I wouldn’t wait at Kissou if I could eat immediately at Tetsu or Warito.
Ate a huge wild unagi–ju at Nodaiwa (Higashi Azabu) for ¥6600 and I was very happy. Beautiful, old historic restaurant with great service and good unagi. I have to say I’m still partial to the flavor of Obana’s unagi, but Nodaiwa is also excellent. I have never had wild unagi with as much fat as the one they served me. It was very deep in flavor and worth every yen.
Aside: The one restaurant I regret missing on this trip that I have been dying to go to is the unagi-ya “Kabuto” in Ikebukuro. If anyone has been to Kabuto and can give an opinion on the live unagi they prepare in front of customers at that tiny counter I would love to hear it.
For some reason I repeatedly found myself invited to Kagurazaka and I had three good kappo meals there. If you’re not near Kagurazaka I don’t think any of these places is especially noteworthy, but Kagurazaka is slowly becoming my favorite neighborhood to eat in Tokyo. A word of advice: If you do not speak or read Japanese, most Kappo restaurants present a lot of difficulty. If you cannot get a “course menu” and you cannot read Japanese you probably aren’t going to have much fun, and you surely won’t get your money’s worth, so take a Japanese person if you have to.
1) Sasaki was fabulous and I was very impressed by the chef/owner who was under 30 years old. Everything was excellent to near perfect. Sashimi was especially impressive. Prices were lower than the other two kappo places I went to in the area, and although quality was admittedly a hair below, I think Sasaki was the best cost/performance of the three. Highly recommended! I plan to go back.
2) Koshino - Had perfect food but service was kind of intimidating. We came in a little late and were the only people at the counter. This is an old school kappo place that surely has lots of (wealthy) regulars, and I could not find fault with anything they served me. The owner obviously knows how good his food is, and I doubt he cares what anyone else thinks of it. This is a perfect example of something that you will not find much of outside of Japan: A very high-end restaurant that practically rejects business. It would be nice to be a regular if you could afford it, as I’m sure service is very different for people they know. Unfortunately I can’t afford to become a regular at ¥30,000 a pop. I do not recommend going if you do not speak good Japanese.
3) Ishikawa. It wasn’t until I got back to LA that I learned Ishikawa was awarded three Michelin stars. My meal there was very, very good. Was it that good? All I know is that I wasn’t disappointed paying ¥18,000 (food only) for my meal, although it probably wasn’t the best food I’ve had for that price. Admittedly, three star Michelin should not be defined by lack of disappointment. The service was however, worth half the price of the bill: It was the kindest, most engaging service I have ever experienced in any restaurant. If you are interested in ceramics, the plates were worth (at least to me) another ¥3,000. Fun dinner.