All in Tokyo

Tapas Molecular Bar Revisited

The 7-seat Tapas Molecular Bar in the sky lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo is the home of chef Jeff Ramsey, formerly of Minibar in Washington D.C. My first meal in 2008, while delicious, featured many of the same dishes featured at Minibar. I think a lot of this was due to the newness of the restaurant and the difficulty in finding its place. It's no easy task to integrate new molecular techniques with traditional Japanese cuisine. However now, two years later, this restaurant has really found its niche in its surroundings and thoroughly impressed me with innovative, delicious, and really fun cuisine. One aspect of the Molecular Bar that makes the experience so fun is its chefs. Instead of creating an environment in which interactivity is passive-aggressively shunned, chef Ramsey and his team explained the back story of each dish and how it related to Japanese culture. This was particularly crucial for the nostaligic dishes as many of the diners did not grow up in Japan. Questions were encouraged, and frankly, this in-depth understanding of the food I was eating really added another dimension to the meal's enjoyment. Not only did I learn a tremendous amount about the food and its preparation, but I felt like I was eating a story with each course.

Ten-ichi

It wasn't until I visited Japan that I truly liked tempura. Outside of Japan, tempura batter is thick and greasy -- often soggy and wet -- making this deep-fried food taste more like sloppy, oily leftovers. I can't begin to count the number of times I've tasted shrimp tempura and had the plump tempura shell separate from the shellfish, or a piece of broccoli tempura that oozes fat like a sponge wringing out water. Most of the time, especially in the US, tempura is fried food gone very wrong.

At Ten-ichi, tempura is light and fluffy. Each piece of fish or vegetable is individually flash-fried at such a high temperature that the oil barely has little chance to penetrate the food. The batter is thin and weightless, completely integrating with the food: it would be nearly impossible to separate it.

Takamura

Over the past decade, Roppongi has become the center for Tokyo's nightlife. Full of bars and restaurants, Roppongi is loud, bright, and full of things to do. In contrast, nestled high on one of its hills, is a small oasis named Takamura. Takamura, built over sixty years ago, is a Japanese kaiseki restaurant serving private dinners in one of its eight rooms. The service, as well as the food, are exceptional. The architecture is traditional: wooden construction with rice paper doors and tatami mats. Diners are greeted at the door and taken to their room. The space is small and cosy, however despite the thin walls and presence of other diners, it would be hard to be convinced of their existence.

The table is a modified floor-seating arrangement with a two-foot depression into the floor. This means diners can sit at floor level without sitting uncomfortably with their legs crossed, like sitting in a chair. Underneath the table is a heated floor; so on cold winter nights with the wind howling and garden chimes softly clanging everybody inside is warm and comfortable.

Beige

Beige Tokyo, Alain Ducasse's Tokyo outpost, is located at the top of the Chanel flagship store in Ginza. The floor to ceiling windows are framed with thick black borders, much like a pair of Chanel thick-rimmed glasses. The space is decorated in beige tones bringing an element of warmth to the otherwise stark atmosphere. Waiters and waitresses quietly whisk about in custom-fitted black suits. The sleek and stylish restaurant, designed by Karl Lagerfeld, is a must-visit for fashion-conscious diners. Beige is essentially a restaurant by a high-end designer in collaboration with Alain Ducasse. The food is also pretty good. The menu highlights traditional French ingredients, most of which are flown in from Europe. The dishes read in Alain Ducasse style with a simple ingredient made bold by a bombardment of luxurious accoutrements. The restaurant's dishes are consistent and familiar.

Mist

I'd always thought of ramen as a street stall kind of food. In Fukuoka, Yatai (street stalls) line crowded streets with nothing more than a short hanging curtain separating the stall from busy pedestrians. There's definitely something romantic about trying one of these ramen stalls, particularly in the winter where the hot steam from the central pot keeps the crowded of huddled diners warm. But frankly, the backless wooden stalls get uncomfortable after awhile as the sound of traffic becomes less charming and more annoying. There's an increasing trend in Tokyo to take traditional street food, enhance it, and escalate it to the fine dining level. That's exactly what Mist does. Located in on the third floor of Omotesando Hills, Mist occupies a small restaurant space paneled with granite and wood. It's very modern. Behind the stainless steel kitchen lies scales and thermometers ensuring that every step along the way, from shaping the noodles to plating the soup, results in perfection.

Sushi Kanesaka

It's fairly easy to find good sushi in Tokyo, but rather difficult to find exceptional sushi. Even the bento boxes at Tokyo Station, which makes for a great accompaniment on a long Shinkansen ride, are of very high quality -- much higher than the average sushi quality in New York. But truly out of the ordinary sushi -- the rare combination of perfect textures, temperatures, and flavors -- is a rare commodity. There are only a handful of places at this level. Sushi Kanesaka is one of them. Located in the basement floor of a nondescript building in Ginza, Sushi Kanesaka is unassuming. Its thirty-something year old chef, Shinji Kanesaka, offers no indication from talking with him that he holds two Michelin stars. He is both humble and friendly.

The restaurant only serves omakase. However Chef Kanesaka's palette seems to prefer shellfish, which is what I would mostly order anyway. What made this restaurant so special aside from the freshness of ingredients was the fish selection: I wouldn't have ordered anything different from what was served. Chef Shinji Kanesaka read my mind.