All in Tokyo

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.

Kyubei, Ginza

Sushi is my favorite food. There's nothing so satisfying as a slice of the freshest fish imaginable just barely brushed with soy sauce -- or dusted with a pinch of salt -- atop a small bed of warm rice. Omakase is a great way to enjoy this experience because it introduces the elements of surprise as well as the chef's knowledge of the day's best catch. But how does the chef always know what I want? Sometimes an elaborate sushi meal is too much; sometimes I want to choose a handful fish I'm craving and eat lightly. Sometimes, ordering a la carte at a sushi counter is the way to go. Kyubei sushi, in Ginza, is perfect for diners who want to chose their own fish. The relatively informal atmosphere in combination with ease of getting a reservation at one of its five locations throughout the city makes it a good option for a last-minute dinner decision. Besides, who can object to a meal of eight pieces of unimaginably fresh sea urchin sushi? (I've done it before.) The fish at Kyubei is extremely fresh and the pricing much more reasonable than Sukiyabashi Jiro.

Sukiyabashi Jiro Revisited

My first visit to Sukiyabashi two years ago was one of the best sushi meals of my life. The meal's beauty lies in its apparent simplicity: just rice and fish. Of course this is deceiving. The exquisite sushi is the amalgam of impeccable ingredients and skill, from the hand-selected blend of rice and its meticulous steaming, to the exacting ratio of fish to rice and the timing with which it's served. Even the luke-warm temperature of the rice and its precise grain count per piece, as well as the sushi's position on the plate, is no accident. Chef Jiro Ono, Japanese living legend, is perhaps the world's greatest sushi chef. The atmosphere of Sukiyabashi Jiro seemed more relaxed and comfortable than the last time. While both the chef and his son were friendly and engaging in 2008 food photography -- no matter how subtle -- seemed to make them a bit uncomfortable. Two years later and chef Ono was smiling and welcoming photos. The sushi bar also seemed to have more foreigners. During my last meal I was the only foreigner at the table. Considering my meal in 2010 was on the exact same day as in 2008, it's unlikely a seasonal difference. This is probably due to its Michelin 3* rating permeating out, as well as the increase in internet publicity.

Pierre Gagnaire, Tokyo

My last meal at Pierre Gagnaire, Paris was a roller coaster. Lots of ups and downs and by the end of service I was left holding on to my chair in confusion. Any great restaurant has to take risks in the kitchen to achieve something great. But my original experiences were like a lottery, and after three meals at Gagnaire Paris, I kept losing. Pierre Gagnaire Tokyo, in some ways, was the complete opposite. There were few risks. Everything was consistent. This is good in the sense that no single course was particularly disappointing; bad, however, that nothing was exceptional. Exceptional cuisine balance risk-taking and spontaneity with consistency, and it's no easy task. My meal here was an extremely toned-down version of my meal in Paris.

New York Grill & Bar

The New York Grill and its adjacent bar sits atop the 52th floor of the Park Hyatt in Nishishinjuku, Tokyo. This hotel, and in particular its rooftop bar, was made famous by the 2003 movie Lost in Translation. As in the movie the bar, with its somber spot lighting de-emphasizing the interior and emphasizing the breathtaking views of Tokyo, has to it an ethereal quality where visitors are at awe by the twinkling panorama while simultaneously in disbelief they are actually there. Or maybe that's just the jetlag. The restaurant, paneled with art deco paintings by Valerio Adami, has gone through several chefs over the last five years, the most recent of whom, Nadine Waechter Moreno, took over as Chef de Cuisine in August of 2010. My experiences at the Park Hyatt were under the previous chef, Stefan Moerth.


Why eat French food in Tokyo? Because it's usually better than in France! Located on the second floor of its own two-story building in Ginza, L'Osier perches over the surrounding street lined with designer stores and Tokyo's fashion-savvy shoppers. L'Osier is both style and substance, however; its plates both visually stunning and delicious. I had a meal here in 2006 and never got around to posting it. But I have such strong and positive memories about my experience here that it would be an injustice not to share it. I'm going to post what I remember based on my notes. I ate here before Michelin came to Tokyo and rated this restaurant three stars. It's interesting to see how this restaurant seems to have only gotten better since then.


The simplicity and minimalism of Japanese cuisine never cease to amaze me. Particularly with traditional kaiseki, sauces and spices practically don't exist. Instead of flavoring the ingredients in a dish with external condiments, ingredients are chosen for their own intrinsic flavors. This ingredient-focused approach took a bit of getting used to; in fact the first time I tried kaiseki, I didn't like it. I thought the flavors were dull, repetitive, and boring. But the more I ate it and the longer I spent in Japan, the more I began to appreciate it. My barometer of flavor reset. Instead of loud spicy Thai cuisine full of spices and herbs, or very sweet and sticky Shanghainese cusine, Kaiseki lies flat in the middle: nothing too sweet, salty, or sour. It is a cuisine of modesty and humility where the natural flavors of the ingredients are put on a pedestal to shine.


Traditional amber wood and handmade pottery carried by waitresses in kimonos contrast against floor-to-ceiling windows and granite slabs overlooking one of the most impressive restaurant views in the city. Such an explicit juxtaposition of the traditional with the modern -- two concepts whose constant interplay largely defines Japanese culture -- contributes to Kozue's uniqueness. The dishes themselves are very traditional in flavor -- there are no "twists" -- but their presentation and the finesse with which the waitresses explain their components make this type of cuisine extremely accessible to westerners. The views from the restaurant are phenomenal. Perched on the 40th floor of the Park Hyatt, Kozue faces west. On a clear day one can see as far as Mount Fuji. The restaurant's policy is not to guarantee window tables -- even for hotel guests -- but I think it's worth waiting around for the next window table to become available.


Signature is the home of chef Olivier Rodriguez who formerly worked at the Tokyo location of Enoteca Pinchiorri. His menu read straightforward with two tasting menus and an à la carte section. The tasting menu seemed like a little much since my body still thought it was seven in the morning. So we ordered a few of dishes from the à la carte section and decided to split them. Well, maybe we ordered a lot of dishes. The exorbitant prices are justified (somewhat) by the exquisite view. We were lucky enough to have a window table, and maybe it was the jetlag but I felt like I was eating on the edge of a cliff. My eyes were in awe of the view: thousands of red lights flickering atop the Tokyo skyline.

Bear Pond Espresso

The last time I was in Japan I didn't care much for coffee. It wasn't until a revelatory experience at Joe's in the summer of 2009 that I started to like it. Rather, become a bit obsessed. And so when I visited Tokyo this December I was determined to explore the city's cafe offerings. I was particularly interested in how Japanese precision and general distaste for sourness would translate to espresso. I started with a list of twenty-five cafes that my friend and barista Yukimim put together for me. I went to all of them (in four days!). Of all the cafes I visited, one place really stood out as extraordinary: Bear Pond Espresso. Bear Pond is the home of barista-owner Katsu Tanaka, an 18-year New York resident who recently moved back to Tokyo and opened shop. Tanaka -- who doesn't allow another's hands to touch the espresso machine in fear of lack of consistency -- closes the doors to Bear Pond at 2pm. "After 2pm," he explains, "too many people come and I cannot make consistent coffee." Bear Pond's shots, really a pseudonym for Tanako's since he is the only barista, are remarkably consistent.


It's easy to walk down the quiet residential streets of Jingu-mae and miss this restaurant: it's in the basement of an apartment building with no signage. But what Esaki lacks in street-level visibility it makes up for in flavor. It's modern take on traditional kaiseki -- with all locally sourced organic ingredients -- highlights the best of Japanese cuisine yet incorporates a number of modern twists that make for a more interesting, fresh experience. The menu, full of kanji beyond my understanding, proved challenging -- the waitress patiently helped me to decipher the words I didn't know, and even brought paper and pen to take notes. At this 3-starred Michelin restaurant, things suddenly felt a lot more relaxed and comfortable.

Sukiyabashi Jiro

I always thought two parents were more than enough. But after visiting Sukiyabashi Jiro in Ginza, Tokyo, I will be returning with adoption papers. Chef Jiro Ono has been recognized by the Japanese government as a national treasure and “modern master” for his contributions to Japanese cuisine. He has received three Michelin stars. The awards an accolades for this masterful chef are endless. And to believe he is over 80 years old.

Chef Ono’s dishes are simple and straight forward: the freshest fish imaginable, warm carefully selected and cooked rice, deft knife work, and a collection of wise and sarcastic jokes. He is very serious. But unlike Masa, he was faster to crack a smile. He couldn’t stop smirking at how I took a picture of each piece of sushi and even offered to pose; though, his sharp sushi knife was a forceful deterrent. He has a funny sense of humor and is full of clever quips; my limited Japanese only understood the surface. He asked if we had any allergies or restrictions. We made it very clear that we eat absolutely everything.


Chef Yamamoto Seiji (山本征治) opened RyuGin in December 2003 at the young age of thirty three. Before that he had worked under Koyama Hirohisa (小山裕久) at Aoyagi (青柳) for ten years, channeling his talent for cooking the highest quality ingredients flawlessly. In theory, the highest quality ingredients combined with impeccable cooking should guarantee an unforgettable meal. At least that's what I thought. The restaurant is located on a small side street in Roppongi. The area used to be a bit seedy but after the construction of Roppongi Hills (六本木ヒルズ) completed in 2003, the neighborhood perked up. Now it is known for its sophisticated nightlife including a handful burgeoning restaurants eager to collect their stars. Yet despite being in such a lively neighborhood, RyuGin remains humble and quiet having just under twenty seats.

The service at RyuGin, like the service at nearly every other fine dining establishment in the city, was flawless and graceful. The staff spoke with tremendous knowledge about the menu yet remained impressively humble. The stage was set for a fantastic meal. Everything was ready, that is, except the food.

Tapas Molecular Bar

With molecular gastronomy taking the world by storm it was only a matter of time before it crossed the pacific. Located in the sky lobby of the Mandarin Oriental Tokyo, the Tapas Molecular Bar is Japan’s introduction to this innovative and creative cuisine. The interactivity that makes molecular gastronomy so much fun is heightened by the restaurant’s sushi counter seating which holds at most seven guests at a time. The entire evening is filled with conversation between not only dining companions, but with the chefs as well. It is interactive in every respect.

Japan is known for its mix of tradition and technology. I can't tell you how many pictures I've seen of a bullet train passing Mount Fuji with cherry blossoms blooming in the background. This mix of new and old is, what I believe, made the molecular bar so appealing.

Jisaku Tsukiji

It was my mother's first time in Japan. While she was only staying for a short week and a half, the planning for her visit started many months before. I had to create an agenda demonstrating Japan's incredible culinary variety while still making sure she would enjoy, and remember, each meal. If she were to leave Japan thinking the food is anything less than the best in the world, I'd have failed. Kaiseki was going to be a problem. There are just too many places. The number of Michelin starred kaiseki restaurants alone would consume her trip in its entirety; how would I fit in okonomiyaki, teppanaki, yakitori, sukiyaki and shabu shabu? I knew an early morning trip to Tsukiji market was essential, not only for the tuna auction but to show her the abundance of fresh fish that we don't have access to in the US, and the ease with which it can be purchased here. Besides, forget cereal; what better way to start the day than with a small crate of Hokkaido uni.

To complement our visit to Tsukiji, later that night, I made a reservation at Jisaku Tsukiji, a small kaiseki restaurant on the fish market's perimeter. Like most well-known kaiseki houses, diners eat in private rooms. This means two things: the meal will be private, and it will be expensive. Thankfully, this was a once in a lifetime experience.