Every year-end, Eater conducts a year-end survey, canvassing a host of writers, photographers and assorted others – mostly in the US, but also from around the world (and including yours truly) – for their pronouncements on gourmet matters.
The answers are all up there online. But because they are scattered over several separate posts, I have gathered my answers to their survey together here.
A slew of new restaurants opened in Tokyo this year, but none have nailed it for me quite like Anis. Chef Susumu Shimizu proves that, as long as you have superb ingredients and technique (his was honed at Arpege) it doesn’t matter how far you are from the bright lights of the city center.
It wasn’t just the foodies: all of Japan was thrilled that the nation’s traditional cuisine, washoku, was recognized by UNESCO as an intangible World Heritage.
Most were equally dismayed by the ongoing revelations of menu fraud (mostly substituting cheaper ingredients for high-end brand-name food products) — especially at hotels with names that were formerly trusted.
Gen Yamamoto’s intimate 8-seater bar feels as tranquil and traditional as a tea ceremony chamber. His artfully constructed fruit and vegetable infusions are structured to the seasons in just the same way as a kaiseki meal. Order a flight of 5 or 7, then sit back for a meditative couple of hours.
Also: Restaurants serving “gibier”. The French word has been coopted into Japanese to signify for all game meats, especially wild venison and boar from the Japanese uplands.
Also: Gourmet popcorn. Following hard on the heels of the American pancake boom, it has now become essential (for some, at least) to wait in line over 2 hours just to be able to buy popcorn in exotic flavors.
What’s not: Fads die as fast as they are born in Tokyo. For several years, Belgian beer was everywhere. Now it’s getting well overlooked in favor of craft ale, mostly locally brewed.
Outside of Tokyo — perennially at the top of my list — San Sebastian remains a tried and true favorite.
And I’ve been very pleased to find that London is really starting to deliver on the hype, with a new groundswell of great little restaurants, most of them well removed from the West End.
Kitchen Table (Fitzrovia, London) was also one of my meals of the year.
The elephant in the room that no one is talking about in Tokyo is the impending takeover of Japanese agribusiness by Monsanto, through the forthcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade agreement. Hello GM crops; sayonara traditional agriculture.
In Tokyo, dinner at Kojyu represents the apogee of contemporary kaiseki. In Kyoto, Mizai encapsulates the deep essence of traditional Kyoto cuisine and hospitality. But the absolute funnest meal of the year was the gala collaboration dinner by Zaiyu Hasegawa (Jimbocho Den) and Hiroyasu Kawate (Florilege), held at the former to mark the latter’s 4th anniversary.
Abroad, I was absolutely blown away by my (belated) first-ever visit to Noma.
But in absolute terms, nothing prepared me for the sheer brilliance of Oslo’s undersung gem, Maaemo. Esben Holmboe Bang’s cuisine is superlative; while Pontus Dahlstrom ensures everything front-of-house runs like Nordic clockwork. Meal of the year for me.
2013 was the breakout year for Jimbocho Den. In 2014, expect the mainstream to start catching up and lionizing this innovative restaurant and its irrepressible chef, Zaiyu Hasegawa.
Chef Hasegawa was one of those I tipped for big things in the 2012 Eater survey.
And watch the reborn L’Osier pick up plaudits, gongs and stars (it formerly had three), under its new head chef, Gagnaire alumnus Olivier Chaignon.
My column today in The Japan Times is a year-end round-up. Not necessarily the best of the year — most of those have already featured in columns over the past twelve months — but the best of the rest. Expect to see more about them in print (or on this blog) in 2014.
• starting with Kojyu — one of my meals of the year…
• L'Osier was the opening of the year. A three-star Tokyo legend is reborn…
• Takumi Shingo, the new offshoot of the legendary Sushi Sho...
• Ata, the hugely popular French (and English) accented grill on the fringe of Shibuya…
• L'Hommage, inventive French in Asakusa: great mains, such as this rack of lamb coated with kinome miso…
…and beautiful desserts.
• Akomeya in Ginza: more than just a great resource for Japanese foods, condiments, seasonings and high-end kitchen supplies (yes, and a rice store too)...
…it also has a nice little standing-only sake counter, as well as a simple, shokudo-style restaurant at the back.
• The new branch of DevilCraft brought craft beer and their trademark deep-dish pizza to the backstreets of Hamamatsucho…
• And Craft Beer Market Awajicho — the third branch of this excellent Japanese craft beer specialist — features stylish taps…
…and an in-house oven producing craft pizzas – this one (below) featuring spicy lamb sausage and a well-charred pie!
Stand by for a fourth CBM branch, in Mitsukoshimae, by the spring.
• And finally, a sad farewell to the wonderful, historic, atmospheric Yabu Soba. They're promising to rebuild, but all that's visible now is a parking lot. End of an era.
So what do you drink if you're thirsty after a visit to Japan's most sacred shrine? Shinto Beer, of course. That's just one of the excellent craft ales on offer from Isekadoya, a local brewery that has set up shop in the city that is best known for the magnificent Grand Shrine of Ise (aka Ise Jingu).
And thankfully, these beers are available at its outlet just a short walk from the entrance to the Naiku Shrine.
As specialist beer bars go, it must be the most atmospheric in all of Japan. It's actually not old at all, but it's been built – like the whole neighborhood outside the Naiku Shrine – to evoke the days of yore (the Edo Period some 200 years ago) when pilgrims used to descend on Ise from all over Japan, and this area was a hotbed of raunchiness.
I'd worked up a righteous thirst, so one beer was obviously not going to be enough. Plus I'm not down in that neck too often, so I needed to try as many brews as I could. So I started with the Sinto (ie Shinto) Beer along with a glass of the Kumano Kodo ale (on the right).
The former is fine for quenching the initial thirst. But the latter – named after the sacred pilgrimage route that leads through the mountains to Kumano – is far more satisfying as a beer: excellent flavor and body.
Among the snacks and foods served here, the deepfried unagi eel caught my eye. Forget fish and chips: this is what goes perfectly with Japanese beer!
Isekadoya also make a great porter. And a pretty adequate amber ale too (right photo).
The only thing wrong with this tavern — it's too classy to call it a pub or a bar — is that it closes early, like the rest of this tourist-oriented neighbourhood. In fact the whole area is just about deserted as soon as it gets dark.
No problem, really. The same beer is available in cans around town — including the train station, to help you on your travels…
I would never had found this Isekadoya outlet had I not had the brilliant Craft Beer Japan app on my iPhone. Highly recommended if you're travelling around this country with a thirst for good beer.
To start, a light bowl of yuzu shio ramen at Afuri, to warm and prepare the stomach…
Followed by a flight of light, refreshing aperitif cocktails at Gen Yamamoto, to prime the palate…
Then on for a pint of Craft Beer Market ale, to quench the thirst…
And at last dinner: including a hunt for ebi-imo yams…
and closing (well, almost) with sanma gohan: rice with grilled saury, seasoned with a puree of its own liver.
Not quite "just another night out" in Tokyo. But definitely a very satisfying one.
Food writer and restaurant reviewer for the Japan Times contact: foodfile (at) me (dot) com