Monday, September 20, 2010

Tokyo's great little restaurants

Yesterday was a holiday in Tokyo so we spent the day walking from our home to Yoyogi Park, Tokyo's equivalent of Central Park. Before going to the park, we planned to have lunch around the Omotesando area, which is a pleasant stroll away.

Omotesando, which is perhaps the most European-looking district of Tokyo (the main drag, Omotesando Avenue, is even referred to as Tokyo's Champs Elysees), is home to lots of great Italian and French restaurants, as well as good sushi shops and the famous tonkatsu restaurant Maizen, which many Filipinos visit when they come to Tokyo.

Japan is literally awash with very good French and Italian restaurants -- many of them run by Japanese chefs who trained in Europe. Almost every neighborhood will have a decent place with an authentic atmosphere. People have attributed this to the single-mindedness of the Japanese. When a Japanese decides to become a French chef or a sommelier, for instance, he will study with such zeal -- and oftentimes at quite a big expense for schooling -- that he will beat the locals at their own game.

Kurobuta at Maizen

Meanwhile, regarding Maizen, Tokyo's famous tonkatsu restaurant. It's not at the very top of my tonkatsu list, but it'd definitely be among the top 5. And it's probably the best-known and also the most foreigner-friendly.

If you're planning a trip to Tokyo, you must have the kurobuta tonkatsu teishoku (black pig tonkatsu set) at Maizen, which comes with its own home-made tonkatsu sauce made from grated apples and worcestershire sauce, giving it a spicy-sweet thick sensation.

I myself always bring friends and acquaintances from Manila here, and everyone is always delighted with the place. Come early or late to avoid the long lines and crowds. When I eat here, I go at 1130 AM so I can get a parking slot and a table right away.

Great curry for $12

Back to my story about Tokyo's great little restaurants. On the way to Omotesando, we passed by our neighborhood shop district (called shotengai in Japanese) and were very surprised to see so many quaint and interesting new restaurants and bars. This was always a rather quiet street with nothing much save for a fish shop, a tailor, a dry cleaning shop, and a couple of soba restaurants. But it never really mattered as everything else was just a few minutes away by car or train.

We're quite spoiled, living in central Tokyo where some of the world's best restaurants are all nearby -- Tokyo, after all, has the most number of Michelin starred-restaurants in the world. But we never had a whole lot of choices as far as our shotengai down the hill was concerned.

Well, apparently this has all changed in the past 12 months or so. It seems our little shotengai -- perhaps because of its convenient location -- has become quite fashionable. Every other house or building is now a little bar or restaurant, oftentimes run by an entrepreneur-couple or an ambitious young guy by himself.

And, just in case you're put off by the idea of a tiny restaurant, let me tell you that some of Tokyo's best restaurants are tiny and nondescript, but absolute jewels. They're not on the Michelin map but they're fabulous all the same -- and probably reasonably priced, too, since they're not so famous.

Sukiyabashi Jiro:
The world's most low-key three-star Michelin restaurant

Tokyo's small restaurant scene is really among the world's best. Look at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the three-star Michelin sushi shop that is supposed to serve the best sushi in the world. It's not a fancy place and it's so small and nondescript that you'd probably pass it by without even imagining for a second that world-class culinary wonders could be inside.

(Read more about Sukiyabashi Jiro in an article by Jerome Velasco in the Aug-Sep 2010 issue of Travelife Magazine. Still on sale everywhere now)

Well, in my shotengai, we don't have a Sukiyabashi Jiro, but we have discovered some pretty good and extremely reasonable small places that have recently opened for business.

After seeing so many stores close in the past few years due to Japan's record-breaking (not to mention bank account-breaking) recession, it's really nice to finally see some signs of life in this city again, and to see some brave entrepreneurs setting up shop in what is probably the toughest and most competitive environment in the world.

Curry at a counter at Taka's

Lunch yesterday was at a casual French restaurant called Taka (named after the owner-chef, I guess) with a stylish dark interior and a main dining area consisting of about 10 stools around a counter.

We decided to go in after looking at the menu and liking it: only French-style curry (at least that's what it said) was served at lunch, and it came with sizable salad (by Tokyo standards) and a drink for US$12. The price certainly wasn't bad.

And when we finally got out curries, we were happily surprised to find they were very good. Choice cuts of grilled chicken, with the skin charred just right, were placed on a bed of rice and spicy fried onion rings were scattered all around. On the side came a serving of spicy curry sauce to eat as we wished.

The meal was so satisfactory for this price that we asked to see the dinner menu. It was an entirely different assortment of Western food with a French touch, but still all within $12 an entree. Considering tip is not accepted in Japan, so you pay only as is, the meal would certainly come out cheap compared to London, New York, Paris or even Hong Kong standards.

And perhaps the most surprising thing was the number of people working behind the counter.

The restaurant sat about 7 at the counter and there were a few tables at the back, but there were 6 people working at the restaurant. No matter which way I did the numbers, a small restaurant like that with so many staff would certainly find it challenging to turn a profit.

"I hope this restaurant survives," I said. Fortunately, in the short time I was there, a lot of people came and went for curry lunch. The counters were especially popular with people dining solo, surfing on their mobile phones or reading a magazine as they ate.

A small restaurant called Petit Bateau

At the other end of the spectrum, and only a few doors down, is another small and new restaurant called Petit Bateau, run singlehandedly by a young guy who cooked, cleaned and served. This restaurant was actually at another location, where it had gained a good reputation for decent French food at equally decent prices; and I'd actually eaten there a few times.

Well, last month in Tokyo again, my friend Keiko persuaded me to have dinner with her here, as she'd heard about it from a friend. "It's just down the hill from your house, anyway," she said to me. "And it's so hard to get a reservation here because it's got so few seats. But there was a cancelation so I got us two seats at the counter."

Gamely, I agreed to meet her at the restaurant at 7 pm.

It looked promising and the guy struck me as friendly enough. We were the first ones there and we excitedly looked over the menu, handwritten on a blackboard. "Set Menu for dinner -- pls inquire about the day's offerings," it said at the top in Japanese.

When I go to a restaurant in Tokyo for the first time, I usually like to take the set menu because it's usually good and also great value, especially when I don't know what's good to eat at the place. Keiko was leaning towards the set menu as well.

"What's the set menu like?" Keiko asked the chef.

"It's for people who can't make up their minds about what to eat. I don't usually recommend it," he practically growled at her, as if he was angry she had even asked.

Well, we were very shocked by such a response, especially in service-oriented Japan. Also, the sign on his menu encouraged diners to inquire about the menu, which is what he did.

That sort of set the tone for the evening. Dinner may have been good, but it was tainted as far as I was concerned.

Because he was singlehandedly running the restaurant, an multi-course meal took an incredibly long time and service was almost non-existent. And when the bill came, I found it neither expensive nor cheap. Nevertheless, I continue to hear good things about it and it's still always full -- so perhaps we'd just gone on a bad night.

Great sushi for $50

Interestingly, the chef's brother-in-law runs a fabulous little sushi shop just across the road. I tried it for the first time last night.

It had a wonderful atmosphere and incredible sushi at quite good prices for Tokyo. We'd eaten a lot and paid about $50 per person, which is very cheap for good sushi in central Tokyo.

And elsewhere along this road in Shibuya Ward are dozens of quaint places just waiting to be tried on my next visit to Tokyo.


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