Monday, April 9, 2012

Two disappointing Michelin stars in Tokyo

With so many foodie friends in town here in Tokyo, our days have been one Michelin-starred restaurant after another. Most of them have been very good, and a couple have been good enough for me not to say anything discouraging about them.

But today some friends and I went to Toyoda, a Michelin two-star restaurant in Ginza that supposedly received its two stars for its kaiseki cuisine (kaiseki is the formal Japanese meal that is basically a series of beautifully presented small dishes).

Beautiful as a picture,
but nothing overwhelming in terms of taste.


I usually like two-star restaurants because many of them are trying hard to get a third star and they're still not as pricey as the three-star restaurants so they're better value for money. My friends and I had a similar discussion earlier at lunch, actually, but it was about Michelin-starred restaurants in France.

When I'm in Paris, I always book a couple of three-star restaurants of course. But I also like booking the two-star restaurants precisely because they're aiming higher and trying harder to climb into the next category.
In contrast, I find that the one-star restaurants are good value but they're really usually in a different world altogether -- especially in Paris. Many of the one-star restaurants I've been to in Paris offer delicious and reasonably-priced food -- a three-course meal for less than 50 euros -- but they're not likely to progress beyond the one-star status because they don't have the necessary infrastructure for the fine dining and service normally required of the two-star and three-star restaurants.

So they're resigned to being a one-star and happy this way; but they're also usually full, cramped and quite lax about service.


Anyway, back to today's two-star meal. As with many small Japanese kaiseki restaurants, there is no choice as far as meals go. You reserve a table and sit down, and eat what you're served. There's usually only one menu for lunch and another more elaborate one for dinner.

This too was all about presentation
rather than good taste

That's what happened today. We were a party of four who arrived at Toyoda earlier today. Upon reaching there, we were immediately informed that the private room had suddenly opened up so it was either the counter or the private room.

Usually, sitting at the counter of a Japanese restaurant is pretty interesting; but today we wanted to talk a lot as well, so we chose the private room so we could talk about all sorts of things and not bother anyone else.


The meal was very subtle in taste, as is the Japanese way. Having lived here a very long time, I'm pretty used to the slight nuances of the dishes, although frankly I prefer slightly more powerful flavors. But even this was just too subtle for me. There was some artistry in presentation and the food was certainly edible and okay in taste; but it just wasn't a two-star standard for me.

This was white fish wrapped in rice.
After this came the actual rice and soup course.
How could they serve two rice dishes in succession?

I kept looking and looking for the next dish to be more delicious than the previous one, but it was just a series of rather disappointing bland dishes. I was especially incensed by the sashimi course as this is quite hard for a good Japanese kaiseki restaurant with a reliable fish supplier to get wrong.

It's just a matter of properly cutting up some good quality fish, after all. But what arrived were two very ordinary pieces of maguro, and four equally ordinary pieces of white fish.

Rice cooked with tiny crispy shrimps,
served with pickles and red miso soup


The only really good things were the very strong miso soup made the Tokyo way with red miso and excellent silky but firm tofu, and the pretty sweet watermelon that was dessert #1.

Dessert #2 was a very dry and tasteless piece of Japanese cake. I usually eat all my dessert, but this was one time I actually left half of it behind.

Fortunately, the conversation saved the meal. We four had so much fun talking about everything in life and in the world. And then we walked back to the Peninsula Tokyo in the sunshine, enjoying the first pleasantly warm afternoon so far in Japan.



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