The other day in Tokyo I had lunch with an honest-to-goodness Michelin restaurant inspector.
Ever since the Michelin Guide came out with a Tokyo version that clearly showed Tokyo as the gastronomic capital of the world — or at least the one with the most stars — serious foodies in Japan and from around the world who’ve made the trek to Tokyo have been wondering exactly who these inspectors are.
After all, they’ve certainly made or broken a couple of establishments in Japan, and — especially in their first year — they created a ruckus because of who was in and who was out based on their rating system. Lots of local foodies didn’t really agree with how they graded or didn’t grade some restaurants.
Well, they’re now in the middle of rating places for next year. Of course I can’t go into much details because of the strict confidentiality issue, but this Michelin inspector certainly took his task seriously and knew his food and wine.
MOVEMENT AMONG THE THREE STARS
We couldn’t discuss any of the restaurants coming up in the next guide in great detail either, but we did have a couple of interesting discussions about some three-star Michelin restaurants undergoing changes in the next few months.
Two of them are both three-star sushi restaurants in Ginza. One of them is opening a branch in Hong Kong’s Central District (at a higher price point than Tokyo) and another one is actually closing down at the end of the month.
THE BEST SUSHI IN THE WORLD
He said, of the sushi shop closing down soon: “This is the best sushi in the world, hands down.”
I asked him: “Better than Jiro?” I meant the famous Sukiyabashi Jiro where lunch takes about thirty minutes and costs a fortune, and he nodded. No words here but I assumed he said yes.
He replied: “This is the best in the world, as far as I’m concerned.”
I said: “Gosh, I’d better go then.”
He said: “They’re closing at the end of the month…” And just as I was about to pick up the phone and try and get a seat before the end of the month, he added: “And I guarantee you that reservations are impossible.”
I asked: “Why are they closing?” It didn’t make sense — that another Michelin three-star restaurant was closing. L’Osier, the best French restaurant in Japan and a three-star Michelin restaurant as well, closed down last year, although I understand it’s opening again in Tokyo under a different chef.
I don’t know yet what the story is there, as L’Osier’s three-star chef, Bruno Menard, was perhaps the most talented chef for French cuisine in Japan; but I hope to find out soon.
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TOKYO’S LOSS IS LONDON’S GAIN
Anyway, to reply, this Michelin inspector said: “He’s closing his sushi shop here in Tokyo and moving to London.”
Wow. Tokyo’s loss will be London’s gain. And perhaps there are more people willing to pay top prices for sushi in London compared to Tokyo, which is still in the middle of a pretty bad recession.
Then this guy continued: “But, you know, there are so many fantastic restaurants in Japan and they’re all under the Michelin radar or the radar of all these international lists of best restaurants.”
THE MOST AMAZING KAISEKI PLACES IN JAPAN
Apparently, he’d discovered three of the most amazing kaiseki places in Japan, and none of them were famous — or expensive. Kaiseki, which is the formal Japanese meal consisting of a series of small dishes, is notoriously pricey because of the labor involved in creating a series of small dishes. If you go to a famous one, it’s basically highway robbery.
This is perhaps why I don’t like going to the very famous places more than once or twice, and particularly in Japan where there really are so many excellent but unknown kaiseki restaurants. The famous restaurants are delicious, of course, but they’re terribly expensive.
AMAZING COMES IN THREES
Anyway the three amazing kaiseki places that this Michelin inspector discovered — although I don’t think these’ll ever make it to a Michelin guide as they are out of the city coverages — are in the most unlikely of places.
One is an hour’s drive away from Miyajima, which is already an hour’s drive away from Hiroshima, which is a two-hour flight from Tokyo.
The other is just outside a train station along the bullet train line from Tokyo to Nagoya (now that’s more do-able, and I will try that one day soon); and the other is in a nondescript hotel in the historic and very old-fashioned prefecture of Kanazawa.
UNDER THE RADAR IN KANAZAWA
I like Kanazawa a lot for its hot springs and good food, plus its great history. And here, in a very ordinary location, this Michelin inspector found one of the best kaiseki restaurants he’s ever been to.
I’ll write more about it in detail when I actually go, but for now, let me tell you the most intriguing story about this supposedly fabulous restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
Apparently, this restaurant is run by a man in his 90s who personally does the cooking himself. Because of his age, he only opens at lunch four times a week. This certainly limits the window of opportunity for a meal in this restaurant.
THE TALE OF THE SINGING FISHES
Then, on the day he’s open for business, he goes to the fish market himself to buy the freshest seafood for the day. It’s famous in the local market that this old man is the earliest customer for the day. He doesn’t just buy the top-of-the-line catch or the best fish just like that either.
He walks around each stall, literally talking to the fish. He says he only buys fish that sing to him. So a typical conversation between this chef and his regular clients would go:
Client: “Did you buy any good white fish today?” Chef: “Not today. I saw some top-of-the-line white fish but they just didn’t sing to me today.”
Yes, in a very good kaiseki restaurant in the backwoods of Japan, there are a couple of fishes who sang to an old man this morning, and so they probably were made into lunch today. Talk about talent being a liability here.
Just another day in a never-ending, and never-endingly eventful Travelife.