May 24&31, 2010
By Lucy Birmingham
"Eat Around the Clock"
Tokyo is the world's cuisine capital, a mecca for any serious foodie. With an estimated 80,000 restaurants crowned with 227 Michelin stars (Paris trails at 97), supreme quality and variety rule in this vast metropolis of 13 million. Understandably, the sheer choice can be overwhelming for any visitor. How best to navigate the city's capacious culinary delights without draining your wallet and precious time?
An exclusive 24-hour gourmet tour of Tokyo is an option for those ready to test their true devotion to the bon vivant's sacraments of pleasure. Bespoke Tokyo, with tailor-made tours for "savvy city trekkers," offers a flexible tour menu, unique worldwide, that is packed with exclusive culinary experiences — in 24-hours. Admittedly, it's not for the faint hearted. A spirit of adventure is a must. But even picky eaters with a tender tummy like mine can, with pacing, enjoy the full course.
Japanese cuisine lends itself to taste testing and restaurant hopping. While Western cuisine is served as an entire meal, Japanese dishes are a complex variety with small portions that allow serving flexibility.
Our tailored adventure began at 4:45am, the break of dawn, at Tsukiji fish market, famed as the world's largest. Our specially arranged passes opened doors into the inner auctions now closed to tourists. There we met fish dealer Shinpei Asai, whose Boston Red Sox jacket warmed my nostalgic heart as we traversed the huge freezing warehouses. The daily catch at auction, mainly enormous maguro (tuna), fresh and frozen from around the world, is destined for the best sushi restaurants at no small sum. "One with bright red color, that's the choicest tuna," explained Asai while pointing to a slab on view.
Once out in the markets we marveled, with a dose of guilt, at the voluminous choice of sea life on sale, so fresh it was bereft of any fishy odor. Dodging the kamikaze transport drivers, we headed for nearby Sushi Dai, one of the best tiny sushi restaurants in the market compound catering to tourists and locals alike. A diamond in the rough, it is deeply delectable on the cheap. Our trusty cue-waiter was now at the head of a 7:00am line of like-minded sushi devotees snaking 2-blocks long and facing a 4-hour crawl. Both the 2,500 yen 7-set, and 3,900 yen 10-set did not disappoint. Morsels of mouthwatering toro (fatty tuna) and anago (sea eel) simmered in sweet nitsume sauce, Edomae style (the old-school way) were among our favorites. Their tamagoyaki (egg roll), the ultimate test of every sushi restaurant, garnered our grade-A vote.
Just a few doors down, we picked up a pack of take-out shumai (Chinese pork dumplings) from Yajiman, where fish traders munched in silence on fast, meaty teishoku (set meals) for a filling 8:00am dinner at the end of their hectic, noisy day. Our stroll through the market brought us to Jugetsudo, a nori (seaweed) and green tea shop boasting a Paris extension visited by LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault. Their new spring tea leaves with fragments of fragrant dried lemony yuzu rind was a calming tea refresher. Around the corner, the hand-wrought knives at Aritsugu caught our eye. Made with the same 400-year-old technique as samurai swords, this popular knife shop is frequented by chefs from around the world, including Daniel Boulud.
After a desperately needed cup of fresh-brewed coffee we walked to nearby Hamarikyu Garden, once used by the Imperial Family as a 'detached palace.' Down paths bordered by azaleas in full bloom, we crossed the wooden bridge to a teahouse at the center of the pond where we imbibed a bowl of green macha tea (frothing with welcome caffeine) and pink confection molded like a cherry blossom filled with sweet bean paste.
Skyscrapers jutting above the ancient pine trees lured us back into the 21st century as we headed for a quick shot of invigorating flavorful vinegar, packed with antioxidants polyphenol and lycopene, at Shimbashi Station's Kurozu Vinegar Bar. After a few stops by train to Ueno Station we embarked on a hefty walk through the old neighborhoods of Ameyoko-cho, Okachimachi and Yushima where, tongue-in-cheek, we climbed Onnazaka (Woman Hill), the stone stairs at the back of Yushima Shrine. There we nibbled on roasted, salty ginnan (ginko seeds) from a yatai shrine food stall, and prayed to the gods of stamina.
On the way to our tempura lunch feast at nearby Yamanoue Hotel we made a quick stop at Teuchi-Koushiki where we sampled hand-made "black" soba noodles of buckwheat, ground with the dark husk — their patented specialty. This friendly, mom and pop soba shop is riding the growing 'black is back' boom. It's a health-conscious return to vitamin-rich dark grains and beans, long considered the poor man's grub and the unrefined cousin of polished white rice, the symbol of success.
At Yamanoue (Hilltop Hotel) tempura is a serious, gastronomic art. Vegetables and seafood, specially battered and fried ultra-light with just a touch of frill, are magically transformed into bite-sized treasures. Our favorites were in-season warabi (fiddlehead ferns), fukinotou (butterbur bud) and takenoko (bamboo shoots) along with yuri-ne (lily bulbs), kisu (sillago) and kabocha (pumpkin). But the ultra-light fare can weigh on the wallet. The lunch set alone ranges from 5,700-9,000 yen.
After looping back by subway to the tony Ginza district, we settled in for a quiet respite with tea infusions and wagashi (traditional Japanese sweets) at the sublime Higashiya. Comfortable, Japanese modern minimalist decor, finely crafted confections, and Jimmy the smiling manager at our beck and call, made for a rejuvenating 90-minutes. Our favorite was the "natsume butter," a melt-in-your-mouth combination of creamy butter and walnut set in a dried Medjool date.
Deeper into Ginza we then headed. At the bistro Grape Gumbo we dug into a refreshing coriander salad called the "Coriander Bomb." Next at Mardis Gras (specializing in offal cuisine) we bravely nibbled on nuggets of fried tripe. First simmered for hours in a broth of veggies and herbs, and breaded in Japanese "panko," this tender triumph could give any Parisian chef a run for their money.
Needless to say we were feeling close to gorged and reevaluating our next move to nearby Mutsukari where an 11-course kaiseki dinner loomed ahead. But temptation triumphed over sanity, and thank goodness. It was a chef d'oeuvre of taste, presentation and service. One Tokyo resident in our group summed it up nicely: "When I look at a kitchen like this I wonder how I could ever live anywhere else." While Kaiseki dinners can range upwards of 50,000 yen, Mutsukari's remarkable fare at 10,000 yen per person seemed like a bargain.
Although nearing midnight, our night was still young. So we rolled into a taxi for a tasty sake bar in Aoyama. The owner and head chef Narukiyo san was holding court at the entrance with a jovial smile as we settled in for a round of mugi shochu on the rocks. This clear, powerful spirit is distilled mainly from mugi (barley) for a robust roasted flavor; oimo (sweet potato) with a palpable fragrance; or okome (rice) with a kick like vodka.
With a pleasant buzz, we braced ourselves for some fun, serious slumming at the Fuji karaoke bar in Shinjuku's notorious ni-chome district. Once there however we sat in stupefied silence while the international crooners from hell decimated the likes of Patsy Cline, Donna Summer and every tune of Chinese, Korean and even Japanese origin. Finally though it dawned on us that this was our chance for a seriously needed catnap. So we nodded off (in spite of the howling), gratefully spared from further aural torture.
Back out on the street at 3:00am, we stumbled into Golden Gai. Once a hotbed of brothels, this collection of tiny ramshackle bars has been a watering hole for generations of artists, musicians and writers. At Barubora-ya, the busy cook found a moment to whip us up a tasty negisujiyaki (pizza-like pancake) topped with mayonnaise, a Japanese favorite. Washed down with a pink-colored shochu shiso sour, we were then ready to celebrate our wondrous 24-hour achievement at the Conrad Hotel — our final destination.
Peering down upon Tsukiji Market from the hotel's 28th floor China Blue restaurant — in a private room with a killer view — we had come full circle. Exhausted but satiated, we raised our champagne glasses in the glistening rays of the golden sunrise to our feat as galloping gourmet, Tokyo style.