In Tokyo, a city with more Michelin stars than any other, the dizzying, dazzling dining scene can overwhelm. Reservations generally must be made well in advance, and choosing where to shell out hundreds of dollars per person for a series of exquisite little bites can be daunting. But relax. There’s so much goodness here that it’s hard to go wrong, and once you’ve stepped across the threshold into a talented chef’s establishment, the overall air of confidence and concentration calms you down anyway. Here are nine places for great food and drink in the greatest of restaurant towns.
Michelin-starred master Michimasa Nakamura describes his work at this tiny sushi hideaway as an intimate performance. No wonder it’s common to spot Tokyo’s young celebrities sighing in pleasure over ever so lightly smoked mackerel topped with a dot of mustard sauce. Or sea bream sashimi in zesty yuzu gelée gilded with caviar. Or soy-marinated, wasabi-dusted squid so pretty that it looks more vegetable than animal. Translucent glass fish are draped in blond miso and strewed with purple shiso flowers. Conger eel, striped with eel sauce, is laid in your palm, warm and custard-tender. Ikura — salmon roe sushi — has never been more vibrantly saline, the nori never more toasty. One could go on. Choose your sake cup from the diverse collection the chef offers, sip whatever he’s pouring, and enjoy the omakase, all the way through to the slick, sweet tomago, a perfectly rolled and carved omelet, at the end. Reservations required.
Platinum Court Hiroo, 4-12-4 Minamiazabu, Minato-ku. Tel. (81) 3-3280-3454
In Japan, even deep-fried pork can be worthy of Michelin. On the fourth floor of Barneys in fashionable Ginza, this tiny chef’s counter is so serene that you might mistake the sound of bubbling oil for a waterfall. Smiling broadly, owner Etsuo Nagai sizzles Kurobuta tenderloin from the prized Berkshire hogs, while his wife and daughter shred sweet, soft white bread over box graters to make the panko that coats the meat. Pickles — yuzu-marinated cabbage, gamy radishes, vinegary carrots — prime the palate for the cutlets, which are juicy, pillowy and deeply porky inside a golden jacket with an ethereal crunch. You can play with the sauces: A barbecue version tastes largely of Worcestershire. The “house sauce” is a nutty miso-garlic. Add Chinese mustard for bristling heat. But the best way to enjoy such exemplary tonkatsu is with just a squeeze of lemon chased by a mouthful of shredded cabbage. A simple cutlet has never been so satisfying. Reservations required for dinner. Closed Monday.
Kojun Building, Fourth Floor, 6-8-7 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel. (81) 3-3289-8988
Combining the earthy panache of Copenhagen’s legendary Noma with the pristine beauty of Japanese ingredients, this newcomer is a gourmand’s dream. German-born chef Thomas Frebel was head of R&D at Noma. He and former “Nomads” from 15 countries plunge diners into the 72 micro-seasons of the Japanese calendar. Chefs move in and out of the open kitchen, delivering wild yet refined dishes to tables that are so well-spaced, it’s like you’re having a private adventure. Frebel has an out-of-the-box approach to Japanese foods. Whipped and aerated, ankimo (monkfish liver) becomes an umami meringue, offset by a thin sheet of black currant “wood” bursting with concentrated fruit. Showstoppers are paraded by before being plated, including a maitake mushroom as big as a basketball, air-cured five days and smoked for three. A slice of it in swarthy broth needs only salt, which takes the form of crushed salt-cured cherry blossom. It tastes as if you’re eating rotten wood — in a very good way. The most delicious dishes are the messiest. Oily and meaty, sweet and tacky in a yakitori-style glaze, grilled kelp grouper ribs are paired with an intense chunk of salmon roe that’s been cured for a year and a grilled konatsu citrus, like a kumquat’s big brother. You eat it all with your hands, chasing the flavors with nasturtium flowers, a peppery palate cleanser. After dessert, a chef leads you on a tour of the kitchen, and you see how all the rugged deliciousness has state-of-the-art technology behind it. Reservations required. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Kadokawa Fujimi Building, 2-13-12 Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku. Tel (81) 3-6683-7570
As Tokyo gears up for the 2020 Olympics, new boutique properties open. Nohga Hotel is in Ueno, an area of multigenerational craftsmen and food artisans. A meal at the hotel’s bistro immerses you in the best of the local provender. There are soy-braised pickles from an nonagenarian shop, and coffee from neighboring roasters Kabuki. The cured meats, rice, miso, breads and seaweeds are all sourced from within a few blocks, as is the gossamer-thin Kimoto glassware. Sit at the counter to watch the chefs elevate humble ingredients to haute cuisine: turnip blancmange topped with a clear, piquant tomato gelée; white radish caramelized and sandwiching a sake-marinated foie gras terrine. Cod “soft roe” meunière is so proper — save for the improving yuzu zest — that you won’t realize you’re eating fish milt. Spanish mackerel confit over a toasty risotto cake comes with a rich clam broth to pour on top. Use it all; it’s superb. The juices from a pillow-soft venison filet pool with a beet puree beneath it. The service lacks polish, and the pared-down Nordic-Japanese decor might be too youthful for some, but the cooking is gratifying and sophisticated. Reservations recommended.
Nohga Hotel, 2-21-10 Higashiueno, Taito-ku. Tel. (81) 3-6284-2417
The steak is a winner — literally. These chophouses in Ginza and Roppongi are part of a group originating in Kobe, the city that lends its name to Japan’s lauded beef, and they serve the meat of championship cows. The blue-ribbon delicacy costs $250 at lunchtime alone, but even just the “special choice” Kobe is gorgeously marbled. The chef cooks it gently on a 350-degree teppanyaki flattop, coddling it under a copper cloche until the fat and muscle melt together into a moist, sweet, fleshy whole with just a hint of the bitter mineral finish of a high-heat American-style steak. When he asks if you’d like garlic chips, say yes. Along with the house’s miso-chive-sesame sauce, the crunchy allium completes each beefy bite. Go for broke by swapping white rice for garlic rice, stir-fried with Kobe fat and tiny dried fish. Everything else on the set menu — salads, soups, grilled vegetables, even the cold sliced Kobe to start — is beside the point. As for the faux-brick decor, the only things to recommend it are the authenticating certificates of the top cattle. Reservations recommended.
Ginza MST Building, Eighth Floor, 6-5-1 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel. (81) 3-6252-5011
Urban Style Roppongi, 4-2-35, Roppongi, Minato-ku. Tel. (81) 3-5775-6633
One of the city’s best views is on the 45th floor of the Ritz-Carlton, and it comes with Michelin-starred cooking. Request a window seat when you book, and linger over the vista, the airy surrounds and chef Shintaro Miyazaki’s beautiful, clever French cuisine. A tuile showered in herbs and flowers forms a latticework lid for seasonal seafood afloat in a lemon foam. Gently cooked sweetbreads en croûte come with a gingery squash sauce in a “bowl” formed from half of a salt-baked acorn squash. Waygu is cooked sous vide for maximum tenderness and snipped from its bag tableside. Duck breast arrives rare in a contrasting sauce of bitter chrysanthemum greens, along with a confit of duck leg fashioned into a delectable sausage paired with a duck egg yolk, like a luxe breakfast. Dessert, such as a passion fruit-laced tiramisu, is lovely, but even better is the turnip consommé, a revivifying, yuzu-laced intermezzo set amid a miniature garden of pebbles and plum blossoms. Drink it in, but don’t neglect the wines and sakes. Finds by the glass include a bittersweet, organic aged sake from the Tomita Brewery, founded nearly 500 years ago. Reservations required. Closed Tuesday.
The Ritz-Carlton Tokyo, 45th floor, Tokyo Midtown, 9-7-1 Akasaka, Minato-ku. Tel. (81) 3-6434-8711
This kaiseki restaurant offers a rarity: all female chefs, in a ballet of knife skills and elaborate presentations. This crew believes in omotenashi, or hospitality. For the first, adorable course, three Aladdin’s lamps hold ocean-meets-garden flavors: tiny white fish layered with insanely sweet-tart tomato; nutty scallop liver with sesame sauce; bamboo shoot and squid topped with a shiso-bonito pesto. Hidden inside an emperor-and-empress figurine is plain, chilled snow crab, a pure delight. A chef shows off a Schwarzenegger-size octopus arm. It’s been cooked 48 hours, pounded 45 times, and marinated in sake, sugar and soy. You’ll eat incomparably soft, sweet hunks of it, topped with wet mustard seed. Another chef cooks soy-and-sake-cured wild boar belly over a ceramic grimacing head. Her colleague sets a flaming pot before you and makes a sort of egg drop soup loaded with baby eels. Some dishes challenge American palates — chewy braised abalone atop kelp, for instance. But it’s still the most feel-good meal in Tokyo. Reservations required. Closed Sunday.
B1 Iwatsuki Building II, 6-7-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel. (81) 3-5537-7045
Chef-owner Fumio Kondo has refined his art for five decades. It shows in the light, lacy jacket that the impeccable vegetables and seafood wear at his two-star Michelin tempura temple in Ginza. To achieve such airiness, he uses a super-thin batter, frying asparagus, lotus root and floral Japanese eggplant, and serving them to you one at a time. Dip them in tentsuyu sauce (a mix of rice wine, soy sauce and the seaweed broth called dashi) with grated daikon, and revel in their tender-crisp texture and the way a scalding oil bath accentuates their flavors. Kondo’s seafood tempura is gutsier: A shrimp head comes with legs and roe attached, sweet-sour and crunchy. Best of all is à la carte uni wrapped in shiso leaf. The cool, creamy urchin contrasts its hot, crunchy crust, its brine offset by the minty herb. You’ll want to eat half a dozen. But save room for kakiage, a silky nest of tempura batter, here including luscious scallops and baby shrimp. And order the sweet potato before the meal, as you would a soufflé. Baked beforehand, it comes out of the oil puddinglike and steaming hot. Reservations required. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Sakaguchi Building, Ninth Floor, 5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel. (81) 3-5568-0923
During Tokyo’s most unusual omakase, you eat nothing. Instead, you drink. At a hideaway in tony Azabu-Juban, a natural mizunara oak bar seats eight patrons who book exactly one month ahead. The reservations system bespeaks the eponymous bartender’s exactitude. Yamamoto creates drinks according to the season, time of day, weather. Even the humidity level, he says, affects the volume of liquid and its sweetness. He presses bright Japanese citrus with a glass muddler set over a strainer to capture the pith’s intensity, blending the juice with strawberry eau de vie for a refreshing elixir. He employs the same technique on rich, slow-growing tomatoes from Shizuoka. Including fizzy Japanese pétillant naturel and native honey, the tomato cocktail has an exuberant aroma and lip-smacking acidity. Fuji apple, fresh wasabi and America’s historic Templeton rye; kabocha squash, salt, milk, Armagnac and a matcha tea float — the drinks sound strange, but their components blend beautifully for an inspired, harmonious happy hour. Reservations required. Closed Sunday and Monday.
Anniversary Building, 1-6-4 Azabu-Juban, Minato-ku. Tel. (81) 3-6434-0652