A meal prepared by Shinichi Akatsuka is a rare treat. The bespectacled, softly spoken chef is one of the city’s finest practitioners of kaiseki – Japanese haute cuisine with a focus on artful, seasonal, ceremonial and perfectly balanced food. His tranquil Gaienmae restaurant, which opened 12 years ago and now boasts two Michelin stars, offers the ideal setting for such beautiful fare – there are four elegant private rooms as well as counter seating facing a quiet garden.
Chef Akatsuka is considered something of a genius when it comes to harmoniously combining seasonal ingredients from around Japan, with an emphasis on fresh fish and other seafood. He’s also a magician with ingredients such as bonito flakes and matsutake mushrooms. Such craftsmanship, unsurprisingly, comes at a price (omakase deals start from ¥16,000 at dinner, drinks not included). It’s worth every yen, of course, because this is among the most exquisite of kaiseki experiences in Tokyo.
At 33, Daiki Ishida owns and operates Shinpaku as a one-man show, but he’s passionate about the team of fishermen, processors and others running in the 'relay' that ultimately results in him handing a dish to a customer. Every dish is accompanied by an explanation of the process behind it, with Ishida often passing around a tablet holding videos of his suppliers preparing the fish.
Dinners are limited to eight lucky patrons, can last four to seven hours, and are completely in Japanese. However, you’ll have plenty of time to study since reservations usually need to be made seven months in advance.
Shinpaku’s dinners typically consist of ten types of sushi and 20 small dishes ranging from classic nigiri to creations as bold as Ishida’s mission. Ever heard of grapefruit served over Nagasaki oyster? This dish includes housemade ponzu sauce and olive oil, all topped with a sugarcoated rose petal.
From the outside, Asano looks like any old house – but what happens behind the heavy door is something out of the ordinary. Serving up homely Kyoto-style obanzai and oden, chef Asano prepares eight to ten varieties for you to choose from, including tamagoyaki omelette and vegetables boiled in a flavourful broth. Unlike the usual Tokyo-style fare with its brown katsuobushi-based soup, Asano's oden swims in a clear, sardine- and chicken-based broth. One dish not to be missed is rice with dried young sardines and sansho pepper, served with a starchy egg soup. It's simple, healthy and delicious.
If you're ready to try the refined side of grilled chicken skewers, then enter Yakitori Imai just off Gaien Nishi-dori north of Aoyama. Owner and grill master Takashi Imai opened his stylish thirty-seat, counter-style joint in November 2016 and has been reinventing skewered chicken through his considered approach ever since.
Imai's philosophy is reflected in the dinner menu: it starts with a delicate chicken liver pate served on a crusty baguette before moving on to a leafy seasonal salad, the chef’s selection of six skewers and then grilled vegetables of the day. Each yakitori skewer is personally seasoned by the chef to match your mood, what you're drinking, and even the weather. Now that’s what we call the perfect pairing.
You can opt for craft beer to wash down your chicken morsels, but a more interesting approach is going with the small but well-curated selection of natural wine by the bottle or glass.
A few factors separate Florilège from the competition. There’s the dramatic setting: the counters and walls are the colours of ash and charcoal, the carpets lava red, and the plants in the open kitchen seem startlingly green. Kawate and his fleet-footed colleagues work quietly under spotlights; it’s thrilling to observe them up close.
While Florilège is often described as ‘French-Japanese fusion’, Kawate says he doesn’t separate the two cuisines in his mind. He’s worked in both countries and wants to develop his own style without worrying too much about labels. His menu, which changes every two months, features dishes which echo the décor with radiantly bright ingredients contrasted against earthy crockery: a beef consommé with aged meat and smoked potato is a highlight, while we also love the sardines served with noodles and sundried tomatoes.
Having brought a puff pastry-powered bromance to its logical conclusion, chef Taichi Hara and pâtissier Yuichi Goto teamed up to open Path and the duo’s bistro-café has already become a sensation in Shibuya’s Tomigaya. The perfect hangout before or after a day out in Yoyogi Park, Path serves breakfast and brunch – including their famous, super-fluffy dutch pancake (a culinary term rather than an actual Dutch pancake) – from 8am to 2pm. Get there early to secure a seat and wait around 30 minutes for this oven-baked delicacy, topped with uncured ham, burrata and copious amounts of maple syrup. And we do mean early: its popularity means that there may be a small queue before the 8am opening. At night, you get to pick from natural wines, Kyoto-made craft beer and rare liqueurs to complement the beautifully plated Italian cuisine, all in a delightfully laidback atmosphere.
Yusuke Nakada sure loves mushrooms. They inspired the name of the chef’s Yoyogi-Hachiman restaurant, and appear in most of the dishes. Nakada used to work in a rural French restaurant famed for its creative use of fungi and the experience clearly left its mark – this is brilliantly inventive cooking which showcases the incredible versatility of several domestic and imported mushroom varieties.
Don’t miss his inspired pairing of mushroom tea and an intensely opulent foie gras macaroon, or his signature smoked salmon, exquisitely combined with boiled aubergine and roquefort sauce. There’s no menu, but there’s no need to worry. Chef Nakada sees himself as a culinary consultant, chatting to customers about their eating habits, dietary restrictions and their mood, and creating tailor-made meals just for them.
Falò is a smart, hip space with an izakaya-like vibe, and the Italian cooking is unique and often brilliant. Under an uneven chipboard ceiling, Kashimura and his team prepare meat and pasta dishes in full view of the counter-seated customers – and to a rousing ’80s rock soundtrack.
The restaurant is Kashimura’s attempt to create a casual Italian dining experience aimed at Japanese guests. He’s hitting this target with ease, aided by excellent pasta dishes (don’t miss the al dente spaghetti with beef and pork sauce) and his knack for beautiful presentation – the grilled cutlassfish is particularly striking, served wrapped round a bamboo tube. Best of all, though, are the baby back ribs. The charcoal-grilled cut of Shiba pork is rich, deftly seasoned and with just the right amount of fat for optimum texture and flavour.
Pretty much everything on the menu is worth sampling at this four-decade-old Shibuya seafood restaurant, but the buri-daikon – yellowtail and daikon stewed in soy sauce – is an undisputed classic. Housed in a basement right across the street from Shibuya Station, Sangyodo is a convenient dining option, though be warned that it's a popular one too.
Shibuya's best vegetarian restaurant is also one of the trickiest to find, tucked away on an obscure back street five minutes' walk south of the station. Nagi Shokudo is busiest at lunch, when diners pay ¥1,000 for a generous set including rice, miso, a drink and three dishes from the deli counter (all of which are actually vegan, though they don't make a big deal about it).
At dinner, you can order à la carte (including a ¥1,000 deli 'n' beer deal) or get the evening's plate combo, which could be Thai, Indian or Japanese-style. A library of Japanese and English-language zines and consistently interesting soundtrack add to the charm. Just one caveat: if they run out of food, they close early.
There are only three items on Henry’s Burger’s menu: hamburger (¥650), double hamburger (¥900) and fries (¥250). This is a good thing. Henry’s Burger, named after the owner, benefits from a less-is-more approach to 'burgerology'. With the gimmicks out the way, the focus is on the natural flavour of the wagyu, which is pounded on the grill (using a technique similar to that perfected by US chain Smashburger) before being topped with sliced cheddar that melts into the patty seconds after hitting the grill.
There’s a slice of tomato, a leaf of lettuce, a slather of thousand island dressing, and a custom-made bun that holds the contents in place without overshadowing the beef, the star of the show. Henry’s handheld feasts are designed to be eaten on the go, and accordingly there are only four seats. It’s a popular joint so if you do plan to eat in, be prepared to queue.
For most gyoza fans, the dumplings are meant to be washed down with beer – but the good folks at this hip Aoyama joint are going against the grain, and pairing theirs with wine. Both their meat and vegetable gyoza are made without any garlic, which apparently makes them supremely vino-friendly. Excellent homemade sauces with flavours such as Provence herb and white miso add to the French fusion feel, while dishes such as ‘onion gratin gyoza’ further blur the culinary borders. In addition to the myriad variety of bottles on offer, you can also grab a good selection by the glass – there are always two options available for red, white or sparkling.
Hidden away in a quiet back alley just steps from the hustle and bustle of Harajuku lies Kiki, the domain of haute cuisine wizard Yuki Noda. Noda had worked at venerable Paris establishment Taillevent before returning to Japan to take up the sous chef position under Christophe Paucod at Kagurazaka’s Lugdunum Bouchon Lyonnais. He went independent in 2011, leaving behind the hallowed halls of Michelin-starred restaurants in favour of a more casual setting in the form of Kiki.
Hoping to attract a young clientele with reasonably priced four-course lunch and five-course dinner, he is particularly fond of seasonal fruit and berries. His salade lyonnaise combines Indian mustard, arugula and beets with strawberries and raspberries, bacon and chickpeas. Relying exclusively on Japanese ingredients, he believes that French cuisine on these shores should aim to reveal the ‘non-Japanese side’ of domestic produce.
How to eat better in Tokyo
Michelin-starred restaurants aren’t all expensive. Here’s where and how you can enjoy a top-rated meal for about ¥1,000 – or less
These restaurants serve some of the best deep-fried pork cutlets in Tokyo
Tokyo is now one of the world’s great coffee cities, with more specialist shops than most people can hope to visit in a lifetime