Posted by: Kenji Hall on November 19, 2007
Think of it as a wake up call for foodies. The Michelin Guide’s slated release of its new Tokyo guide this week (Nov. 22) marks a watershed for this city. With a few exceptions (notably Nobuyuki Matsuhisa, of Nobu fame), Tokyo’s top chefs have toiled in near obscurity for decades despite serving up some of the planet’s finest morsels. That was a blessing for those in-the-know who chose this city as a regular stop on the eating circuit: It meant that getting a table at even the best restaurants was never a huge ordeal.
Michelin’s 150-restaurant list, released last night, heralds two big changes for Tokyo. It puts the city on the map as a destination for itinerant gourmands. Tokyo’s 191 stars were more than any other city—even Paris, which has 65, and New York, which has 54. Eight eateries received Michelin’s highest three-star rating, and every restaurant that made the list had at least one star, a first. Michelin’s recognition is also likely to bestow on Japan’s elite chefs the same pop-star status that’s made Anthony Bourdain, Wolfgang Puck and Mario Batali household names.
That’s a well-deserved pat on the back for Tokyo’s top kitchens. Michelin’s anonymous eaters know what they’re talking about: They’re considered the authority because they’ve dined at the top restaurants in the world. They draw on a surfeit of experience when making up their minds.
But I’m praying that Michelin Guide readers won’t be blinded by the Michelin stars. The guide’s reviewers chose their favorite 150 from just 1,500 restaurants. That might sound like a lot but it’s less than 1% of the 160,000 eateries in town. The ranking mostly sticks to the fine-dining establishments where you pay top dollar. But Tokyo’s eateries are far too diverse to rely on the judgment of one organization, albeit a highly regarded one. There are plenty of ramen shops and hole-in-the-wall sushi joints that offer as pleasurable an experience, minus the bank-breaking bill. One of my all-time favorite sushi restaurants consists of a counter that fits just 15 stools inside a run-down pre-World War 2 tenement-type building at Tsukiji Fish Market. (Imagine: $35 for the freshest sushi of your life.)
There's also the matter of what you might call taste. Michelin's New York guide doesn't win points with local food critics who think it's biased toward French food. (Michelin might counter that by pointing to the five out of eight restaurants in Tokyo that got three stars.) The same can probably be said for Tokyo, though I'm hardly the person to make such a contention.
The one thing I can say, though, is that it's tough to equate a Michelin one-star restaurant in New York with the equivalent in Tokyo. One example: The Spotted Pig vs. Komuro. The Spotted Pig is hardly in the same league as Komuro, which features the "kaiseki" (Japan's version of haute cuisine) concoctions of chef Mitsuhiro Komuro.
Tokyo is still a pricey plane ticket for most vacationers, and adding a hefty dinner bill will be a disincentive for the average eater. But foodies with an adventurous palate and money to burn won't be disappointed by Tokyo's lively eating scene.