Author: PAT NOURSE
Photography: TOM BONAVENTURE
"Tokyo is my favourite food city," says Tetsuya Wakuda. "Japan is excellent for food generally speaking, and Kyoto too, of course, but in Tokyo you can get the best of everything. You don't have to just eat Japanese here - we have great French food, great Italian. Being Australian, you might like Japanese food, but you don't want it every day, and in Japan we have a taste for foreign flavours as well." Tokyo, Wakuda argues, has the edge even over Paris, in that you can have top-flight meals from a range of different cultures. It's a big call, but Wakuda's picks of the city's best add tremendous weight to his argument.
Wakuda, the top-rated Japanese chef in the World's 50 Best Restaurants list and unquestionably one of Australia's great cooking talents, is from Hamamatsu, a city between Tokyo and Osaka known for its textile industry and the quality of its eels. Though he grew up in Japan, he was there only infrequently after he moved to Sydney in 1982, and it was only in the late '90s, after his restaurant, Tetsuya's, had found its place among Australia's best, that he began to spend much time in the country of his birth. In recent years, however, he has re-established the connection with his homeland, especially the capital, and is now so regular and avid a visitor to Tokyo that even his Japanese friends go to him for the inside word on the city's latest and greatest dining and drinking. And as far as Wakuda is concerned, ground-zero for the best Tokyo (and ergo the world) has to offer is Ginza, the central Tokyo district that's synonymous in Japan with luxury and refinement.
"For me, Tokyo is Ginza," he says. "I love Ginza. Everything is here. We have the Fifth Avenue of Japan here, but you walk a few minutes and then it has a completely different feeling, like you're downtown, and it's these contrasts that I like. Some visits, I don't leave Ginza at all - it can satisfy me." For Japanese people, Wakuda says, Ginza is a touchstone, a place where the nation's cultural and economic power has the most lustre. "People here care." Residents, shopkeepers and restaurateurs alike look after the area, he says, because simply being in Ginza confers something special on them, like an assurance of excellence. "If you're not working at the best level in Ginza, you disappear very quick," he says, "whether it's fashion and restaurants or even the little okonomiyaki place around the corner from the hotel."
And that's one of the things Wakuda wants you to grasp, one food-lover to another: you don't have to stick to three-stars to eat well in Tokyo. "People think Japan is expensive, but it doesn't have to be, and even at the top end, the value for money is excellent." In sharing his favourite places with us here, he has chosen to narrow the field by picking great eateries in a range of different fields. In Japan, many restaurants focus on a single style of dining; an eatery might do nothing but tempura, for instance, or a specific style of charcoal-grilling, and as far as Wakuda is concerned, this degree of specialisation is one of the great drawcards of Tokyo for the gourmet traveller. "And you know that if you're eating at a good yakitori restaurant in Ginza, there's a good chance it'll be one of the best yakitori places anywhere," he says.
"Tokyo is a very special place. And if you like to eat, I don't think there's anywhere better."
Sushiko Honten, Ginza
This century-old 11-seater is a fixture in any discussion of the world's best sushi for good reason. Whether it's sashimi of rare finesse or nigiri of unusual delicacy, the consistently peerless produce and assured, artful technique make a meal here completely absorbing. As you pick up the kama-toro nigiri - a slice of fat-rich tuna belly cut from just below the head, wrapped around a finger of rice - laid before you, chef Mamoru Sugiyama encourages you to chew it twice as much as you think you should. It becomes a slow explosion on the palate, a flood of flavour. You can discern every grain of rice in your mouth, cohesive yet discrete. Then it's kohada, a herring, marinated briefly in vinegar. Or tuna brisket, the sinew grilled tender and laid over rice from Kanazawa - the hits keep coming and it becomes entirely clear that this is sushi in a class of its own. 6-3-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 3571 1968
Star Bar, Ginza
The mild-mannered Kishi Hisashi is revered by bartenders worldwide, and yet his domain is a tiny basement bar with a mahoganied look that hovers pleasingly in feel between a bistro and the set from TV's Cheers. "Mr Kishi wanted people to come here because he had the best drinks, not for any other reason," says Wakuda. "The atmosphere is almost like a pub, but because this is Ginza the quality is still on another level." Kishi is one of the acknowledged masters of Japanese fancy ice (ultra-hard, ultra-clear), and seeing him cut cubes from block ice in preparation for service is something else. The language barrier isn't too great a hurdle, as long as you know the names of several classics you like. You can also gesture at the shelves, which groan under the weight of everything from acorn liqueur to a 400-bottle collection of whiskies that extends to that single malt-fancier's holy grail, the 1977 Ardbeg. Should all else fail, the crisp balance of Mr Kishi's Martinis, Highballs, Manhattans and Gimlets is a small wonder in itself. You may have to queue for a seat - and with good reason. 1-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 3535 8005. (See also Kazuo "Master of the Hard-Shake Style" Uyeda's less atmospheric but still impressive Tender Bar, Nohgakudo Bldg, 6-5-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 3571 8343.)
The cutting edge
"Ishikawa is just so refined," says Wakuda. "You can eat so many dishes, but each one comes out perfect; other places, over the course of a meal, something will be too salty or too sour. Not here. Whatever he uses, he nails it." One of Tokyo's first non-sushi Japanese restaurants to score three Michelin stars, Ishikawa consists of a handful of small, minimally decorated rooms in which chef Ishikawa Hideki presents contemporary kaiseki-style dishes of subtle brilliance in the vein of yuzu-scented shiitake broth studded with torn scallops, shreds of fried beancurd or the extraordinary cod milt, oyster and spinach with melted beancurd-skin sauce. His cream cheese soup with persimmon and jellies of rum and brown sugar is the Japanese dessert raised to new art. A healthy selection of both white and red Burgundy doesn't hurt, either. Book way, way in advance, and do whatever you have to to secure that table - this guy is some kind of genius. Takamura Bldg, 5-37 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, +81 3 5225 0173
Tempura Ten-Asa, Ginza
Ten seats arranged at a bar around one chef working a wide, shallow pan of hot oil with long wooden-handled steel chopsticks. Batter is whisked to order before pristine ingredients such as prawns, Hokkaido sea urchin roe enfolded in shiso leaves, fanned local haze flatfish, fresh gingko nuts and sea eel are fried to crisp perfection one at a time, the chef lifting each small miracle straight from the oil to the diner's plate. It's little wonder this unassuming kitchen is considered the city's finest exponent of this most challenging of Japanese cuisines. It's very difficult to get bookings, says Wakuda, no doubt because the cooking here is so unwavering in its precision. "And the chef knows his ingredients so well - it's always a picture of the season on the plate." Central Bldg, 1-27-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 3564 2833
Look beyond the curious kitsch efflorescences of the interior décor: this restaurant will redefine your understanding of teppan, the art of hotplate cooking. Wakuda says his early visits to Ukai-Tei simply blew him away. "This kind of cooking, this perfection, is hard enough behind the wall of a kitchen, but right in front of you, talking? There's no cheating here, and they get it right every time." Even if you're well past the idea that teppanyaki involves people throwing food at you, Ukai-Tei is something else entirely. "I like the style of cooking, the interaction with the chefs," says Wakuda. "And the variety of ingredients and techniques - I don't think you'll have seen anything in the world like this." Whether the dexterous chefs before you are roasting abalone in the shell under a blanket of salt and seaweed and dressing it with a textbook sauce Périgord or simply dazzling you with the elegant handling of wagyu that is their signature, you'll be transfixed by everything happening on both the grill and the plate. "Like a lot of good Japanese restaurants," Wakuda adds, "it's also somewhere you can eat on your own very comfortably." Jiji-Tsushin Bldg, 5-15-8 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 3544 5252
Know your Japanese grilling: yakitori is grilled chicken, kushiyaki is skewered grilling, yakiniku is grilling meat, and robatayaki refers specifically to a sort of hearthside grilling. In the case of this funky izakaya, robatayaki means low tables clustered with diners enjoying the spectacle of everything from hefty hamaguri clams to shichimi togarashi-peppered fugu fillets sizzling over bincho, Japan's high-quality smokeless oak charcoal. The staff will help as much or as little as you require, and also interject with the occasional soup (a kamonabe of duck and udon noodles, say) or other dish prepared in the kitchen. Whatever its source, the food is of a uniformly lofty standard, yet the vibe is all clinking glasses and merry kanpais. 16-3 Tomizawa-cho, Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku, +81 3 3661 8010
Ukai Chikutei, Hachioji
The Ukai mothership, Chikutei is, as its name suggests, a "bamboo inn", with 30 self-contained pavilions set on some serious acreage. Though it's actually only 40 years old, Chikutei's streams, maples and misty glades make it seem like something straight out of a Hokusai painting. It's an hour's easy drive or train ride from central Tokyo (there are shuttles from Hachioji station to the restaurant), so you can take an 11.30am or noon booking, cruise through six or eight exquisite courses akin to the signature beef grilled over hoba (magnolia leaves) or the sublime salad of persimmon and silken sesame paste studded with slivers of udo (the crisp, faintly sweet Japanese root vegetable), and be back in Shibuya for more shopping by 2.30pm. "It's an hour from Ginza, and the address is Tokyo, but when you get here it's almost as though you're in Kyoto," says Wakuda. "The food is Tokyo quality. It's magical." 3426 Minami-Asakawamachi, Hachioji-shi, +81 4 2661 0739
The wine bar
Les Vinum, Nishi-Azabu
The scrawled signatures of winemakers on the wall dash any hopes that this place is a find of your own, but that slight sadness is quickly washed away in a sea of very fine old Burgundies. "The first thing I ever had here was a '78 DRC," says Wakuda, but he adds that beyond the bargains at the top end of the list, there's still plenty of fun to be had in the shallower end of the pool too. Either way, you've got some pretty outstanding takes on bistro food to even the score. Chopsticks rest next to the wine glasses, and the meunière special on the blackboard is shirako, aka cod milt. The likes of duck confit with lentils and lamb with couscous make up the bulk of the menu, but there's also the odd Japanese comfort dish - curry rice, say. Feathered game hangs on display in the kitchen and the signature dishes are wild game cuts grilled with great care over bincho coals. The breast, leg, heart and liver of wild duck cooked over charcoal is the perfect partner for decades-old first-growth Burgundy, and the grilled foie gras with miso and turnips invites a deep dive into the cellar. 4-5-8 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku, +81 3 5466 8607
Two Rooms, Aoyama
One of the hottest addresses in town for the expat set, Two Rooms offers both polish and value. Australian-born chef Matthew Crabbe is a Tetsuya's alum who made his name in Japan working at the Park Hyatt's New York Grill. The rooms in question comprise a modernised Manhattan-style grill room and a bar with a substantial terrace - a rarity in Tokyo. "I like to think Matthew is essentially doing a fancy version of an Australian barbecue here," says Wakuda. An Aussie barbie, that is, that offers hanger steak from northern Japan and Kagoshima wagyu alongside Rangers Valley tenderloin, not to mention carpaccio of Kumamoto horsemeat. AO Bldg, 3-11-7 Kita-Aoyama, Minato-ku, +81 3 3498 0002
A circle of diners seated at a bar around an open kitchen, a lone chef passing food directly to the plates... are you seeing a pattern here? Tanaka is an oden restaurant, so everything is simmered or poached before your eyes, whether it's potatoes and perfectly soft-boiled peeled hen's eggs, floating islands of tofu, pucks of daikon that you daub with mustard, or cakes of white fish and minced beef tendon. Definitely one for the colder nights. Higashi-ginza Bldg, 3-10-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 3544 6333
"I've eaten here a lot," says Wakuda of the Japanese flagship of the empire of his friend Alain Ducasse. "You've got a French chef working with Japanese ingredients to write a menu that isn't fusion but is creative French." Here, on the 10th floor of the Chanel building in the main artery of Japanese luxury consumerism, chef de cuisine Jérôme Lacressonnière presents the likes of scallops with white truffles, walnut marmalade and beurre noisette, and sea bass cooked in a pastry-sealed pot with fennel and served with bitter orange - a stunning match with Sparks pinot gris from Alsace. "The food is just fantastic," says Wakuda, "and even though it's essentially French, it's still not food you can have in Paris." Chanel Ginza Bldg, 3-5-3 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 5159 5500
Bird Land, Ginza
It's decidedly casual, certainly, but Bird Land is the first restaurant to earn a Michelin star for yakitori - that is, chicken grilled on skewers over bincho. The various parts of the bird form pretty much the entire menu (with eggs, ginkgo nuts, asparagus and the like putting in supporting roles), and it's all the more amazing for that fact. Get here early - there is usually a queue before they open the doors and the kitchen prepares only a set amount of everything before service, so when it's gone, it's gone. Every skewer, whether it's thigh, skin and neck meat, meatballs, breast with wasabi and salt, or leg meat interleaved with green onion, is trimmed to set specifications and weighed on a digital scale to ensure perfectly consistent (read: hugely juicy and flavoursome) results. As strange as the basement location may be, between a subway entrance and a dental surgery, it's worth noting that the three-starred Sukiyabashi Jiro is in the very same corridor. Tsukamoto Sozan Bldg, 4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 5250 1081
"This is a very special restaurant," says Wakuda of the five-year-old sister establishment to the vaunted and venerable Kikunoi in Kyoto. "This restaurant is Kyoto cuisine, and they're so conscious of preserving the Kyoto taste that they bring everything in - even the water for their stocks comes from their well in Kyoto. That's remarkable." The tone here is more of reverence than revelry, and there's a certain formality to the bamboo-shaded setting, but whether it's crab - its legs charcoal-grilled and served with lime, its meat accompanied by a sauce made of its mustard, and a hot sake broth made in its carapace - or simply a shot of perfectly intense prawn soup, the food will give you plenty to smile about. 6-13-8 Akasaka, Minato-ku, +81 3 3568 6055.
THE FINE PRINT
JAL flies daily to Narita airport from Sydney and Brisbane. Fares from Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne, Adelaide and Canberra to Tokyo and on to Osaka, Nagoya, Sapporo and Fukuoka from $1590 economy, $2060 premium economy, and $5190 business.
Hotel Seiyo Ginza, Wakuda's home away from home, is one of Tokyo's best-regarded small luxury hotels, and its central Ginza position places it within walking distance of almost every restaurant in this story. Doubles from $680. 1-11-2 Ginza, Chuo-ku, +81 3 3535 1111.
Japan National Tourism Organisation, phone (02) 9279 2177 on Tuesdays and Thursdays, 2pm-5pm only.