A Cook’s Tour of the Tokyo Food Scene


It’s a Monday afternoon in the Tsujkiji branch of the Tokyo Sushi Academy and we’re about to be put to the test. Or I am anyway. Most of the other students enrolled in the Japanese Culinary Intensive course are professionals. They are local or from abroad, just brushing up on skills or adding to their repertoire. My bench mate works charter yachts out of Australia. Our sensei, the chef Hiro Tsumoto, noticed a tattoo on his forearm with Japanese characters and called out: “Hey, that’s my aunt’s name!”

I’m among the civilians whom the academy also welcomes into the course. I’m here for the challenge, certainly. But in this moment, I’m feeling distinctly in over my head.

Mr. Hiro, who is also one of the academy’s founders, has been walking us through the basics of kaiseki, a word used for both the traditional multicourse Japanese meal as well as the skills and techniques required to make it. This involves talking about a bewildering range of things, including knife cuts for notching the top of a shiitake mushroom, how to knot a sprig of the herb mitsuba for garnish, as well as the precise temperature to best extract flavor for dashi broth made from kombu seaweed and katsuobushi, or dried bonito fish shavings. On the topic of kaiseki Mr. Hiro grows briefly philosophical, noting that it’s a lifetime practice and thus approaching the ineffable.

“Like the kappa. What actually is the kappa?” he says, by way of a winking explanation. “OK, let’s cook!”

I’ll only learn later that the kappa is a mythic reptilian creature fond of cucumbers and sumo. At the moment, I have to dive into the fray of all these pros grabbing pots and grills and assembling ingredients for the fish stew we’re preparing.

My first order has arrived at the imaginary pass: an individual kaiseki serving of clear fish soup, osumashi, for one. My heart is racing. My hands are trembling. This has to be the most pressure I’ve ever experienced on what is supposed to be a holiday. But I am loving it.

There are more obvious ways to explore Tokyo’s food scene. Following the Michelin stars makes a certain amount of sense given that the Michelin Guide lists 198 restaurants with 261 total stars this year, more than any other city on earth. But you could also arrive here without any food plan at all.

Tokyo may seem initially chaotic to visitors, but discovery and luck are key parts of the city’s charms. If you find yourself trying to find a peaceful corner — as you likely will on occasion — you might come across a jewel. For instance, wandering away from the crowds at Tsukiji Outer Market, you might stumble down some worn linoleum stairs off Namiyoke-dori and find yourself in the Tohto Grill. It’s a diner. No Michelin star at the moment or likely. But there are truck drivers eating plates of fried horse mackerel and stewed beef tendon here. There’s a jukebox and a cigarette machine and the tuna sashimi breakfast set with pickled cabbage and whitebait is unpretentiously perfect.

Cooking school, I’ve found, adds a layer to one’s explorations. And you don’t need a week at the Tokyo Sushi Academy either. I’ve done a three-hour soba intensive with Tokyo Cook and a one-hour fruit-cutting lesson at the Takano Fruit Parlor.

At the most obvious, things you have taken for granted will inspire new respect. Or at least, if you are me, you’ll rethink your longstanding indifference to tempura. It’s just too hard to make to be indifferent about. Before cooking school, I’d never thought about the perfect temperature gap between the battered item and the oil in which it’s cooked, for example, which is 295 degrees.

Neither had I considered that if you were skilled enough, you could cook tempura largely by ear. At Tempura Kondo, where the two Michelin stars induce a reverential silence among diners (good for listening), you can watch this all play out like a floor show for insiders. Tempura masters are busier than sushi chefs, Mr. Hiro said, and they never talk to the customers. Why? Well, because they’re standing over the oil with their ear cocked to hear the “pulse” of sound, which surges and recedes as the bubbles grow smaller and the dish nears completion.

And that was only the beginning of the drama. Without sweating a couple of hours over my prep at the academy, would I have noticed the knife cuts that fanned out my miniature eggplant, or how the paper was folded kimono-style on my plate, or that the daikon ginger garnish was scooped into a bowl to look like a bozu temple master’s bald head?

You’ll find this same technical fixation behind most Japanese culinary preparations. You might hear the word datsusara when you talk to food people here. I heard it first from the ramen expert Brian MacDuckston, with whom I ate at Yakitori Yamamoto near Mitaka Station. The word datsusara captures the idea of escaping the rat race and is associated with chefs who come from the corporate world and turn their fastidious devotions to food instead. But it speaks to a detail-oriented drive for food perfection more generally.

Yakitori restaurants are mesmerizing places to observe the phenomenon. The chef is often right in front of you, leaned in over the clay box grill filled with binchotan charcoal, minutely inspecting the skewers, pinching them to test doneness, dunking them in tare sauce at precisely the 80 percent mark. After trying your hand at this, you’ll know also that when the grill guy throws one of those skewers away, it was because the prep guy didn’t balance it correctly to prevent it from rolling in place.

“That’s why you’re on skewer prep for three years before touching the grill,” Mr. Hiro said.

At Yakitori Yoneda, just south of Nishi-Ogikubo Station, I found myself noticing how the tsukune, or chicken meatballs, arrives perfectly charred, a tiny bit sweet, with a perfect spring to the bite from that potato starch added to the mixture the night before grilling. I tuck in under the red awning away from the rain with a skewer of medium-cooked chicken livers, another of crispy chicken skin. The tsukune here is plump, the size of a small zucchini. And when it arrives with its diced onion and jammy soft fried egg, I enjoy it even more for recognizing the perfect execution. It’s still one of the best plates I’ve had in Tokyo over many visits.

Yoneda also illustrates another point: You don’t have to spend a ton of dough to have these “best bite” moments. Good, inexpensive yakitori in Tokyo is going to run you around 400 yen, or about $2.65, for a couple of skewers. I think cooking classes actually lower the price of pleasure by allowing you to see how great the technique can be in many everyday Tokyo restaurants.

The Michelin-starred Kondo restaurant has brilliant tempura, no question. But so, too, does Ginza Hageten, just down the road and at a fraction of the price. Here, the lunch crowds stream through, jazz burbles in the background, and your vegetable tempura, rice and bowl of noodles all comes together.

I had the same experience exploring tonkatsu, that ubiquitous panko-fried pork loin that often comes alongside a pile of shaved cabbage. It’s ethereally good at Butagumi, where, amid woody elegance, you can choose from dozens of pork varieties and where nobody in the dining room is allowed to wear perfume. But it’s also pretty great at Danki Tonkatsu, around the corner from the Demboin shrine in Asakusa. When I ate there with Yukari Sakamoto, the author of the guide “Food Sake Tokyo,” we sat shoulder to shoulder with whoever else just happened to be hungry and walking by.

In the Tokyo Cook kitchen at Sougo in Roppongi, I spent an afternoon learning soba with the chef Shinichi Yoshida, a natty gent who wears a shirt and tie under his apron. Mr. Yoshida walked me through the history of buckwheat in Japan. He explained dashi down to the glutamine content of various kinds of kombu seaweed, a key ingredient. He shaved off katsuobushi for the dashi from his own block of bonito, dry-aged five years, the cut surface darkly translucent like a black gemstone. We made the noodles by hand, rolling out the tricky, low-gluten dough with a long dowel, then cutting it into 1/16th inch ribbons with an enormous menkiri knife, the handle wrapped in shark skin.

I only ate a couple of bowls of noodles in Tokyo that came close to the brilliant dish that Mr. Yoshida showed me that day, with its perfectly balanced dipping sauce of five parts dashi to one part kaeshi, a slow simmered marriage of soy, sugar and dark mirin. The first of these was at Teuchi Soba Fujiya in Shinjuku, recommended by Mr. Hiro from the Tokyo Sushi Academy, where a lineup of people form 30 minutes before they open and your meal comes with a tiny jug of the soba cooking liquid to drink after your meal to help digestion.

I found the second perfect bowl at a chain called Tokyo Abura Soba with 60 Japanese locations, where you order from a vending machine and get your bowl of noodles with chashu pork in about three minutes. Abura soba isn’t really soba at all. It’s a broth-less bowl of ramen noodles napped in a sauce made with soy, bouillon powder, sugar, vinegar and white miso or Chinese doubanjiang. It’s stupidly delicious. It’s also addictive. But I wouldn’t have known what string of rules had to be broken en route to this slurpable bowl of heaven if Mr. Yoshida hadn’t shown me the fastidious perfection of “proper” soba in the first place.

My osumashi clear fish soup doesn’t turn out badly in the end. My salmon slices are a bit uneven. And my mitsuba garnish is tied into a granny instead of a reef knot. Still, after the adrenaline rush and the frantic placing of each ingredient in exactly the right spot in the bowl, I get the dish up front on time.

Mr. Hiro nods, amused at my efforts. And back at my bench I catch a glance from my yacht cook colleague who gives me a nod of restrained approval. “You’re fast,” he allows.

Then I head off to Nakajima for kaiseki to see how the real pros do it. Eleven brilliant dishes. Or maybe 12. I lost count. I linger over one dish longer than the others, the dashi so clear in the black lacquered wooden owan bowl that I almost can’t see it. But I can smell the kombu, the katsuobushi. I can see the fish and the vegetables all perfectly placed. And when I take a bite of the delicate fish and a sip of that smoky broth, I have a sliver of a glimpse of the years that it must have taken to get that good at something at once so simple and so difficult.

The soup is beyond delicious. I drain the bowl.

At Tohto Grill, simple meals cost from 950 to 1,500 yen, or about $6.50 to $10.

Lunch at Tempura Kondo runs from 8,800 to 12,100 yen. Dinner ranges from 14,300 to 23,100 yen.

At Yakitori Yamamoto, plates are from 210 to 980 yen. At Yakitori Yoneda, they range from 185 to 320 yen.

At Butagumi, pork loin and filet cutlet meals cost from 2,000 to 4,200 yen.

At Danki Tonkotsu, a meal runs around 2,100 yen.

Lunch at Teuchi Soba Fujiya ranges from 1,200 to 2,000 yen.

Noodle bowls start at 880 yen at Tokyo Abura Soba.