This year saw record-breaking numbers of tourists descend on Tokyo, and a handful more Michelin stars to further the capital’s lead over every other city in the world. Feeling vicariously fatigued from all this attention, for the most part I tried my best to avoid both the throngs of tourists and Michelin-grade ostentation this year, though both proved impossible to elude completely. For that reason, my most memorable meals in 2017 were a combination of old favorites and unexpected discoveries. – Davey Young
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve spent an entire evening unwinding at a corner table in Ushitora. I usually arrive for a sensibly timed dinner and designs on the rest of the evening, but invariably end up closing the place down and rushing to catch my last train home. It’s my bar for all seasons, the place I go to celebrate with friends, as well as the place I go when I need to put a rough week behind me. Ushitora is my Cheers, and even though it takes 40 minutes on two trains to get there, I make the trek whenever I can. Ushitora brews their own beer with an emphasis on American IPAs, but their 22 taps and three hand pumps rep a commendable set of other breweries both foreign and domestic. In addition, they dish out what is arguably the best Japanese pub fare in the city, from dried daikon to beer curry.
Han no Daidokoro Dogenzaka
Okay, so the tourist hordes might already be on to this place, as a quick Google search yields a stream of reviews in English and other languages. Still, I found this yakiniku (grilled beef) place quite by accident when showing my dad around town on his first visit to Tokyo a few years ago. This year, however, Han no Daidokoro moved into decidedly swankier digs one building over from the old one at the foot of Dogenzaka in Shibuya, and the upgrade in décor better matches the caliber of the food. Han no Daidokoro serves up a variety of high quality wagyu, but they specialize in Yamagata beef, a variety I fell in love with when I first visited the prefecture for which it is named. Yamagata beef must come from the Kuroge Washu (Japanese Black) breed of cattle raised within Yamagata prefecture, and the particular blend of lean and fat meat perfectly suits my palate. There are few dinners I remember as fondly as those sitting around a hot tabletop grill and enjoying a coursed menu of choice wagyu with friends at Han no Daidokoro.
There’s a tonkatsu (breaded and fried pork cutlet) place in my home neighborhood of Takadanobaba that is so well-known across the city – in part due to its Michelin Bib Gourmand designation, which recognize “exceptionally good food at moderate prices” – that even on the foulest of days a line forms halfway down the block an hour before they’re open. It’s a tasty place, sure, but by my estimation not tasty enough to warrant an hour’s wait. Imagine my relief, then, when an even better tonkatsu restaurant opened steps from my front door back in January. Hinata serves up high-quality Kanpo pork from Miyagi prefecture. To get the Kanpo label, the pigs must follow a strict diet of 14 Chinese herbs before meeting their inevitable fate. In additional to the traditional tonkatsu sauce and mustard, Hinata serves its cutlets with olive oil and assorted high-grade salt, including truffle salt, a Peruvian sea salt and exceptional Amami sea salt from Kōchi prefecture. While initially mystified by this unusual presentation, it only took one bite to make me a full convert to Hinata’s forward thinking. I was only slightly surprised, therefore, when it was announced in November that Hinata had earned its own Bib Gourmand status only ten months after opening its doors.
Though it’s been open since 2014, it wasn’t until this year that I stepped into this Neapolitan-style pizza place around the corner from where I work in Ikebukuro. Since then, it has shot up into regular rotation as one of my favorite lunch spots. I’d even go so far as to say that Borsa makes the best Neapolitan pizza I’ve ever had, full stop. Borsa imports water, salt, flower and yeast from Italy, and makes every pie fresh to order in their dependable brick oven. In keeping with tradition, simplicity and dedication are the name of the game here. There are only four pizzas on the menu at Borsa: a Margherita, a Marinara, a Salsiccia and a daily special. Unless I’m tempted by the daily special (a recent winner was the ham and cauliflower), I always opt for the Marinara. The pizza is perfectly cooked and impeccably spiced every time, so chewy and flavorful I’m often tempted to take one for the road.
Since 2017 has been the Year of the Rooster in Asia I’ve decided to look back at some of my favorite chicken dishes over the past 12 months. – Fran Kuzui
Clearly the standout fowl favorite was at Shirosaka, one of Tokyo’s best-kept secrets. Reservations are not easy to come by, but well worth the wait for a reasonably priced world-class meal. Ii-san, the owner/chef, has an interesting pedigree: He began studying in Nobu Matsuhisa’s Tokyo kitchen, moved on to Tetsuya Wakuda’s celebrated Sydney restaurant, took a two-year job as the chef for the Japanese Ambassador to the United Nations in New York and then came to Tokyo to open his own Japanese restaurant. He is responsible for designing every corner of the intimate 15-seat space. For dinner, Shirosaka serves an omakase course of seasonal foods slowly coaxed to maximum perfection over mellowed charcoal in the Japanese tradition. On our last visit I chose chicken over the offered Kobe beef and received what could actually be considered the “Kobe beef” of chicken, a jidori, or natural chicken from Kyoto. The birds are raised organically and fed a vegetarian diet of mainly apples, tomatoes and clover. The meat is a deep red and the chicken we had actually comes from a red-feathered bird. At Shirosaka the chicken was slowly grilled over natural charcoal, served sliced and perched on sautéed pea leaf shoots, topped with shaved black truffles and crisp ginkgo nuts.
Home-Cooked Kuri Gohan
Every fall our friends begin calling to find out when my husband will make his famous kuri gohan, or rice with chestnuts. This iconic Japanese dish is rarely served in Japanese restaurants in the West, which is a shame. Perhaps it’s because chestnuts are not always readily available; in Japan, however, they can be purchased year-round in vacuum-packed pouches. But the best time to eat them in Japan is in fall, when there is an abundance of fresh chestnuts in every supermarket. Each year a purveyor of local vegetables in Mashiko, a region north of Tokyo known for its pottery, supplies us with freshly peeled nuggets ready to cook. The Kuzui recipe calls for rice cooked in chicken broth, studded with halved chestnuts, pieces of chicken and shredded agedofu (fried tofu). The fragrance is addictive and we make a large pot and feast on it for days. It’s a great dish to try at home if there are chestnuts available – there are many recipes in English available online. A bowl of miso soup makes the perfect accompaniment.
My favorite chicken news of the year is that Afuri, the popular Japanese ramen spot, has added the opportunity to swap out the usual slice of succulent pork for tender fat-free chicken, cooked sous vide. I don’t think a week has gone by that I haven’t slipped in to my neighborhood Afuri for a steaming bowl of yuzu-infused ramen with gluten-free konyaku (yam) noodles and lots of roughage, topped with a perfect boiled egg and several slices of chicken. It’s certainly the healthiest lunch around and will stay on my radar for the next year.
Fried Chicken on Christmas Eve
And where will I eat what will probably be my last chicken meal of the year? Simple. I’ll join the multitude of people in Japan who have chicken on Christmas Eve. For years I wondered why it seemed that every single restaurant in Tokyo felt the need to serve a special chicken dish on December 24 and supermarkets had carousels filled with cooked chicken legs to take home for the family. There are many theories out there, ranging from ninja-inspired fantasies to some that employ head-scratching logic. After doing some research I discovered the very simple truth. Years ago, Kentucky Fried Chicken decided to start a marketing campaign in Japan aimed at convincing people to have KFC on Christmas Eve. It was so successful that people began to believe it was traditional to have chicken on that date. So with not much ado, I’ll probably head to the source and join the Colonel to enjoy a bucket of KFC on the night of December 24.