In a few years time, one might look back at the year 2019 and feel a bit sorry for it. That’s not for lack of delicious things to eat: record numbers of restaurants continue to open, although fierce competition means around half shut their doors within two years. But 2019 risks being forever overshadowed by 2020, when Tokyo will host the Olympics and Paralympics for the first time since 1964. It certainly is a preparatory year for the anticipated influx of overseas visitors.
Fortunately, the city was able to lay claim to hosting the Rugby World Cup in 2019 and did very well, both at demonstrating Japan’s omotenashi (hospitality) at its best and in the national team beating Ireland, causing one of the biggest upsets in the tournament’s history. What all this overseas attention means for Tokyo’s dining scene is more multilingual menus, a push towards accessibility and greater dietary choices in a country with notoriously poor understanding of vegetarianism, let alone other requirements.
Shibuya, where we at Culinary Backstreets begin our full-day food tour, has seen its skyline transform over the past few years. Most recently, the 47-storey Shibuya Scramble Square opened its doors, packed with high-end retail, three floors dedicated to casual eateries and takeout options, and a further two floors for sitdown restaurants. The development, with its inclusion of big-name brands, is seen as an attempt to reframe the area as not just a hub of youth culture but also a place that can appeal to people of all ages. However, the young still rule Shibuya, so a stroll in any direction from its famous crossing will spotlight all the latest and sometimes mildly peculiar food trends, from bubble tea, to Instagrammable cheese dishes (think gooey raclette), and even a fusion of both – cheese tea.
Tokyo is a city of contrasts and even as its reorientates and reinvents itself, there is one thing that remains a constant: the innovation, creativity and quality that permeate all levels of food culture, cooking up endless gastronomic adventures to be pursued.
Living up to our name, we at Culinary Backstreets believe some of the best eats are tucked away down side alleys. With that in mind, here are some of my Best Bites of 2019.
Know by Moto
Know by Moto is part of a group of “Moto” sake bars that have opened across Tokyo in the past few years, as the trend towards reinvigorating the sake industry through craft brews and attracting new consumers continues. The Moto group are known for their fantastic selection of sake alongside equally high-quality food. Each has a different menu, atmosphere and style. Know by Moto might be best described as a nighttime sake café. It is tucked in the basement of a building on a main road just five minutes from Shinjuku Station. Down the stairs is a dimly lit room, with dark wooden shelves on one wall holding a range of books and magazines, and a large communal table with a large flame decoration throwing shadows across customers’ faces. And there are all kinds of customers, from couples on dates to casual groups of friends, to even solo women who come to relax with a drink and a light meal after work.
The staff will always advise on sake with a smile, which is served in exquisite flower-patterned glasses. For me, however, some of the accompanying dishes border on the exceptional. On a recent visit, I tucked into plates that included a meltingly tender skirt steak, accented by a garlic sauce, alongside slices of crisp lotus root sandwiched together with mozzarella cheese. The “chef’s whimsy” potato salad changes, unsurprisingly, depending on what the chef feels like. I last sampled an earthy, umami-packed combination of smoked daikon pickles and mackerel. The menu also branches out into dishes and ingredients beyond usual izakaya (Japanese style pub offerings) or even Japanese restaurants more generally, as exemplified by a beautifully balanced chicken and red cabbage salad with balsamic dressing.
Know by Moto has pitched its offering perfectly for the modern city – bringing traditional Japanese cuisine up-to-date in a casual yet stylish setting, underpinned by quality. It has rapidly become one of my go-tos for an informal yet classy dinner when I still want to impress.
The last thing you expect to find at the backdoor of a cake shop is a noodle joint. But Tokyo is a city that occasionally defies expectations, and Ura Sablon is a perfect example – a passion project from Hiroshi Yamazaki. He spent a year training in confectionary in Europe, before returning to Japan to establish a cake store with his wife, which they have run for more than two decades. Yet he could not forget his true love for noodles. At the age of 15, he first sampled a famous tsukemen (dipping noodles) store and this was to become a life-changing taste. Driven by a desire to recreate it, he eventually opened Ura Sablon in 2014.
Here, he serves up just 20 portions of his handmade, springy noodles and thick, homemade broth each day. The interior is little more than a cupboard. Modeled after a Swiss mountain hut, with a large Swiss flag hanging above the counter, the space barely has enough room for four seats. The main menu consists of two options: a replica of the tsukemen that changed his life or Yamazaki’s sweet yet tangy original creation. There is also an unmissable dessert plate that demonstrates his excellent pastry skills. With delicious noodles, stomach-busting portions, a charming story and a quirky setting, Ura Sablon is the kind of place that makes me fall in love with Tokyo all over again.
Tokyo has a lot of eateries but the lack of diversity in its population is reflected in the lack of variety when it comes to the cuisines on offer. Every so often, however, you hear of a culinary offering that sounds literally unbelievable. So I was somewhat incredulous and incredibly curious to learn that a bakery from a small town on the southwest coast of England had opened a branch in a residential suburb of Tokyo. Needless to say, as a Brit who occasionally craves some fodder from home, I set off to pursue the story.
Gary Barnes, the original founder of the Lyme store, is currently overseeing the kitchen in the Tokyo branch until he can train up a new head baker. There were some challenges in setting up shop, especially as Japan doesn’t have the right kind of flour to produce the flaky pastry needed for a good pie. It took a great deal of experimentation to adjust the recipes, but Gary’s hard work has paid off. There are steak pies with rich gravy and perfect, flaky pastry that take me back to my childhood in the south of England, sitting on a pier, picnicking on freshly baked treats and tossing crumbs into the air for seagulls to catch. The cakes are also homono (the real thing), with a salted caramel millionaire shortbread that will take you deep down into buttery, sugary and chocolatey levels of pure decadence.
Rojiura Curry Samurai
As we approach the end of the year, I always have a nostalgic longing for quintessential winter things, such as lunches of hot soup, warming my chilled fingertips on the bowl as I nestle into an armchair by a hearth, book and blanket on lap. This kind of coziness is not commonplace across Japan, and I realized that I had never used the word “cozy” with regard to any of my experiences here. Then, I happened across Rojiura Samurai Curry in Shimokitazawa and while there aren’t rustic fireplaces, its simple interior exudes warmth and encapsulates that “at home” feeling. Even better, the atmosphere is backed up by dishes that are as comforting and nutritious as home cooking.
Rojiura Samurai Curry serves up “soup curry,” a Japanese unique creation that lies somewhere between a soup and a curry. A tragically underappreciated dish, it originated from Sapporo, the largest city on the northern island of Hokkaido, which endures long snowy winters. The classic version features chicken with vegetables in a kind of thick, spicy soup, with a customizable spice level, accompanied by rice on the side, which you can eat separately or add at your own pace. Rojiura Curry Samurai has several branches across Japan but prioritizes ingredients from its birthplace: It directly contracts with farmers across Hokkaido to acquire its vegetables and rice. The star dish is a bowl with 20 vegetables arranged in an eye-catching display. Each is cooked to perfection, bringing out the individual flavor of each ingredient. Also worth trying is the Samurai Special, which includes a cushiony soft cube of pork belly and minced pork, and comes with a side of crisp fried chicken and garlic, crispy broccoli that takes this humble green vegetable to new moreish heights.
Consistently ranked as one of the top dessert restaurants in Tokyo, Atelier Kohta does not accept reservations and regularly has a queue snaking from its door down a side street in Kagurazaka. The area is famed for French cuisine and that is exactly what Atelier Kohta’s owner Kohta Yoshioka offers up in sweet form. At the tender age of 22, Yoshioka represented Japan in the International Junior Confectionery Competition. Later, he became Deputy Confectionery Manager of the Conrad Tokyo’s Gordon Ramsay restaurant and not long after was selected as a sous chef of the Gordon Ramsay Group’s (now closed) La Noisette restaurant in London. It was 2012 when he finally established his own venture, Atelier Kohta.
The front of the narrow restaurant offers biscuits and fresh cakes for takeout, and the back is a stylish white nine-seat counter. Behind this, Yoshioka and his team produce creative desserts with theatrical flourish. I ordered a pistachio and flambéed apricot parfait topped with caramelized straws spun from a hot saucepan right in front of me. It is rare for both visuals and flavors to be near their zenith, but this accomplishment is executed with aplomb. My parfait looked like it could rival the most extravagant of fascinators worn to the races, and my first mouthful was a near-religious experience with pistachio and apricot combining to produce a complex, tangy-yet-sweet, richly flavored yet light dessert. Another favorite is the Mont Blanc made with cassis liqueur, and there are two parfaits that change by the season and make use of Japan’s spectacular fruit. Yoshioka is planning to expand; he is currently recruiting for a new store scheduled to open next April.