Japan has finally reopened to international tourists, and many residents are not only ready to welcome back visitors, but are delighted to do so. While there are inevitable grumbles about the inevitable queues, these are outweighed by an excitement generated by the fresh energy that fresh eyes bring to the city.
Returnee visitors to Tokyo will find much has changed, but much has stayed the same as well. The capital has always been a restless, competitive city – pandemic or no – and restaurants often pop up like mushrooms, and disappear just as quickly.
In the past year, the trend for neo-yokocho has regathered steam. These are retro food courts that replicate Showa-era alleyways of tiny watering holes, encouraging mingling, bar-hopping and nostalgia in equal measure. Trading on this, there are now so-called neo-izakaya – modern Japanese-style pubs that entice the younger generation with neon signs, affordable small plates and highly-Instagrammable, colorful cocktails. Canelé are bizarrely the baked treat in vogue at the moment, and the rise of mocktails – even a couple of mocktail bars – cater to a rise in non- or light drinkers (much to the chagrin of the government that hopes to raise consumption to boost tax revenue).
Yet our Tokyo best bites eschew the boom-and-bust trends. As 2022 marks Japan easing Covid-19 restrictions and reopening to the world, our top picks of the year represent three Cs: comfort, continuation, and connection.
2022’s Best Noodles
Nothing makes me happier than an excellent bowl of noodles; it can literally make me skip down the street. Menjuku Shiina is one place that unlocks that magic. I always order the tokusei tori paitan tsukesoba: thick, springy dipping noodles served with a thick chicken-seafood stock dipping sauce with all the trimmings – slices of soft pork char siu cooked to tenderness at a low temperature, juicy chargrilled chicken thigh, unreasonably delicious chicken wonton, and perfectly cooked soft boiled soy sauce seasoned egg.
Tokyo’s ramen scene also welcomes Koike no Iekei, a new open from young “ramentrepeneur” Hiromitsu Mizuhara, who has managed to rack up several Bib Gourmand nominations for his stores. His latest venture harks back to his childhood growing up in Yokohoma, the birthplace of iekei – “homestyle” ramen. His version features the trademark tonkotsu-soy broth, which he has expertly balanced and blended until rich and creamy, providing a perfect base for toppings of tender char siu, spinach and texturally tantalizing crunchy onion.
Arakicho: A Neighborhood Reborn
During the pandemic, I moved to an area close to the neighborhood of Arakicho, a small pocket woven with alleyways of izakaya and bars. These remained shut like relics, a lonely air of desolation settling on the streets. This year, however, the area was reborn, hatches lifted, lights glittering and laughter drifting from doors propped ajar. One favorite spot is Tempura Dining Itoi, which serves up delicious and often creative morsels of tempura in a casual setting that breaks free from the customs and pretensions of formal washoku (Japanese cuisine). A true highlight is simmered anago (sea eel), battered and coated with floral sansho (Japanese pepper).
Then, there’s the long-running Yakinikuen. Tucked in a basement in the upmarket rich and expat-oriented Azabu-Juban, it’s an unexpected island of approachability and affordability that has been offering cheap but excellent quality barbecue for more than two decades. This has won it a loyal fanbase of customers. Early on a Friday evening, I found it bustling with families as well as groups of friends and couples, the enticing sizzle of meat muffling the excited chatter of what’s an inherently social dining experience. There were extra surprises too: the homemade hot sauce is addictive; the sizzling bibimbap is perfectly executed; and there’s a small but high-quality wine list at great prices. One waiter turned full sommelier – again, incongruous in this casual, family-oriented setting – and talked me through four options. Before I know it, I was drinking a rare 2006 vintage at a shockingly low price, a perfect accompaniment for thin slices of melt-in-the-mouth beef.
Flavors of Sado Island at Nanohana
Sometimes an establishment will instantaneously exude the care and the personal passion that brought it to life. Nanohana is one such place that I discovered near the Showa-era Yanaka Ginza area in the northeast of Tokyo. It’s run by a couple from Sado Island off Japan’s northwest coast.
They may have left their hometown, but still continue to weave its story into the beautiful, seasonal dishes they serve to their customers. At lunch, they only offer two choices: seasonal fish with ochazuke – hot dashi over rice – or Niigata-style tonkatsu in a sweet-savory soy sauce. These are served with a selection of organic vegetables and rice grown by the couple’s parents, along with miso soup that is also made with koji (a kind of mold) from the island. It’s all delicious, but perhaps most charming of all is the obvious pride and pleasure the couple take in sharing their love for their hometown with customers – both regulars and fresh faces. They’ve sold me entirely; Sado Island must be my next stop.
–– Phoebe Amoroso
Best Breakfasts: Locale & Katsuo Shokudo
Japan is not a breakfast country. Not only do most bakeries and cafes open at a horrifyingly tardy 10am, whatever’s available before mid-morning simply doesn’t have the culinary diversity I’m used to in my home country, Malaysia. Fortunately, Tokyo is slightly better equipped for hangry early birds than the rest of the country.
Locale and Katsuo Shokudo are polar opposites when it comes to breakfast. The latter serves a quintessentially Japanese breakfast of rice, skipjack tuna shavings, and miso soup, which sounds basic though tastes anything but. There’s little to rival the first bite of raw egg mixed with hot rice, smoky fish and a drizzle of soy sauce. The former does weekend brunches, serving perfect avocado toast and banana pancakes; for me, chef Katy Cole’s cheeseburger could launch a thousand ships and an empire.
Both restaurants are helmed by sunny, ultra-competent women who embody tremendous passion for their craft. Both are bright beacons in the barren breakfast desert that is Tokyo before 10 a.m. Both deserve a spot in your morning sojourns in the city.
–– Florentyna Leow
Tempura at Mochiku
According to Tabelog, there are 1,297 tempura restaurants in Tokyo, but for the last four years I have more or less remained loyal to one – Tempura Mochiku in Ginza. For better or for worse, Yuto Nishizawa has set a high bar for excellent yet affordable tempura and great vibes. My best bite here this year was a mouthful of sweet tiger prawn and rice in a mixed tendon, quickly chased by a gulp of dark red miso soup served alongside.
I took a few clients to Mochiku for lunch a few weeks ago. Naturally (and I say this with some professional pride) they loved the sea-fresh conger eel cloaked crisp, craggy batter, the secret sauce, the warm atmosphere. It was just past noon, and therefore a perfectly acceptable time of day for three glasses of dry sake, expertly selected by Yuto’s wife Kanae.
“We’ll never cheat on you,” one of the clients said. “We love your tempura.”
“Oh, Japan is a country of affairs,” deadpanned Nishizawa, to raucous laughter. “Please, go ahead and cheat all you want.”
Of course, this has only ensured my continued patronage at Mochiku.
–– Florentyna Leow
Published on December 23, 2022