Planet Tokyo: The Gastrosphere 東京星の食圏

The food geek universe has recently been abuzz with the news that Tokyo has more Michelin stars than any city in the world, including Paris. In fact, it has twice as many as Paris. I couldn’t really offer anything beyond mere conjecture as to how this happened, as the publishers of the Michelin Guide are notoriously conservative, and their decisions are often mysterious and controversial.

But it doesn’t really matter anyway. The point that should be taken from this honor is that Tokyo is a really, really amazing city when it comes to food, from those noble three-star French meals to simple (or not-so-simple) bowls of noodles.

Let’s discuss the noodles first.

I had five excellent bowls of ramen over the course of the week. First off was Ramen Jiro‘s ラーメン二郎 notorious, voluminous, and delicious pile of raggedy hand-pulled noodles, tender pork chops, cabbage, bean sprouts, and shards of raw garlic softened in a stock so heavy with pork fat you could use it as a substitute for axle grease. I am no stranger to super-rich ramen – my love affair with tonkotsu has been going on for many years now – but honestly, I could barely get through half the bowl. Worldramen.net reports: “some Jiro fans would claim ‘Ramen served at Jiro is not a ramen! It is an independent food called Jiro.'” and I am tempted to agree. At least in terms of sheer intensity, Jiro stands alone. Astoundingly, they also offer a larger portion, which I have never seen, but I imagine it could comfortably feed a family of four for at least three meals. I went to the original Jiro outpost, but I hear other locations offer cheese as a topping. Crazy.

The ramen is extraordinary in and of itself, but the context of the tiny, dirty shop heightens the whole Ramen Jiro experience: outside, a formidable queue of hungry college students and businessmen wraps itself around the block; inside, the air gurgles with voracious slurping, the walls are brown with fire and grease, and in the middle of it all, two seasoned, sweaty cooks stir huge pots of bubbling liquid with wooden beams and bandaged hands. How I wish I hadn’t forgotten my camera at the hotel that day.

Later in the week, Sam and I took a trip to Yokohama to visit the ever-popular Ramen Museum, which three years ago inspired me to write my senior thesis on food museums. Each shop in the museum’s nostalgic, meticulously detailed “downtown” area offers a conveniently sized mini-bowl, perfect for sampling a variety of ramen over the course of an afternoon. We had three: Hachiya‘s 蜂屋 stock was ripe with the salty tang of soy sauce, roughed up by the bittersweet, carbonized flavor of barbecued lard; Ryū Shanghai 龍上海 offered pudgy handmade noodles in a thick, nutty miso soup perforated with a confetti of aromatic seaweed, minced garlic, and red chili; and Ide Shōten‘s 井出商店 suprisingly meaty soy sauce-tonkotsu blend tasted like the delicious drippings from a lovingly slow-cooked beef brisket.

Finally, just before heading to the airport to fly back home, Laura and I lunched at Shodai Keisuke 初代けいすけ, a rambunctiously creative nü-ramen joint that focuses on black miso. Keisuke’s basic stock was greenish-black and almost pasty in its thickness–imagine split-pea soup from the wrong side of the tracks–with a mysterious pesto-like herbal quality. Its flavor was so rich and robust that it even overwhelmed the yolk of a soft-boiled egg I ordered as a topping. Mine also came with shredded cheese, which helped to glue bits of vegetables and miso directly to the noodles for extremely satisfying, textured, salty, and flavorful mouthfuls.

I would have been pretty content just eating ramen all week, but luckily Emiko, our true gourmet navigator, had other, far more ambitious and wonderful culinary plans in store for us. On Don’s birthday, we began the day with a beautiful sushi breakfast at a shop just outside Tsukiji Market. We chose a place stuck in a slot between two apparently more famous (or lucky) competitors, both of which had long queues waiting outside their doors. But of course, sometimes popularity is a poor measure of quality, as it was hard for me to imagine how sushi could get much better than it was at this unassuming little shop. I ordered the chirashi set, which included (among many other things): solid, juicy hunks of crab; extremely fresh, hearty katsuo; some of the sweetest, saltiest salmon eggs I’ve ever eaten; and my favorite, a huge scallop with a gorgeous, silky texture and an almost chickeny flavor perked up by a thin slice of kabosu. The chūtoro tasted like ōtoro, and the sea urchin tasted like no sea urchin I’ve ever had before. It was exceptionally delicious, and exceptionally satisfying.

That night we had another amazing meal at arranged by Emiko, at Les Saisons in the Imperial Hotel. Actually, “amazing” isn’t quite the right word. I mean, it was amazing, but to me it was also a revelation as to how beautiful, delicate, and artistic cooking can be. And that’s saying something, because I’ve had my share of kaiseki meals. Let me put it this way: the chef, Thierry Voisin, warmly introduced himself to us before the meal, and at the end I wanted to meet him again so I could shake his hand and thank him dearly. Actually, a hug would have been a more accurate expression of how I felt, but at any rate, he had already gone home by the time we finished.

First off was an inscrutable amuse-bouche consisting of a cold jelly that tasted something like potato soup with chives, and a bite-size croquette with the same taste, but a very different, crunchy-creamy texture. Next came the appetizer, which… well, actually I’m going to write about my appetizer in a separate post because it was just that beautiful and special. Moving on, my main course was a plump chunk of rare lamb shank served with a salty relish of tongue confit and onions atop a fluffy custard of green peas. It was yummy, but even more yummy was Laura’s beef, topped with parsley paste and baked in buttery puff pastry, like some sexy cousin in the Wellington family.


After that, Laura and Emiko ordered dessert while Don and I indulged in some outstanding cheeses. I don’t know what kind of cheeses they were, except one: a three-year-old French Comte that had most of us convinced it was Pecorino before I asked our server what it was. Ah, Comte, of course! Not salty enough, too dark, and a tad too floral to be Pecorino. Anyway, it was superb, as were the other mystery cheeses: a very balanced Roquefort-like blue-veined goat’s milk cheese; a different sort of goat cheese with a blackish green rind and mellow, fruity flavor; and a gooey, lightly stinky washed-rind cheese that tasted something like Pont-l’Évêque, but with an agreeably sticky mouthfeel. Figs, apricots, and red wine provided a sweet, tangy counterpoint.

The cheese was followed up by petits fours, espresso, chocolate, and Don’s birthday cake. (I was glad I opted for cheese instead of dessert!) The petits fours and chocolate were too diverse to describe, but needless to say they were all very delicious, especially taken between sips of pungent black espresso. The cake was a happy marriage of light texture and rich flavor, a structure of dark chocolate, lush mousse, and cocoa-flavored mille-feuille. It was balanced, elegant, and addictive; I had no problem cleaning my plate despite the fact that I was already stuffed like a Christmas goose. Stuffed and oh so happy.

The next night, Emiko treated us all to yet another exceptional meal, this time at a Chinese restaurant in Ginza. The dinner began with a creamy and subtle shark’s fin soup, followed by shrimp in a snappy chili sauce and oil-scalded green beans with sesame seeds. It all led up to the climactic pièce de résistance: (strike gong here) Peking duck! The noble bronze bird was wheeled to our table on a cart, then ceremoniously carved into glisteningly moist slices before our eyes. But before we indulged in the actual dish, we were all served a few shreds of the duck’s skin, which we were instructed to dust with a spoonful of sugar. It seemed odd at first, but wow, what a charming little morsel that turned out to be; I was amazed at how nuanced a flavor came from the the simple combination of sugar, fatty meat, and melt-in-your-mouth crispness.

But that was just the teaser. The duck itself was tenderloin-tender with a fine, brawny taste, sweetened by a rich plum sauce, brightened by shreds of leek, then wrapped up in a fine pancake and thoroughly enjoyed. Each sumptuous bite reverberated with the glossy baritone of that venerable skin and the taut tenor of its condiments.

These meals I’ve described are only the highlights from a solid week of fond food memories: grilled corn, tres leches and matcha donuts, three kinds of agemanjū, bacon and eggplant pasta, cappuccino-flavored popcorn, straight-from-Tsukiji kabayaki, and fabulously tasty oysters paired with Guinness Draught.

As far as I can tell, Tokyo deserves every one of those stars, possibly more. Just think, what if the Michelin Guide included places like greasy ramen shops, street stalls, and random sushi bars? Tokyo would be untouchable. Paris should consider itself lucky.

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