Blogged in translation . . .

I spent this weekend just past in Tokyo. My first visit there and it was awesome. Awesome if all you want to do is eat and shop. The shopping is remarkable but I have to be honest, it’s not really my thing. I love the social/people watching side of shopping, but I never actually end up BUYING anything much. This trip’s shopping by me resulted in an awesome, completely weird figurine for George (aged seven) called Skull Butt-Head from the strangest manga/anime shop you’ve ever seen, and a tracksuit top. Not even a fancy one, just one for running and walking.

I am strongly of the opinion that shopping blogs ought probably be done by those who know something about shopping and PURCHASE; which is why it’s lucky that I had two really interesting dinners that to my mind could make for interesting discourse. So here we go.

First of all I am going to sound like a complete wanker over the next few hundred words so please take that as a warning. I know how lucky I am, so don’t let that stand in our way.

On our first night in Tokyo my wife had organised a surprise dinner about which she was clearly VERY excited, and sure enough, not entirely surprisingly (she will kill me when she reads that but my friends, I am here to expose the TRUTH) we arrived at a restaurant called Narisawa.

Edible flowers at Narisawa

Edible flowers at Narisawa

Now for those “in the know” in the world of restaurants, Narisawa is a very important restaurant because it holds Asia’s absolute TOP SPOT in the list of the World’s Best Restaurants (the San Pellegrino list published each May). In this year’s list Narisawa is number nine in the world and number one in Asia. So expectations could hardly be higher…

So let’s get it out of the way straight up. It was wonderful, it was cultured and refined, serious and daring and it was plain weird a few times. As you would expect we ate “soil” which is quite ridiculous with chopsticks (fair dinkum I was picking up a grain of soil at a time – I’d still be at the bloody joint if I’d tried to finish it all), bread was baked at our table and the list of tricks and textural plays and things that looked like something but tasted like something else… well it was all straight out of the Top 50 playbook. For heaven’s sake we even had liquid nitrogen not once but twice – I think. And I’m sorry that just felt SOOO 2008 but no matter. And then there was my little issue with the wine list …

It was replete with F biodynamic, organic, small producers from France and a smattering from elsewhere (not a single Aussie wine, as an aside). It was a lovely list but it looked like a list from QUAY or Attica or Mugaritz, or … any other joint on the list. Of course, we had a lovely white burgundy…

It truly was a lovely night, service was friendly if not a little stiff, the chef came out to say hi and we parted with a not entirely unreasonable quantity of Yen – one thing about dining out in Sydney is that even joints like this in Tokyo don’t feel stupidly expensive…

I ruminated to the wife on the way home that somehow this list of global restaurants had maybe set out to show the great diversity of restaurants around the world but has clearly found it too hard to compare apples with oranges, so it is now a list of the best apple restaurants in the world. If NOMA or Cellar Can Roca is the best at wacky, edgy, soily food then what’s next, and who’s the best at that sort of thing in each country?

And you end up with an homogenous list. As I said, Narisawa was great but I could so easily have been in Chicago, Melbourne or San Sebastián. I dared to compare it to a meal we had at Mugaritz (world number three or four depending on the year)a couple of years back and my wife glared at me. “Not even close” she replied. I must agree – I liked the Mugaritz experience much more because it had a real sense of humour, it was in a beautiful garden setting and I got rolling drunk on wines that I could never afford to drink in Sydney (again a wine list that was affordable). I can never quite remember what we eat at these places but I always remember what we drank . . . trust me, you don’t want to know.

Sally with Chef Yoshitake

Sally with Chef Yoshitake

So onto the next night in Tokyo – this Saturday past. Sushi Yoshitake. Three Michelin stars. My first ever Three Michelin star experience. If expectations were high on Friday how could they be surpassed a day later?

Even getting to Yoshitake was ridiculous. Complicated directions that left the cab driver standing outside the office block in Ginza trying to figure out which building we should enter. If you have been to Tokyo you will know that there was nothing, and I mean nothing, to suggest one of the city’s greatest restaurants might be inside the building.

Then a lift ride (max capacity two people) to the third floor, a tentative knock on a tiny door – it all felt very Alice in Wonderland, we were “greeted” with a smile and a nod and then sat at a counter where a maximum of seven, yep seven, people sat rather uncomfortably staring at a large smiling Japanese man with three huge knives at his disposal. Shit it was weird.

There was one bloke on “our” side of the counter and I guessed he was the “sommelier” – there was no wine list, no recommendations, so I ordered a local beer, as did the wife… and somehow right then, before we ate a thing, I just knew that this was going to be a blinder. And it was. The most unique dining experience of my life.

Exquisite flavours and textures were indescribable for a dribbler like me. Abalone and its liver, sea urchin, the best octopus I’ve ever tasted, “toro” that literally melted on your tongue and plenty of other amazing stuff. 18 dishes in all – in just under two hours. All prepared by hand directly in front of us. Chef Yoshitake had a few words of English, he smiled most of the night except when his concentration on a piece of fish resembled a samurai, and he clearly loved having a bit of fun with his guests. He fair dinkum pissed himself when I tried to push open the toilet door (smaller than the entry door … for real) when I should have known to slide. We drank two different sakes, no idea what they were, the “sommelier” just chose one that was Junmai and a bit sweet and the second was a level up and more savoury and dry.

It was amazing. And cost about the same as the night before. No surprises, of course, to learn that this joint, despite being one of Tokyo’s 10 greatest restaurants according to the Michelin Guide, can’t even make the Top 100 restaurants in the world or indeed the Top 50 restaurants in Asia. What gives?

Well it just proves my heavily laboured point. It’s just impossible to compare apples and oranges and this restaurant was most definitely an orange. A beautiful, succulent, perfectly ripe orange and I would return in a heartbeat. Narisawa? Been there, done that, seen it a few times.

Give me the indigenous, give me the classic and true, give me the joint that stands for its very own place and its rich history and culture. And give me that goddamn abalone liver again. That rocked my world.

2 thoughts on “Blogged in translation . . .

  1. Nice to see your quill flowing again Stuart. Witty, insightful chin-waggery has always been your thing. Please come visit us in Singapore.

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