By: Salma Abdelnour
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With exciting new food trends coming out of Japan, Salma Abdelnour samples Tokyo’s hottest restaurants and discovers local obsessions that just may be headed our way.
My neck is still stiff from the 13-hour economy-class flight to Tokyo, so I almost get whiplash when I hear the opening chords of "Here Comes the Bride" and swing around to dodge an approaching bride and groom. It's 10 a.m. and I'm in the frenetic lobby of Tokyo's glam new Peninsula hotel, plotting the day's restaurant agenda, when here comes this wedding party charging right for the spot where I'm standing. I duck out of the way just in time, and the wedding proceeds in the middle of the usual hotel-lobby bustle. My lunatic Tokyo eating schedule—40-something meals in six days—immediately snaps into perspective. In 21st-century Tokyo, like nowhere else on the planet, total sensory overload is absolutely routine.
I'm here on an eating blitz around the city, which now easily trounces New York, Paris, Shanghai, San Sebastián and anywhere else on earth as the world's most vital, influential food city. Lately, Japan has been shipping its hyper-specialized food traditions and trends to the U.S. faster than ever before (with ramen bars, soba restaurants, robata grills, artisanal tofu menus and Japanese cocktails and desserts springing up all over), but I want to check in on what's actually happening in Tokyo right now. My thrilling, somewhat crazy mission: to spend six days eating practically nonstop as I work my way through the city's best spots for sushi, soba noodles, ramen, tonkatsu, izakaya pub food, Japanese pastry and much more—and to suss out the best Japanese ideas that have yet to make it to the States.
Before my trip, I spent weeks compiling restaurant short lists from Japanese chefs, Japan-obsessed chefs and Tokyo-food-savvy friends, and I enlisted Tokyo native and culinary savant Yukari Pratt as a travel companion. Pratt used to be a private chef, then a sommelier at the New York Bar and Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo and at the city's posh Takashimaya department store before moving to New York City last fall. Just as crucially, she has extensive knowledge of Tokyo's food scene, proficiency in the language and a cheerful willingness to indulge my ability to eat an inhuman number of meals each day. Before the week is out, I'll have eaten life-changingly perfect versions of my favorite Japanese foods—and discovered styles of Japanese dining I can't wait to find in the U.S. soon. What follows are the highlights from my week of extreme dining.
Kicking off my first jet-lagged day with a serene Buddhist vegetarian lunch sounds like a splendid idea—but this being Tokyo, things get off to a much more manic start. Although Pratt and I have noon reservations at Daigo, a revered restaurant that serves a Buddhist cuisine called shojin-ryori, we begin the morning in a highly un-Zen way, heading to Tsukiji fish market at 5:30 a.m. to slosh around the seafood stalls, watch the famous tuna auction and feast on market-fresh fish for breakfast. I'm torn between standing in line at Sushi Dai or at Daiwa Sushi, two neighboring, much-buzzed-about stands that are competing these days for the title of Tsukiji's best sushi. The tie is broken by a conversation I'd had with chef Todd English just before my trip. He used to own a restaurant in Tokyo and would go for breakfast at Daiwa Sushi, run by a father-and-son team, and sit on the son's side of the sushi bar. Pratt and I decide to do the same, and after a half-hour of standing in line, we're handed piece after glistening piece of squid, sea bass, mackerel, o-toro and chu-toro (fatty tuna) and uni on perfect rice: warm, lightly vinegared and loosely packed to maximize the textural contrast between the grainy rice and the silky fish. Despite rushed, tourist-weary service geared toward moving crowds in and out quickly, the sushi here is leagues beyond what's served at most higher-end restaurants in the States (and, at roughly $35 for the breakfast chef's-choice omakase, it's a pretty good deal). But the most extraordinary sushi I've ever had is yet to come.
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