Recommendations make me nervous. Born and raised Stateside, I know the Western palate inside-out and can confidently give recommendations — no problem. When it comes to Japan though, it’s a whole different story.
Tokyo. Is. Massive.
From a previous post:
The bit that prompted this post, though, were statistics. They are from the 70’s and outdated but it’s relevant to my last post so I thought I would share.
As of 1975, there were:
110,000 soba, ramen, sushi restaurants
10,000 produce (fruit and vegetable) stores
4,200 fish markets
5,500 butcher shops
…just in Central Tokyo (meaning they didn’t count everything in the 23 wards).
Though further googling I have found out Tokyo (including the surrounding areas) is more populated than all of Canada and Iraq. That is a lot of people crammed in a small area (Tokyo and the surrounding area is smaller than Los Angeles).
So when I say it would take a lifetime just to eat through my neighborhood, I am really, not lying.
Because Tokyo is so huge, at times, it’s a hassle to get from point A to point B. When people are visiting on holiday, it’s a lot of pressure recommending places as it takes time out of their already short stays. A lot of places don’t take reservations and depending on the popularity of the establishment, there are 30 minute to up to three hour lines.
That’s half a day spent on… food.
Then there is the palate conundrum: what if the food is too bland or too ‘Japanese’ with foreign ingredients? Would a wildly popular tonkatsu/sushi/yakitori/ramen etc., etc., place with local Japanese, be really worth it for visitors to travel out of the way for? Should I be safe and recommend Michelin places even if a particular place doesn’t suit me? Would non Japanese people receive the same experience as a Japanese? On and on, the questions continue, so I prefer not to give recommendations but instead, take people to eat.
On top of that, there is a bigger issue. Tokyo is a strange place filled with stubborn old school chefs and restaurant owners who are usually cooking the best food in nondescript hole in the wall places. I have a theory that a lot of the chefs at the word of mouth places spread through Trip Advisor, Yelp and some food blog circles have probably had bad experiences with non-Japanese people, especially Americans.
In America, asking for substitutions because of preferences or eating restrictions, sending dishes back, dousing foods with soy sauce, salt, pepper, chili powder tōgarashi, etc. is normal.
In Japan, that is an absolute insult. So these chefs probably don’t know what to make of diners with eating habits that are culturally different and it’s only normal for Japanese chefs used to feeding Japanese people who eat anything and everything to become weary over time.
One of the results of those circumstances is the unspoken gaijin menu. Gaijin is foreigner and I noticed chefs — even at Michelin establisments — serve different menus for non-Japanese. Gaijin menu may sound bad but it’s not as drastic as a California roll replacing uni on a lb expensive sushi tasting menu, but more amongst the lines of: seasoning (foods served to non-Japanese may have heavier seasoning, for example) to suit a Western palate. Do please understand though, that this isn’t to offend non-Japanese diners. And it certainly isn’t to charge a non-Japanese more for their meal. It’s the Japanese way of attempting to please the customer and most visitors without a Japanese person accompanying them get served foods from the gaijin menu.
What a lot of old school chefs don’t realize, is how rapidly Western palates are evolving and how an ingredient or preparation that was foreign five years ago, is now mainstream abroad. Yuzu and yuzu by-products like yuzu koshō immediately come to mind.
So when I get feedback from people I don’t know in person that a place I recommended was excellent, I am thrilled.
And here are three:
Between Sushi Dai and Daiwa at Tsukiji Fish Market
Kinoshige Shutoku 紀之重秀徳
E2 on the universal Tsukiji Map
Tonkatsu Ponta ぽん太
M – S
Lunch: 11:30AM – 2:00PM
Dinner: 4:30PM – Last order 8:20PM
Copy and paste this into Google Maps↓