Tokyo’s Michelin Scene

(as published in the June 2015 issue of Philippine Airlines’ Mabuhay magazine)
When in Tokyo, visitors feel like they’re dining at a Michelin restaurant every time at just about any establishment because of the superb quality of food.
Tokyo is the first Asian city to have a dedicated Michelin guide and evidently, the creators were right in their decision. Since 2010, it has surpassed Paris in terms of the city with the most number of Michelin star-rated restaurants in the world and has also been number one in having the most three Michelin star establishments since 2009. The guide lists restaurants ranging from washoku (Japanese traditional cuisine) to French and Italian contemporary. Previous guides included restaurants in the Yokohama and Shonan areas, but this year they had decided to focus on those in Tokyo.
 
As of last year, an interesting addition was made to the Tokyo guide. This was the Bib Gourmand, a special feature on quality food offered by restaurants at relatively affordable prices (JPY 5,000 or less). Previously only selected French and Italian restaurants were included but in 2015, over half of the 596 establishments listed is comprised of washoku restaurants, with 22 categories including udon, tempura and yakitori. This is after UNESCO recently listed washoku as an “intangible cultural heritage.”
 
 
Tokyo’s Rise to Michelin Stardom
 
So how did Tokyo surpass every city to become the Michelin capital of the world? Jean-Luc Naret, previous editorial director for Michelin, was quoted as saying Tokyo was “by far the world’s capital of gastronomy.” The incumbent Michael Ellis believes “Japanese gourmet cooking is even more creative, inspired, and inventive than in the past.” Some also say it’s because of using the finest ingredients, “dedication to craft,” “quest for perfection” and “obsessive attention to detail.” While I definitely agree to all of that, having visited Japan a number of times I think it’s also because of the discipline instilled in the Japanese, their minimalist aesthetic, personal involvement from the chefs and harmony with the seasons that make them truly outstanding.
 
 
The Pinnacle of Modern Dining: Three Michelin Stars
 
Usukifugu Yamadaya (Fugudishes)
If you’re feeling adventurous (since you’re traveling after all), you can try a distinctly Japanese delicacy: the fugu(poisonous pufferfish). The tetradotoxin in certain organs of the fish is a lip-numbing (the first symptom of its poisoning) 1,200 times deadlier than cyanide with no known antidote and yes, people have died (or came close to death) from eating it before. These occurrences rarely happen when prepared by licensed, experienced chefs who have undergone over three years of training and apprenticeship where only a third pass the final test, let alone by those recruited by a three Michelin-starred restaurant. Chef Fumie Yamada of the Yamada family is the fourth-generation heir to a family that has been managing their fugu restaurants all over Japan for almost a century. Their first store that has been open since the Meiji Era is located in Usuki on Kyushu Island, which is also where the fish are flown in from daily to Tokyo.
 
If this doesn’t discourage you the least bit, having a great story to tell about the time you (most likely would have) survived from a potentially fatal but nonetheless expensive situation, could be well worth the risk. Just be sure to try the delicacy with hirezake, a flaming, sweet sake that’s flavored with fins of – you guessed it – fugu.
Chateau Restaurant Joël Robuchon (Modern French)
As the man who has been awarded the most Michelin stars, it comes as no surprise that all of legendary chef Joël Robuchon’s restaurants in Tokyo are Michelin-starred and you can expect nothing short of the quality all his other restaurants are known for worldwide. Chateau Joël Robuchon Restaurant, in particular, stands out not only because of its three stars, but also for being located in a flawlessly anachronistic, 18th-century inspired Versailles chateau in the middle of Tokyo.
 
For the complete Robuchon experience, try the full 12-course degustation menu. Cheese and dessert carts await you at the end of your meal in addition to the vast breads selection. The restaurant’s elegant champagne-colored interiors can be described as no less than exquisite and their service, impeccable. Needless to say, reservations are a must and the restaurant imposes a strict dress code, just as you can be assured of a formal dining experience as children under 10 years of age are restricted to dining in private rooms.
 
Tonkotsu (pork bone) Ramen. Believe it or not, some restaurants offer noodle refills of up to two times!
Good to know:
 
– Now in English!
Much to every foodie and gourmand’s delight, the free online version of the Michelin Guide’s Tokyo Edition 2015, as well as other cities in the Kansai region, is available in English for the first time. See it here: http://gm.gnavi.co.jp/restaurant/list/tokyo/
The printed version, however, will remain exclusively in Japanese.
– From Rubber Tires to Restaurants
Everyone is aware that Michelin is both a company that makes rubber tires for vehicles and the prestigious “international benchmark for gourmet dining.” But how exactly did this come to be? You’d be surprised at the business ingenuity and basic principles of supply and demand that was at play then.
 
Essentially, the company expanded their business (drastically if I may add) in a span of just a few years. It was simple, yet it was pure genius. The goal was to increase the demand for their main business (tires) and in order to do this, they needed to increase the demand for cars by giving people a reason to journey farther: a travel guide that lists all the best restaurants and hotels. Naturally, this also included gas stations along the way where they could change their tires.
– Did you know that the Michelin Man actually has name? His name is Bibendum, which is taken from ‘Nunc est Bibendum’ (Now is the time to drink), a phrase from one of Horace’s Odes used by a French cartoonist in one of his drawings. As for the popular mascot’s appearance, it came about when the Michelin brothers suggested to the same cartoonist to replace the man holding a beer in the drawing with the idea of a humanoid figure made from tires they had envisioned years earlier. Little did they know that this iconic figure, which was intended for selling rubber tires, would eventually lead the company to also being recognized as the world’s restaurant authority.
– Mandarin Oriental now has more Michelin stars than any other hotel chain.  Three of which are in Tokyo, four in Hong Kong, and the remaining four in different European countries.

 


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