Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The Stars Fall on Tokyo

Japanese have always believed in their deepest heart of hearts that theirs were the most sophisticated palates in the world. Last month Michelin, the world’s most famous restaurant guide, confirmed this belief spectacularly with its first Tokyo Guide, 2008.

The book identifies 150 restaurants as worthy of at least one of the coveted stars. In total, Michelin issued 191 stars in Tokyo compared with 64 in Paris and 42 in New York. Eight restaurants received the highest accolade, a three-star rating.

A team of three undercover European and two Japanese inspectors spent a year and a half sampling the fare offered by 1,500 Tokyo restaurants, culled from tens of thousands of eating establishments.

The Michelin Guide, which is issued annually by the French automobile tire maker, awards one, two and three stars based on excellence in cooking, exemplary service and beauty of the décor and up keep.

Many in Japan had expected the Michelin Guide to focus exclusively on Tokyo’s many Western-style restaurants, assuming that true understanding of Japanese cuisine was, like other aspects of its culture, beyond the comprehension of non-Japanese.

And the Japanese have such unique specialties such as fugu, a fish that can be deadly if not properly prepared, and soba kaiseki, a delicate portions served in an elegant and traditional manner, all of which found a place in the lineup. Of the eight three-star restaurants in the guide, three are French, and five Japanese, the latter including two sushi restaurants.

The guide naturally provoked much comment, not to mention some carping, among Japan’s immense cohort of self-described food experts. Some complained that Michelin awarded the city far too many stars, as if it amounted to a kind of grade inflation.

Toyoo Tamamura, a noted food essayist and expert on French cuisine, noted that in France about 90 percent of the starred restaurants serve French cuisine, in Italy most of the restaurants serve Italian food, and so on. “In Tokyo you have a much more varied fare – Japanese, French, Italian, Chinese, Korean ... I think that Michelin wanted to enlarge the field.”

Perhaps the number of stars is not surprising when one considers that Tokyo is the largest city in the world. Even though Michelin seems to have limited itself to the eight inner city wards, they still have a population of 8 million people, or about the same as New York and 3.5 times more than Paris.

Tokyo boasts between 100,000 and 190,000 restaurants, depending on how you define the urban boundary, probably the heaviest concentration in the world. Put that way it means that only .001 percent of them received at least one star, and only .00009 percent received the coveted three stars.

Tamamura pointed out that many of the restaurants in the French guide are located in the countryside, as befitting a handbook first published in 1900 by a tire company, whose initial purpose was to encourage motoring so that it could sell more tires. Japanese tend to dine in the cities.

In another departure reflecting sensitivity to Japanese tastes, the guide gave high marks to restaurants that are, by European standards, mere cubbyholes. That can be seen in the Sukiyabashi Jiro sushi restaurant in the Ginza, a modest establishment run by 82-year-old Jiro Ono and his older son with the help of two assistants.

The guide notes that it is in the basement of a commercial building and has only limited seating. It rated three stars even though it had a comfort rating of only 1 out of a 5. “It’s true that its décor is low key, but that doesn’t mean that the cuisine is anything but first rate, said Michelin’s Japan spokesman, Taku Suzuki.

In all, 15 sushi restaurants received stars, two of them three stars, which is probably a reflection of the international popularity of this quintessential Japanese specialty. Says Tamamura, “sushi is very popular in France; it was a main target.”

But some connoisseurs fretted that some of Japan’s other cuisines did not get the recognition they deserve. Only one unagi (grilled eel) restaurant was starred, and none was handed out for yakiniku, (a beef dish) which many think is one of the country’s most notable cuisines.

So far, there have been no reports of starred restaurants raising their prices – which are pretty pricy to begin with – “but they are buried in reservations,” said Tamamura. Some restaurant owners told reporters that they are getting so many phone calls asking for reservations that they didn’t have time to properly serve their customers.

Japanese are obsessed with the preparation and display of food. Turn on the television during the day and one will as likely encounter a cooking show as a samurai costume drama. Restaurants with aspirations for excellence are held to very high standards and quick approbation if they fall short or cut corners.

The food scandal du jour involves Sanba Kitcho, an Osaka-based chain of upscale restaurants that was caught allegedly mislabeling beef as coming from the top-rated Tajima and Kitcho districts in Hyogo prefecture (better known to Westerners as Kobe Beef), the most expensive kind in Japan, worth 30,000 yen a kilo, while substituting meat from someplace else.

More recently, that beleaguered company has been accused mislabeling the origin of its conger eel and the eat-by-dates of some of its fish products. Ironically, the founder of the chain, the late Sadaichi Yuki is said to have boosted the idea of Japanese food culture as being elitist. He was the first restaurateur ever to be officially named a Person of Culture by the Japanese government.

It is understood that the Tokyo Michelin Guide is just the first of a series of Asian gourmet guides it plans to issue in the coming years. So if you are a restaurant owner in Hong Kong or Shanghai or Beijing, beware. One of your customers may be an undercover Michelin agent sizing you up for stardom.


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