While not strictly a vegetarian restaurant, Nagamine offers a “vegetable kaiseki” that’s not to be missed.
Star Bar is one of the best bars in Tokyo, which means it’s one of the best bars in the world. Owner and chief bartender Hisashi Kishi is the king of cocktails, a master of both classics (definitely get his sidecar) and modern concoctions. There’s no set menu, just a conversation between you and your bartender about what you like to drink and what fresh ingredients are available that day. Some of the best fruit-based drinks you’ll ever have—with ingredients like plum, yuzu, and pomegranate—will be found here, expertly prepared. Bartenders hand-cut ice for each drink: Sometimes they’ll use “ninja ice,” which is so clear, it will disappear inside the glass; other times they’ll make “brilliant ice,” which glitters like a gem. There’s a small cover charge, no reservations, and you can enter only if there’s room to sit. If the original Ginza location is too crowded, check out the new flagship location, scheduled to open this spring in Tokyo’s Midtown Hibiya.
Tucked inside a nondescript building in Ginza, Sushi Yoshitake is a small-scale affair: only seven seats at the sushi bar, plus a private room that seats up to four people. Yoshitake is always in high demand, so try getting a reservation from your hotel’s concierge (and do it well in advance—everybody wants to go here). Once inside, you’ll be in the warm care of chef Yoshitake, who will graciously guide you through a series of sushi dishes that, in a more French-like tradition, are as much about saucing and seasoning as the slices of fish themselves. Finish with a dense tamagoyaki (egg omelet) that does to eggs what Krug does to fizzy grape juice.
BYOB is not all that common in Tokyo’s sushi restaurants. And while you’re likely coming for the fish, not the drinks, the staff at Sushi Takahashi is happy to open whatever you bring along for a corkage fee. For diners who aren’t all that psyched to bring a bottle of wine with them, chef Jun Takahashi is a sake connoisseur. The bar is generously stocked with unusual varieties of room-temperature and ice-cold sake that go well—almost too well—with the sushi or the chef’s especially good otsumami plates (Japanese bar snacks). Image courtesy of tabelog.com.
Don’t let the fetish bar next door to Sushi Ya confuse you. You’re in the right place. This is another tiny eight-seater in the buzzy Ginza neighborhood, so come early to snag a seat. Chef Takao Ishiyama speaks near-fluent English, which means plenty of friendly chatter as he slices and plates course after course. Sushi Ya’s main event is, of course, the fish, but the rice—so much more than filler—is just as important for the perfect bite. Ishiyama’s shari (sushi rice) strikes that perfect balance between suppai (sourness) and amai (sweetness). Each mouthful is at room temperature with a touch of vinegar to complement the fish. For a splurge, commit to the tasting menu. Locals, however, generally take over the counter at lunchtime, where up to fourteen pieces of nigiri will set you back less than fifty bucks.
Eating out in Tokyo comes with its own set of historical rules The raw-fish-and-rice combo that we now call sushi, originated during the Edo period, when it was considered a quick snack, and it was often eaten in silence. Sushi Jiro has built the traditions of Edo-style sushi into his omakase menu, which means that in thirty minutes, you will consume around twenty-three courses of small bites—quietly—with a green tea on the side. The omakase changes daily depending on what’s freshest at Tsukiji market that morning. Each piece of fish is brushed with soy; dipping the fish into bowls of the salty sauce we’re so accustomed to is frowned upon. Think of this meal as a ritual. Each bite has been carefully architected by the chef and paced out for maximum flavor. Chef Sukiyabashi Jiro is so world-famous that there’s an entire Netflix documentary devoted entirely to his ability to raise sushi to an art. Naturally, booking months in advance is highly advisable. (A look at the website lays out all the dos and don’ts.)
You think you’ve had tempura. You’ve ordered shrimp tempura and vegetable tempura as a placeholder—something to eat while you wait for the main course. You haven’t actually experienced tempura so good that it is the main course until you’ve had it here. Chef Fumio Kondo guides the staff at his restaurant to make tempura that’s lighter, crispier, more delicate than any deep-fried appetizer you’ve had before. Only the highest-quality vegetables and fish are used, and they are cooked in a symphony of oil and heat that is conducted by a living legend. Image courtesy of nippon.com.
4-2-15 Ginza, Chuo-ku
Bird Land is located right across from another Tokyo institution, Sukiyabashi Jiro (yes, that Jiro). Let the crowds form at Jiro’s place while you slip into arguably the finest yakitori restaurant in Tokyo. At Bird Land, the chickens are from Okukuji, which is to poultry as Kobe is to beef. Seated around the open grill, you can watch the cooks expertly serve up all manner of fowl and vegetable, including delicacies like chicken gizzard, thigh with lime, and breast with wasabi. Expect some “rare” chicken, but be not afraid—the quality of ingredients and expertise of preparation means chicken can be cooked more delicately than our traditional blast-the-shit-out-of-it method back at home. You could have a beer with yakitori, but Bird Land also has a terrific selection of junmai-shu sakes and natural wines to go with your chicken extravaganza. Image courtesy of Tokyo.com.
Café de l’Ambre
No cake. No Wi-Fi. Just coffee. In early twentieth-century Japan, dark, smoky coffee shops called kissetan were the norm. Café de l’Ambre is really the last of its kind in Tokyo—not much has changed since 1948, which is fine with us. Owner Sekiguchi Ichiro is a centenarian who advocated the unusual practice of aging premium coffee beans—sometimes for decades—before roasting and grinding them to serve. Ichiro discovered this deep, robust aged flavor when a shipment of his beans from Europe got derailed during the outbreak of World War II. When the coffee eventually arrived in Japan five years later, Ichiro roasted the beans anyway, and the flavor took off. Sitting at the old curved bar watching the barista—or Ichiro himself if you’re lucky—hand-drip coffee probably harvested in the ’70s through a sieve is unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Images courtesy of tokyocoffee.org
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