Japan—the culinary capital of the world

No one is lonely while eating spaghetti – it requires so much attention.— Christopher Morley

A good cook is like a sorceress who dispenses happiness.— Elsa Schiapirelli

When the topic is fine dining I find myself riding the horns of a dilemma, torn between my fondness for France and the affection I have for my home in Japan. And I am enamored with the world’s great cuisines, especially Italian, Japanese, Chinese and French. Ask me which cuisine I prefer and I’ll respond with a question: which country has the most beautiful scenery? My point is that those cuisines are all magnificent beyond comparison.

What distinguishes gourmet cooking from an ordinary meal? One factor is the quality and freshness of the ingredients and another is the technical skill and creativity of the chef, reflected in the complexity and delicacy of the dish’s flavors.

General guides to gourmet restaurants include Relais & Chateaux, Les Grandes Tables du Monde, and the Michelin Guide, which has been around for more than 100 years and grades its restaurant choices with one star * to three stars ***.  A one-starred Michelin pick, described as “a very good restaurant in its category—a place offering cuisine prepared to a consistently high standard” can be likened to a bronze medal in the Olympics. Very few restaurants make the grade— just as few athletes compete in the Olympics, much less win a bronze medal.

Michelin stars are grades that refer only to the quality of the dishes served. Notes Michelin: The decoration, service and comfort levels have no bearing on the award. The Michelin Guide also provides a separate rating of a restaurant’s amenities,  a comfort barometer, five grades ranging from “quite comfortable” (one fork and spoon) to “luxury” (five forks and spoons). A three-starred Michelin restaurant (“exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey”) choice might be graded one fork and spoon for comfort, and a one-starred Michelin restaurant might be graded 5 forks and spoons for comfort. For example, Tokyo has 1 three-starred restaurant that earns “luxury” comfort status (5 forks and spoons), while Paris has 3 one-starred restaurants that earn “luxury” comfort status.

For budget-minded diners, Michelin also includes in its guides starred restaurants serving lunch and/or dinner for less than a ceiling price. That maximum price in Tokyo restaurants is 5,000 yen, and there are 97 of them(’12 Guide).

In the ’10 Michelin Guide Tokyo outmatched Paris for having the most starred restaurants. These results continued in ’12:

Tokyo Paris
*** 16 *** 10
** 52 ** 20
* 179 * 54
Total 247 84

1) 79 restaurants serve cuisine other than Japanese, mostly French.

2) nearly all of the starred restaurants in Paris specialize in French cuisine.

A skeptic might argue that it is natural for Tokyo to surpass Paris as the culinary capital of the world because the population of its 23 wards is app. 8 ½ million whereas the population of the 20 arrondissements of Paris is app. 2 ½ million.

Notwithstanding, Michelin awarded restaurants in Kyoto more stars  than Paris in ’12:

Kyoto Paris
*** 7 *** 10
** 31 ** 20
* 71 * 54
Total 109 84

And by far, Tokyo surpassed Hong Kong and New York for its Michelin-starred restaurants:

Hong Kong New York
*** 4 *** 7
** 10 ** 5
* 48 * 24
Total 62 36

For reference, Parma and Bologna have nearly as many Michelin-starred restaurants as Rome: 12, 10 and 13 respectively. I ate last spring so well in Parma, thanks to my son and his family, that they had to roll me out of the restaurants!

Here’s a example of a Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo where you can have a superb multi-course Italian lunch (set menu) for 2,500 yen-3,500 yen: L’asse (*),  at Verona B1F, 1-4-15 Meguro, 03-6417-9250.

From the West exit of Meguro JR Station, cross the street and walk along the right side of Meguro Dori. L’asse is fewer than 3 minutes from the station located right before you approach the green overhead walkway.

The chef studied 7 1/2 years in Italy at 2 Michelin two-starred restaurants and 1 Michelin three-starred restaurant, Ristorante dal Pescatore, Montova (Lombardy), Italy. He is young, and shows characteristic Japanese modesty. He will come out and greet you during the meal and expressed surprise that Michelin had awarded him a star. I encouraged him to display that award in his entranceway.

L’asse’s dishes represent Northern Italian cuisine. Savor the ravioli with four Italian cheeses (yum that Parmigiano-Reggiano!) prepared in a succulent cream sauce, the seafood of the day fresh from Tsukiji market or the pork cutlet garnished in sage butter sauce. Top off your meal with a fluffy tiramisu or amaretti torta, and of course coffee or tea. The fruit with chocolate in the after-meal dish served accompanying coffee will surprise you: it’s a tiny, luscious cherry tomato. Thanks to the farmer who nourished that little delicacy.

L’asse offers a broad range of Italian and other wines and has a sommelier in residence, whom I had known from another establishment some years ago. The waiters will painstakingly describe each course to you and are exceedingly professional.

I’ll be commenting on other Michelin-starred restaurants in Tokyo and around the world  in future posts.

Meanwhile, please excuse me, I had better go. I’m hungry!

All the best,

Warren J. Devalier