Chef Andrew Zimmerman of Chicago’s Sepia restaurant was recently invited to Tokyo to participate in a guest chef series at the Park Hyatt Tokyo. It was his first trip to Japan since 1989, when he was 18 years old and visiting with his band. “Back then I was just astonished that I was actually in Japan,” he says. “This time around I had a better idea of what I wanted to do and see.” Mr. Zimmerman says he felt lucky that he had locals who were eager to show him around. “Tokyo is a pretty intimidating city for a non-Japanese speaking person. It’s kind of like being on Mars. Everything is different,” he says. Here he shares his eating highlights.
Kyubey at the Keio Plaza Hotel
“For a fancier, and thus more expensive sushi experience, we went to Kyubey. Our lunch cost about $200 a person and that wasn’t even the most expensive option. It was mind-boggling. The chef makes one piece of sushi and places it in front of you and tells you what it is and then you reflect on it, savor it in one or two bites, and appreciate the artistry before you get your next piece.” Main Bld.7F, 2-1, Nishi-Shinjyuku2-chome, Shinjuku, 81/(3) 3344-0315
“I tried to have a very high brow/low brow food experience so I had tasting menu meals as well as street food. Takoyaki is a must try. They chef takes an omelet-y, flour-based batter and fries it in a special iron pan and then places pieces of octopus in the batter. He then takes chopsticks and rolls the batter around the octopus until it turns into a sphere so you ultimately get fried balls of dough with octopus in them. They are coated with a sweet soy glaze and shaved bonito flakes and nori. Traditionally you dip the hot, doughy balls in mayo. Yakitori Alley offers a glimpse into old Tokyo. It’s a really narrow alleyway in a very busy part of the city near Shinjuku. Here, you’ll find six or seven yakitori restaurants where the chefs are grilling livers, hearts, wings, gizzards, and all sorts of chicken parts.”
“I wanted to make sure I ate some good ramen and I ran across a story on the web site DanielFoodDiary.com that instructed you how to order ramen from a vending machine. Nearly all of the ramen shops in Tokyo have vending machines and you have to buy a ticket for the type of ramen you want and of course none of the types are in English. You just look at photos of bowls filled with noodles and guess. The site recommended a spot called Menya Musashi, which is named after the sword of a famous samurai. The noodles there are really, really good. You can order a light or heavy broth flavor. I went with heavy and was rewarded with a delicious bowl of ramen. I don’t mean to sound disparaging about the ramen we have in the U.S. but it’s like comparing the difference between pasta in the U.S. and pasta in Tuscany. The food at the source almost always tastes better and Tokyo is the epicenter of ramen. The Japanese are so good at doing one thing well so a bowl of noodles is taken extremely seriously.” Shinjuku-ku, Nishi Shinjuku 7-2-6, Tokyo Prefecture, Japan, 03 3796 4634
“If it’s in your budget—and it’s not in every person’s budget—you should try Japanese beef. I went to a tasting-menu only restaurant that specializes in Japanese beef and I don’t know the name of it unfortunately. We had dishes such as a foie gras terrine with truffle and braised abalone with caviar but almost everything else was beef. There is a small grill built into the wall and the chef uses a Japanese charcoal that barely gives off smoke to cook his beef. He cuts the meat to order for you. The final dish is a Japanese filet mignon, which the chef puts on the grill without any salt and he slowly turns the steak as it cooks for almost 30 minutes. That is an incredibly long time to cook a filet by most people’s standards but his temperature management is so good that you end up with a perfectly cooked medium-rare steak. At the end of the meal you get a bag filled with the trimmings from the beef that you can turn into a strange hamburger. The New York Grill at the Park Hyatt was designed to be like a New York City steak house. They have maybe six different kinds of Japanese beef and different cuts from different parts of the country. So the best filet might come from one region and the best rib-eye from another.” 3-7-1 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku, 81/(3) 5322-1234, tokyo.park.hyatt.com
“Japanese pastry chefs are very talented. They have a tendency to do French-influenced desserts. The Japanese have a very different dessert palette so authentic desserts tend to be a bit unusual. For instance, we had kudzu starch noodles in a minted caramel broth. So imagine if you will slippery, fettucine-like noodles floating in a sort of sweet, caramelized sugar liquid with a lot of mint flavor. It’s maybe not the favorite dessert I’ve ever had but it’s certainly interesting. If I served that at any of my restaurants people would think I was out of my mind. I also had a really cool black sesame custard. I suggest tasting the desserts at the food courts under Isetan or Takashimaya markets.”
Photos courtesy of Andrew Zimmerman