Chef-watching in Tokyo


A version of this article is published in the Financial Times. 

As well as that described in A Japanese Sputnik, I enjoyed two particular meals in Tokyo recently. And in each case, I was fortunate enough to be able to watch each chef in action from across the counter and, I realise in retrospect, from precisely the same distance – less than two metres. And in fact from precisely the same seat in each restaurant, the extreme left-hand seat of the front counter directly opposite where the chef was cooking. 

Tempura Yamanoue is only the second branch of this long-established exponent of this particularly skilful cooking style whose other restaurant opened in 1954. This branch is located on the third floor of the Tokyo Midtown complex. It opened eight years ago but looks brand new, a tribute to the national obsession for cleanliness, as well as their obviously devoted waiting staff dressed rather formally in dinner jackets.

Once you are past the front door, the action unfolds. There are two nabes, the famous bowl in which the sesame oil, the city’s favourite oil for this process, is heated to sauté the battered ingredients, with a tempura chef standing behind each. In between them is another chef who spends his entire time wielding an immensely sharp, long knife with which he either fillets the fish or prepares vegetables that are just in season, before either handing them back to the chefs or placing them in one of the four fridges behind.

Beyond all this are windows offering the most marvellous views of a city preparing itself for the 2020 Olympic Games – although once I had taken this in, I focused entirely on the chef in front of us.

Tall, thin, with a highly expressive face and hands that seemed to be in non-stop motion, he told us that he had been working for the same company for the past 20 years. Over the next hour he put that experience to work.

We began with a sweet green pepper from Fushimi, near Kyoto, proceeded to a fillet of whitebait wrapped in a shiso leaf before the first of the seasonal delights, kogomi, a fiddlehead fern, that the chef advised was better enjoyed with salt than with the traditional tempura accompaniments diced daikon, Japanese radish and soy sauce. There then followed a small piece of kisu, Japanese whiting; a vegetable butt and a butterbur sprout, both, I feel, better suited to the Japanese palate than the western one; a fillet of tilefish; and then two final highlights. The first a prawn from Kumamoto, so fresh it could have been eaten as sashimi, and then sea urchin (pictured), fried for less than a minute, and an ingredient whose freshness and sweetness were accentuated by the frying process. This was a wonderful display of the discipline required to become a refined, restrained and dignified tempura chef.

Narukiyo is very different. Rather than a sedate lunchtime spot for business people and shoppers, it is designed to attract later-night revellers. Located down four steps, made treacherous by the heavy rain, this place is more an izakaya, a place to drink rather than a restaurant in its feel but there is no doubting the quality of the ingredients or the integrity of the cooking.

The view is completely different, as is the build of the chef. Here right in our line of vision was just the chef who is in charge of the sashimi and everything that is grilled. Behind him was a secondary chef in charge of the tempura dishes and a gaggle of waiting staff.

The chef was large, dressed in black, with a white apron and often reaching into his trouser pocket for a large red handkerchief. His face was round, his head bald and we weren’t sure the entire evening whether he was whistling through his teeth or throwing his voice in time with the music. The music played is quite loud, but not drowning and the walls are covered with posters from the Blues Brothers, the 1997 James Brown tour and another that simply reads ‘No Music, No Life’.

We began with a gift, a small bowl of beef stew with new Hokkaido potatoes and carrots, the kind of dish that one wishes school dinners had been like. This gave our eyes and ears the opportunity to take in the scene and mine immediately focused on a plastic bowl of large shrimps. While three of these were put on to the charcoal, the word sashimi was mentioned, to which we all responded enthusiastically.

After both of these had been enjoyed, we pointed to a fillet of fish being served to our neighbour that subsequently appeared in front of us on a large blue plate with five skull and crossbones around the edge. We ended with three of the largest spears of asparagus I have ever encountered served on some extremely fresh tomatoes, all served on ice.

I paid our bill of 25,000 yen (about £160/$230/€200) for three, including a jug of the house sake. As we left, the chef came out to shake hands and thank us for visiting. Something I would happily do again to both restaurants in this most engaging, and food obsessed, city.

Tempura Yamanoue  Tokyo Midtown Garden Terrace 3F, Roppongi; tel +81 (0)3 5413 3577
Narukiyo, Shibuya 2 Chome, 7-14; tel +81 (0)3 5485 2223