The Day the Stars Fell on Tokyo

The new Michelin
Guide simply confirms a local belief in Japanese food superiority

japan-restThe telephones are
still ringing in Tokyo's top restaurants three weeks after Michelin
published its first Asian dining guide, Tokyo Guide, 2008, and
awarded the city nearly three times as many stars as Paris. The dust
is not settling. Some have complained that they are getting so many
calls asking for reservations that they don’t have time to
serve their customers properly. This is especially true at the eight
establishments, such as the venerable Hamadaya, that received the
coveted three stars.

The guide has
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. But it also left some of
Europe’s greatest chefs — mon dieu!
at the starting line.

Beige, the Tokyo
property of nine-star (in three restaurants) impresario Alain
Ducasse, received only a single star, something not taken lightly by
the French chef, considered by many to be one of the world’s
greatest, if not the greatest. Le maitre, in an interview with
Asia Sentinel for another story, sniffed that he had eaten at a
two-star restaurant in Tokyo after Michelin rating and asked the chef
if he was trying to play a joke on him by serving such anodyne food.
L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon received only two stars, which may
be seen as a slight slap at Robuchon himself, who
was once named by
the Gault-Millau guide as the best chef of the 20th
century.

Seeking a little
breathing room from the deluge, some owners of the starred
restaurants may be glad that most local book stores sold out their
stock of guides and were frantically ordering more copies.

The Japanese have
always smugly believed that theirs were the most sophisticated
palates in the world. 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 portion of noodles 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.

In Japanese minds
Michelin, the world’s most famous restaurant guide, confirmed
the belief of Japanese superiority spectacularly. The book
identifies 150 restaurants as worthy of at least one star. In total,
Michelin issued 191 stars in Tokyo — compared with 64 in Paris
and 42 in New York.

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 upkeep. 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.

Toyoo Tamamura, a
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 so out of line 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, those 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 three.

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 city.

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.

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, which is probably a reflection of the
international popularity of this 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.

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 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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