December 1, 2021
Behind the Counter
Introducing Tokyo's most charismatic chefs
HONA AZABU $$
Ryuta-san is sunbathing in front of the restaurant he manages, his long, blond hair bleaching in the Tokyo sun. Tonight, perhaps, he’ll stare out the dining room window dressed as a yokai. For Ryuta and the kitchen gang at Hona, absurd antics are synonymous with good service. One moment they’re dressed as taiko drummers, slapping their teppanyaki spatulas on the flat top. Next, Ryuta is popping bottles of Mumm Champagne dressed as a chicken. Silly circumstances aside, the food at Hona is fantastic. The okonomiyaki is some of the best in the city and the smoked spinach salad has legions of adoring fans, almost as many fans as Ryuta-san, who finishes the night bartending as Mickey Mouse.
3-2-21 Motoazabu, Minato City
9 min. walk from Roppongi Station
Inside Shirubee’s covert basement hideout, Kosuke-san calls out orders over the lively hum of a full dining room. Shouts of approval ricochet back from the kitchen staff as they cheer on
the customers’ selections. When someone orders black oden (Japanese one-pot dish), Kosuke-san — Shirubee’s manager of five years — lets out a howl and pumps his fist in the air. He quickly alerts everyone that black oden is his favorite menu item. Composed of oden’s usual simmered suspects, the servings are bathed in a dashi spiked with shiitake and inky shoyu (soy sauce). It’s a dish that breathes new life into quintessential conbini comfort food and — along with Kosuke-san’s boundless energy — leaves the air in Shirubee’s underground chambers feeling electric.
1-15-14 Kichijoji Minamicho, Musashino
4 min. walk from Kichijoji Station
Keita Kurokawa seems to vibrate behind the counter at Nikomimaru. Rapping along to the West Coast hip-hop that’s thumping through his izakaya’s sound system, he dashes from patron to patron, taking orders and cracking jokes. Everything Kurokawa serves is delicious — and he knows it: cinnamon-spiked torimomo (grilled chicken skewers), smoky simmered eggplant, honey-drenched cheese tofu. Each dish becomes a test for Nikomimaru’s diners as they’re challenged to elicit a more spirited “umai!” than their countertop compatriots. Kurokawa shouts into a megaphone, silencing the competitors, before declaring a winner. Wielding a plastic claw toy, the kitchen staff delivers an honorary rice cracker to the champion. Nikomimaru may be Kurokawa’s stage, but everyone is part of the act.
3-36-11 Wakamiya, Nakano-ku
1 min. walk from Toritsu-Kasei Station
Chef Fumihiro Tamayose serves as commander of the rowdy kitchen crew that slings Tama’s signature brand of Chinese-Okinawa fusion. Tamayose, whose Taiwanese and Okinawan heritage inspired the restaurant’s cultural collision, ensures that plates like mapo tofu and umi budou (a type of Okinawan seaweed) remain delicious, albeit curious menu mainstays. Even more curious are the adventurous wines that line the walls of Tama, each one waiting to be paired with a seemingly dissonant dish. As the night carries on, Tama’s raucous band of rascals gather everyone at the counter for awamori cocktails (Okinawa’s official liquor). Random snacks are fried up in accordance with the kitchen’s cravings. A cook disappears into a closet and reemerges with a guitar in hand, pronouncing himself “the Japanese Ed Sheeran.” His guitar strings jangle away as Tama’s lights shine into the early morning.
2-3-2 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku
10 min. walk from Omotesando Station
BAR BENFIDDICH $$$
At the center of Benfiddich’s bar stands Hiroyasu Kayama: cultivator, collector, cocktail master. He is ethereal. In his obscenely white suit, he melts in and out of a mystical fog that seems to trail him wherever he goes. Kayama owns a farm in Saitama where he grows countless ingredients that he uses in Benfiddich’s drinks. The bar’s Bees Knees is made with his own honey and served on a honeycomb tray from his beehives. He also grows his own wormwood for his own homemade absinthe. Kayama’s resourcefulness is only outpaced by his ability to accumulate rare bottles from antiquity. Along with his own craft liqueurs, you’re likely to be served intoxicating relics dating back to the 17th century.
1-13-7 Nishishinjuku, Shinjuku-ku
5 min. walk from Shinjuku Station
Looking for something else to eat in Tokyo?
Michelin Guide 2021 Takeout Deals in Tokyo
Enjoy food from the best in the comfort of home
The Beauty of the Japanese Bagel
Where to find some of the best bagels in Japan
The Sourdough Enthusiast’s Guide to Tokyo
Hunting for the crunchiest, nuttiest loaf in the capital