January 6, 2017
My Month of Michelin
By Kevin Tsai
You might not know it but Tokyo has the highest concentration of Michelin stars in the world. It even outnumbers Paris, where the Michelin guide was originally started by the brothers behind the tire company of the same name. I found it remiss that after having lived in Tokyo for over a year, not once had I dined at any of its starred restaurants.
So I decided to challenge myself.
Since there were too many options (over 500 in total), I narrowed down my choices to restaurants that: were in Shibuya where I work and live; had affordable lunch deals; covered a variety of different cuisines.
I decided to start off with a Bib Gourmand rated restaurant, which refers to quality food for great value (meaning good, cheap restaurants) and work all the way up to three Michelin stars—the highest tier of recognition.
I picked Pappon Kitchen, a Thai restaurant conveniently located near Shibuya on the second floor of a small, nondescript building. The same building houses a number of other small restaurants, including a popular katsudon place on the first floor. The cozy little eatery with a bar-type setting seats only about eight diners and is run by a Thai chef and his female server.
I loved the very Thai vinegar flavor of the fresh, crisp shredded carrot somtam salad the meal started off with, followed by a sweet pork dish topped with scrambled egg, and an appetizer of dried, ground beef with potato. For the main course, they served fishball rice noodle soup which made me fondly remember the street food stalls of Bangkok. Like many Japanese restaurants, here you can also add ¥100 to upsize your serving of noodles (or rice).
Price: ¥1,000 (only, for so much food!)
Will I go there again? I’d love to try their Pad Thai, which I’m certain is also authentic.
The next on my list was the one-Michelin-star Chinese restaurant, Masa’s Kitchen, in Ebisu that specializes in xiaolongbao. In stark contrast to the first restaurant, this establishment was run by over a dozen staff, had a modern interior and was well-lit. But unlike most “Chinese” restaurants in Japan (called chuka ryori) serving food that still tastes like Japanese cuisine, this one served generally authentic Chinese food. As in most establishments in Japan, single customers are always directed to the bar seats, and I couldn’t be happier this time since I got to see all the apprentice chefs hard at work, supervised by the Chef de Cuisine.
The lunch set started off with two appetizers: pork with ginger, and vegetables (crisp daikon with mayonnaise and thinly-sliced mushroom flavored with chili oil). This was followed by a traditional thick egg drop soup, rice, shrimp shumai (steamed) and chicken karaage (fried). The karaage was unique because the batter used was similar to that for fish and chips, although it still felt out of place in a supposedly authentic Chinese restaurant. The final main dish was an overwhelming serving of dandan noodles which I found extremely ordinary and not exactly the best way to finish a meal.
Will I go there again? No, unless they have a reasonably-priced dim sum buffet.
Picking one of the many Michelin restaurants in Tokyo owned by Joël Robuchon—the most starred chef in the whole world—could be intimidating, but I was pleased to see that La Table de Joël Robuchon in Ebisu offered several menu options on their website. (Trivia: Chef Gordon Ramsey once trained under Robuchon, who is also known for his temper as a result of his standards for perfection.)
I was personally escorted into the dining area that had an elegant purple motif. I chose Menu C, comprised of one starter, one main dish and one dessert with coffee or tea. Some dishes such as the duck liver or scallop had a surcharge, and it was possible to order 3 of the starters or desserts also for an additional fee.
The meal started off with the famous bread that’s proudly baked fresh every day in their kitchen. My starter was the chilled crabmeat avocado salad, and the plating all the way to the temperature it was served was flawless. Then I had the roasted guinea fowl served with natural gravy, herb salad and creamy whipped potato. The poultry was roasted to absolute perfection: the meat was most tender and the crispness of the skin was beyond compare.
The experience ended in a climactic finish with the dessert. It was an apricot and pistachio mousse accompanied by apricot sherbet and meringue flakes with crushed pistachio, and it was the ultimate dessert. All the elements complemented each other in total harmony. The apricots had a perfectly tart taste and time stood still as I savored every second in consuming this dessert.
Price: Menu C cost ¥4,620 (including the 10% service charge)
Will I go there again? Definitely. I consider it the best meal I’ve ever had in my life. It was worth every penny and I honestly felt it was an honor to have had the chance to devour this meal.
The 3-star Japanese restaurant I set my sights on was fully booked for two months. So was my second choice. And so, once again, I had to rely on Joël Robuchon. This time, it was at his eponymous restaurant which is his only 3-star in Tokyo.
I picked the cheapest item, Menu D, which was ¥10,000 plus a 12% service charge and offered only during lunchtime (and to think it could potentially be four times as expensive for dinner!). It consisted of a caviar appetizer, one main course and a choice of access to either the cheese trolley or the dessert trolley (I chose the latter.) The bread trolley and coffee or tea served with petit fours confectionery was included in all menus.
You can expect that a place that charges this much for a meal can only be the swankiest; the interiors have opulent gold walls and are decorated in crystal. Naturally, the maître d’ was in a fancy suit and had a dramatic coiffure. The experience began with the introduction to the bread trolley. All breads were bite-sized and my favorites were the butter croissant, corn bread and the chewy striped milk bread.
The actual course began with caviar served in hard-boiled egg. The egg was immaculately cleared of its yolk which was then pureed and placed on top and in drops around the plate. The craftsmanship of this dish was simply incredible. For the main dish, I had the beef served with an artichoke macaroni gratin. I asked for the filet mignon to be grilled medium-well and it was served with the foamy artichoke dish that looked like an elaborate spring roll.
What happened after dinner was the highlight—the dessert trolley came and it was a sweet dream all kids fantasize about. It had mostly fruit-based desserts such as strawberry éclairs and fruits in champagne. I loved the rose-pink peaches the most. Much to my delight, there was a second dessert trolley and this time it had macarons, chocolates and candies. You can tell everything was made on-site, based on the personal touch they exuded. I adored the chewy nougat in particular.
Price: Menu D cost ¥11,120 (including the 12% service charge)
Will I go there again? There’s only so many times you can ask for the bread and dessert trolleys before you get embarrassed, so I would much rather go to La Table. Frankly, I enjoyed the dishes more and the meal offered better value for money.