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Japanese cuisine is complex, and takes years to understand

Vir Sanghvi on how it’s almost impossible to eat badly in Japan, no matter how cheap the meal is.

brunch Updated: May 24, 2016 18:14 IST

As some of you may remember, I recently ate my way through Sydney. So before I went off to Japan, I resolved that this would not be a food trip, with damaging consequences to my shape, my health and my wallet. Besides, I had eaten in Japan before. On my very first trip there I did the whole ramen thing, slurping down ramen noodles, and I discovered the joys (short-lived, as it turned out) of conveyor-belt sushi.

On a second trip, as part of a foodie delegation, we were hosted by the dark-suited executives of the Ajinomoto Corporation, who took us to many excellent restaurants, few of which we could have afforded on our own.

So I decided that I was not going to bankrupt myself by going to the top Japanese restaurants. And, by and large, I succeeded. On my first night in Tokyo, I asked the hotel concierge to recommend a place that tourists never went to. He looked dubious but sent us off to a small, crowded alley in Shinjuku. Many of the restaurants were jam-packed but we found a table at a small family-run restaurant where only the daughter who served us, spoke a smattering of English. We ordered sukiyaki and Asahi beer and enjoyed the first night of our trip in Japan.

The sukiyaki was great, but we were more fascinated by two middle-aged salarymen at the next table who were knocking back the sake. At the end of their meal, they had an exchange with the waitress which we could not follow as it was in Japanese. But it quickly turned nasty as the older of the two men started grunting loudly and angrily. The waitress crossed her arms across her chest and held her ground.

The kaiseki at a restaurant in Kyoto. (Getty Images)

Then, the younger of the two men turned and saw that we had stopped talking to each other and were staring at them. He responded with such speed that it was as though somebody had flipped a switch. “Ah, so sorry. So sorry,” he said to us, bowing his head. “So sorry.”

We looked mystified. Fortunately, he spoke a little English. “The old owners of this restaurant very good. Now, new owner,” he said, sadly. His companion nodded.

We had no idea what this was about but to mitigate his embarrassment, I said “Yes, of course”.

The two men got up, bowed to us and left without another word. Our waitress acted as though nothing had happened and our meal resumed without further incident.

Welcome to Japan!

On our second night, I thought we might risk going a little more upmarket and asked around for a teppanyaki place. It was a holiday so nearly everything good was closed. By default, we ended up at Morimoto, the Tokyo outpost of the global empire of Masaharu Morimoto, who collaborates with the Taj group on the Wasabis in Delhi and Bombay.

From the moment I entered, I knew this was a mistake. The restaurant was Tourist Central and if there were any Japanese guests then they were only there because they were escorting American business associates.

Japanese chef Yoshihiro Narisawa (left) restaurant is outstanding (AFP)

The food was fine. We had Morimoto’s signature dish of oyster, sea urchin and foie gras (it was on the first menu at the Bombay Wasabi) and steaks and while it was hardly a memorable meal, there was nothing to complain about.

But service was shockingly bad. Waiters struggled to avoid eye contact with guests, dirty tables went uncleared for up to 20 minutes and a young French waiter told us that he was actually in the import-export business but worked here part-time “because 65 to 70 per cent of the guests only speak English and I need to practise my English.”

For much of the rest of my trip, I stuck to little sushi places and tiny restaurants where the wife cooked and the husband served, and I never had a bad meal.

But, ultimately, from force of habit, I ended up booking three great restaurants, anyway.

Read: Japan is full of delights in cherry blossom season

The first was a no-brainer. I was staying at the Park Hyatt, the hotel where Lost In Translation was shot. One of the more famous scenes in the movie was shot at the New York Grill, on the highest floor of the hotel. And since Lost In Translation became a worldwide hit, the New York Grill has been a Tokyo landmark: for the view, the band and the food. Given that we were staying in the hotel, it seemed silly not to go.

And it turned out to be the right thing to do. The steaks were perfect and the sides (fries and mushrooms) even better. I bumped into Gresham Fernandes, the chef who, last year, cooked me the best European meal I’ve had in Bombay for ages. Gresham was on a foodie tour of Japan. And I bumped into the designer Paul Smith who let me in on a secret. The New York Grill has an Indian chef. And for regulars like Paul Smith (who stays at the Park Hyatt every time he is in Tokyo and eats at the Grill every day), they will ask the Indian chef to make curry and rice!

The food at chef Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurant was unmemorable. (Getty Images)

The second of my big (ie expensive) meals was in Kyoto. A friend of a friend had managed to secure a booking for us at Kawakami, a casual kaiseki (“kappo”) restaurant in Kyoto. Kawakami is a favourite among Japanese foodies and is reported to have been the favourite restaurant of Apple’s Steve Jobs. (No idea if this is true, but that is the reputation). It is famous for what the chef does with the local “tai” fish. (Nopes. Me neither. It says on the net that it is a Japanese sea bream).

I’ve heard of restaurants like Kawakami but never been there. It is located in Gion, the so-called restaurant district of Kyoto, on a tiny street in a row of more or less identical small houses. There is a dining room with a counter, around which ten people can sit. And there is a private dining room (for around six people I think). And that’s it.

It is full every night so when we went there were 16 people in the house, serviced by a large kitchen (around six or seven cooks), one hostess (who spoke a little English), two senior chefs behind the counter and one man who wore a white lab coat like all the others. (All Japanese chefs dress like scientists). Except that his coat said ‘Captain’. I have no idea what this signifies, but I discovered later that he was the owner.

There is no menu. You eat what they give you. And it ain’t cheap: around US$230 or so per head without liquor. If, like me, you can’t speak Japanese, then you have no real idea of what you are eating and a lot of the meal is spent in trying to work out what the hell is being served.

But it was worth it (at least for one visit; I’ll never go back) just to watch the sheer artistry of the chef. Much of the meal was cold and he made it in front of our eyes, slicing very fresh fish, carving vegetables and arranging perfect plates. There was no meat at all; just fish and vegetables, all of it presented with raw beauty.

Morimoto is Tourist Central, and has terrible service.

As you may have guessed, the flavours were too delicate for my masaledaar palate so I didn’t really enjoy all of the food. At some stage, I think they worked this out and served us some rice, which they had not served the other guests.

But this was Japan. So we mimed to indicate that we loved it. And the Captain and the hostess pretended to be delighted by our praise. And when the evening ended, they walked us out of the tiny street to the main road and told us where to find a taxi, bowing before they departed.

The final great meal of the trip on our last, full day in Japan was at Narisawa, one of Tokyo’s most famous restaurants. As you probably know, the French love Japan. Many French chefs have restaurants in Japan. So Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than Paris.

But Michelin likes one of two kinds of restaurant. The inspectors love the Tokyo outposts of great French chefs and applaud those Japanese chefs who cook French cuisine. And, somewhat to the surprise of the rest of the world, Michelin has cracked Japanese cuisine. So the great classical Japanese chefs and the sushi masters are all honoured. (Kawakami in Kyoto, for instance, has one Michelin star).

However, the Michelin inspectors are not wild about Japanese chefs who try and fuse the French and Japanese traditions. Nobu, the most influential Japanese chef in the world (and the creator of modern Japanese cuisine) doesn’t even get a look in and his Tokyo restaurant remains unstarred.

The New York Grill at the Park Hyatt has been a Tokyo landmark, for its food as well as the view

Yoshihiro Narisawa is luckier than Nobu. But the Michelin inspectors still won’t give him his due. Narisawa is regarded by other chefs as a genius (and usually makes the Top Ten in the San Pellegrino list of the world’s best restaurants) but Michelin will not give him three stars. In this year’s guide, the other restaurants are described as ‘French’ or ‘Japanese’. But Narisawa is dismissed with ‘Innovative’.

I don’t know how Narisawa, who is French-trained, feels about the snub. But I do know that I had the best meal of my trip at his restaurant.

All of it was extraordinary. The ingredients were fresh: the langoustine came from a tank in the basement and had been killed in the kitchen just before the meal. And most were traditionally Japanese: fugu or blowfish, sea snake from Okinawa, which was turned into a soup and wonderful Kobe beef, cooked by having hot olive oil poured on it.

So, after three trips to Japan, what have I learned about the food? Well, first of all, it is very good. It is almost impossible to eat badly in Japan no matter how cheap the meal is. Even an egg sandwich at a 7-Eleven can be delicious.

Read: Want a foodie holiday? Head to Sydney

But, as my meal at Kawakami taught me, Japanese is a complex cuisine. There are layers and layers of flavour and it takes years to understand what the food is about.

Just because a foreigner likes chicken tikka masala, it does not mean that he knows anything about Indian food.

So it is with Japanese cuisine. We love the sushi, the ramen and the teppanyaki. But, given how complicated the food of Japan is, that is only a very tentative beginning.

From HT Brunch, May 22, 2016

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