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Sunday, Jan. 6, 2002


Oh, what will they think of next?

It's never a good idea to start a new year by looking over your shoulder. But there's no harm in saluting the trends that have emerged over the past 12 months, especially if they represent a significant slippage in the gourmet zeitgeist. After all, yesterday's dabblings by the food fashionistas become the TV hype of today -- and, before you know it, they've insinuated themselves onto the mainstream menus of tomorrow.

If 2001 witnessed the rise and rise of premium pizza (wood-fired in handmade Neapolitan-style ovens, naturally), then 2002 looks like it will be the year of exotic sushi. Not just those inside-out norimaki rolls of the Californian persuasion -- there's been no shortage of variations on that particular theme for some years now. No, we're talking state-of-the-art, no-holds-barred nigiri-zushi. At the designer sushi-ya of this brave new-wave millennium, the only restrictions on neta (toppings) are the limits of the itamae chefs' fevered imaginations.

Here are a few of the more unusual sushi ingredients spotted around town in recent months: uni (sea urchin) tempura; akagai clam with kiwi sauce; sea bass on papaya; and maguro with ankimo (monkfish liver). Looking for more exclusive toppings worthy of a well-heeled expense account? May we suggest a whole leg of snow crab; tamago-yaki omelet flecked with black truffles from Piedmont; a generous spoonful of caviar; or foie gras (pan-fried with a balsamic dressing, of course). Or perhaps you are craving vegetable matter other than kappa (cucumber) or gari (ginger)? How about aloe with ikura roe; asparagus with prosciutto; or perhaps okra with miso mayonnaise. And to close? Why, banana sushi of course!

But the most outre permutation of ingredients has to be a remarkable creation dubbed the "Paris Roll." A small, freshly baked croissant about 5 cm long is sliced horizontally; a small wedge of lightly seasoned sushi rice is inserted, along with a thin slice of Camembert cheese; and the whole thing is tied together with a green scallion and crowned with a slice of black olive balanced on top.

This unlikely addition to the ever more garbled lexicon of Japanese gastronomy is the crowning glory at Central Mikuni's, a newly opened eating complex below the Marunouchi South Exit of JR Tokyo Station. It occupies a basement space that used to house a crowded warren of noisy, smoky drinking holes for salaryman. Now, mirroring the relentless gentrification of the entire Marunouchi area, it's been given a cutting-edge make-over, a fusion menu that runs the gamut from Euro-casual bistro fare to Asian noodles -- plus the most recherche kaiten-zushi bar in all of Tokyo.

Inevitably, the concept has proved incredibly popular, and waits of more than an hour are standard at peak dining hours. But there are two ways to avoid the lines if you want to sample this cross-breed croissant-sushi. Arrive on a midweek afternoon and you can often walk straight in. Or avail yourself of their first-floor takeout counter -- though you will need to time it right, since they only offer 30 of these Paris rolls each lunchtime.

Even if your timing is off, the rest of the takeout menu should pique your interest. They offer foccaccia sandwiches (anemic bread but with good fillings) and mixed vegetable pizzas; terrines of jellied seafood or truffle-flavored pumpkin and chicken; and even pot-au-feu featuring four kinds of braised daikon. There are tarts and chocolate cake for dessert, and organic coffee and orange juice to wash it all down.

Who needs makunouchi bento or tonkatsu sandwiches when you can pick up one of Mikuni's hot donburi-style box lunches (usually meat or chicken on a bed of rice)? Or go the whole hog and pamper yourself with one of their deluxe specials: Foie Gras with Organic Vegetables. Eating on the shinkansen down to Kyoto will never be the same again.

Tokyo Shokudo Central Mikuni's, Marunouchi 1-9-1 Chiyoda-ku; tel: (03) 5218-5123. Takeout kiosk open 7 a.m.-8 p.m. (Saturday, Sunday and holidays 10:30 a.m.-8 p.m.). Nearest station: JR Tokyo Station (Marunouchi South Exit, opposite the Central Post Office).

Another noteworthy development has been the growing sophistication of department-store basement food floors. The idea of depa-chiku gourmet eating isn't new, but the recent proliferation of delis, cafes and wine bars is highly welcome.

Most major department stores are moving upmarket, but the best of the bunch currently (to our mind) has to be Takashimaya Times Square. This is principally due to the opening last year of a substantial outlet of Peck, the most redoubtable food store in Milan (many would say, in all Italy).

Besides their excellent bakery, they have retail shelves stocked with dried pasta, olives, conserves and other delicacies, a huge array of Italian cheeses (sample their spicy Gorgonzola and swoon), as well as a hugely tempting selection of prosciutto and salami. They also sell plenty of prepared foods all ready to take home for dinner.

The best part is their in-store cafe. Sit yourself down, rest those shopping-weary legs and revive yourself with some of their good fresh pasta (the ravioli is a favorite of ours), a glass or two of wine, some dessert and a double espresso. It's not cheap, but the quality is so good it's almost worth braving the thronging crowds just to make a special trip down there for lunch.

Peck, Takashimaya Times Square B1, 5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5361-1122 [direct line (03) 5361-1586]. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Nearest station: Shinjuku (JR South Exit)

After years of being the dowdy poor relation of the Tokyu department store group, the Toyoko store under Shibuya Station was given a much-needed refurbishment in 2001. Among the major improvements in the basement, now known as Foodshow, is the expanded wine cellar; a counter operated by Fermier, the best cheese merchant in Tokyo bar none; a branch of the Seijo Ishii grocery chain (though without their bargain liquor department); and a good cluster of counters selling takeout foods and bento.

Look out for the branch of Saigon, with its nem, goi cuon, noodle salads and other Vietnamese specialties -- they even have a small counter where you can revive yourself with pho noodles and various light snacks.

Foodshow, Tokyu Toyoko Store B1, 2-24-1 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku ; tel: (03) 3477-3111. Open 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Nearest station: Shibuya (JR, Ginza, Hanzomon, Inokashira, Toyoko lines)

Not to be outdone, Seibu Shibuya also had a major refit last year, albeit in a different direction. Scrapping the entire basement retail-food floor, they overhauled their B2 level to create a small complex of restaurants under the umbrella name of Sept Anges -- no doubt because it houses eight different eateries (actually seven, plus a well-stocked wine boutique). Despite their pleasant contemporary decor, none of them could be considered essential stopping-off points.

But should you find yourself in the neighborhood, you could while away a most agreeable hour at the tasting counter of the improbably named Vinos Yamazaki Wine+ist, where they keep over half a dozen reasonably priced bottles on the go, supported by an adequate (if minuscule) cheese platter.

Sept Anges, Seibu Shibuya Store, 20-2 Udagawacho, Shibuya-ku; tel (03) 5728-1169. Open 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Nearest station: Shibuya.

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