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Friday, April 4, 2008

TOKYO FOOD FILE

Eating, drinking roving, writing

Marking a decade of reporting from the gastronomic frontline


The blossoms have been popping, and ditto the pink champagne. We're not talking about hanami parties in Aoyama Cemetery — they were officially banned this year; nor the exclusive but oh-so-chilly opening party for Sakura Garden, out in the open space behind the Midtown Complex in Roppongi. No, the people really in the know were out celebrating the 10th anniversary of this column.

News photo
10-year tenure — columnist Swinnerton in rural Portugal with his "significant eater."

It was back in the postbubble, premillennial spring of 1998 that the first ever Tokyo Food File was served up on these pages, bubbling attitude and adjectives the way a plate of champinones al ajillo (Spanish garlic-fried mushrooms) spits oil.

Since then we've been eagerly eating our way around the city — and plenty further afield, too — always with single-minded intent: good food with no preconditions. Ramen or kaiseki; Japanese or not; modern, traditional, high end or low budget — there's only been one yardstick: Was it great?

Bald statistics tell a tale of satiation: 10 years; 295 columns (plus a fistful of interviews and feature stories); over 500 establishments reviewed (either in depth or brief commendations); numerous changes of format, frequency and publication day; and half a dozen Japan Times editors eaten under the table or out of the country.

Most of the columns can be read in the JT online database (caveat: A good number of places are now out of business). They will tell you about where to eat but nothing about how the column is written. It's high time for us to deal with some of the questions I've been asked over the years when cornered by friends or readers of the column.

So, what gives you the right to tell us where to eat? And who gets to choose the restaurants you write up?

I write about places I like and that I feel my friends would like. I eat at plenty of restaurants I don't like, but I won't waste column inches or my readers' time by even bothering to mention them. The parameters for this column have been the same since the start: Focus mostly on the middle range, and keep the budget down; don't stick to the obvious areas and big names that everyone knows; and don't follow food fashions.

Anyone would kill for your job. How did you line it up? What's your background?

The short answer is, I was asked. The slightly longer version goes like this: born and raised in the U.K.; headed south to the Mediterranean at the earliest opportunity; discovered real food (key influences: Turkey, Greece, Spain, Morocco, Lebanon and Egypt); never looked back.

One sip of sake and a saucer of savory hijiki seaweed was enough to draw me to Japan — 28 years later I'm still here, still hooked. I came to Tokyo to work for a small company exporting Japanese foods around the world. Long before starting the Food File, I was writing extensively on food and restaurants, for The Tokyo Journal and elsewhere. And yes, it's a great gig.

You must get to eat for free all the time. Do they butter you up with plenty of fancy tidbits and free champagne?

No way. I just reserve a table and show up, then pay my bill and leave, just like any ordinary punter. That way there's no obligation to write anything, good or bad. I may tell them they're going to be in the paper . . . I may not.

So what's your favorite kind of food?

Hands down it's Japanese, in all its multitude of guises. That's why I came here, and that's why I stay. Ramen, izakaya or kaiseki, it doesn't matter. And as for teuchi soba, don't get me started. If The Japan Times allowed me, I'd write up Japanese restaurants 52 weeks of the year.

You're suspiciously thin to be a food writer.

It's all about quality. If food is good, fresh, full of seasonal energy, you don't need to overeat. That's where Japanese food scores, every time. Yes, I keep it together — as long as I don't drink too many of my favorite microbrewed ales.

Can I be your assistant? Who do you eat with, anyway — you always write in the royal "We"?

First, I'm not going to all these great restaurants alone — that would be too sad. Plus, unlike too many reviewers, I believe I should write about the place, not about myself or who I'm with. I eat out with plenty of people, but my longtime dining companion is the lady I like to call my "significant eater."

What's your favorite restaurant and who's your favorite chef?

Always the same questions! My favorite place is usually the next restaurant I'm writing up. There's never time to go back to the places I really like. In 10 years, I've only reviewed two chefs more than once, and both times it was after they moved into new premises: Toshihiro Wada, yakitori supremo of Bird Land; and Kazuhiko Kinoshita, left-field maestro of the eponymous French super-bistro.

And I've only once ever done a repeat review of a restaurant: Les Saisons at the Imperial Hotel. It was for two different chefs. All of these places are brilliant in their own way, but it was purely fortuitous that I got to revisit those particular ones.

So where would you go back to if you had the time?

There are far too many to list, but here are a few: Toto-an, out past Fussa; Banrekiryukodo, near Azabu-Juban; Kan, on the Meguru-gawa in Naka-Meguro; the remarkable Ryugin in Roppongi; and Obana, in far-off Senju.

But as F. Scott Fitzgerald might have written, "There are no second courses in Tokyo restaurant reviewing."



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