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December 21, 2007

Book Review: Michelin Guide Tokyo

The publishing of the first Michelin guide for Asia, dedicated to Tokyo restaurants, has set tongues wagging in Japan. The first printing sold out in no time, many of the establishments treated in the guide are fully booked until far into the new year. Michelin has awarded more stars to Tokyo than to any other city in the world (191 stars for 150 restaurants) and 60% of the restaurants included are Japanese cuisine. Eight restaurants received three stars, 25 two stars and the rest, 117 places, received one star - for the first time in history, Michelin has awarded stars to all restaurants that were included in the guide.

A big hurrah for Tokyo as the gourmet capital of the world! With his 82 years, sushi chef Ono Jiro became the oldest chef in the world to be awarded three stars. That was after his son had said publicly that he did not think Michelin could understand Japanese sushi culture, so this was a shrewd political move by the French.

And as usual the Japanese are caught between feelings of satisfaction that Michelin has awarded so many stars to Tokyo and the criticism that it is difficult for foreigners to understand Japanese food. There has been an outcry (in several cases justified) that certain famous chefs and restaurants were not included and as much surprise that others not on the monitor of Japanese food journalists received a prominent place in the guide (but isn't that the function of any good guide, to discover new places for us?).

Critical pundits claim that the inspectors looked too much with French eyes (although there were 3 French but also 2 Japanese inspectors) as places with a good (=French) wine list seem to have scored high... or in general with gaijin eyes as also kappo-restaurants with a wooden counter where you can see the chef at work did well. On the other hand, although Tokyo is first and for all a city with an international cuisine (the best Japanese food can be found in Kyoto!), only few Chinese, Italian, and other non-French/non-Japanese restaurants were included.

To these criticisms one could answer that Michelin has measured restaurants in central Tokyo along an international standard, and that in itself is a new and interesting endeavor. That the list of places Michelin admires is different from that in Japanese guides, is only refreshing and logical regarding the international standard used - although it is also logical that the Japanese are shocked that a guide with such a famous brandname refuses to recognize some of Tokyo's most famous branded chefs and restaurants.

But there is another question in my mind: who needs a guide like this? Who can burn 50,000 yen on a single, one-person sushi course? You have to an expat with a generous expense account, or a "parasite single" OL - although these ladies will of course opt for French food a la Joel Robuchon (with 6 new stars the great winner of Michelin). We ordinary mortals can only hope to visit these food temples on very special occasions, and even then... In that respect, a shortcoming of Michelin is that it only includes the creme de la creme, and not a broader selection, reason why the French themselves prefer the Gault Millau guide, which in addition has more detailed reviews.

A Japanese friend told me he did not need Michelin because as a gourmet he could rely on his own tongue to know which Japanese restaurants were good. I would like to put it in other words: what Michelin with its shower of stars has demonstrated is that the average level of restaurants in Japan is exceptionally high. It is difficult to go wrong in this country, and we can only be happy that for every restaurant selected by Michelin there are hundreds of others of more or less the same quality, which have not been hyped and where prices therefore are much lower. There is a whole food world out there to discover!