Tokyo emerges as global culinary power

International cuisine takes center stage in Asia's new culinary capital.

ByABC News
July 10, 2008, 11:42 PM

TOKYO -- Eel, pig, weeds from seaSeason Tokyo's full plateFood world's new sumo

Globe-trotting gourmands deserve a reward One perfect soba noodle from Okina? An order of salted squid guts from Toki no Ma? for even attempting to tackle this city's Godzilla-sized, peculiar and wholly zen-sational dining scene.

An easier task would be to work a Sudoku puzzle in ink while nursing a third shochu cocktail.

France's Michelin Guide, arbiter of elite eating for the Western world, tried to chop-stick Tokyo down to manageable proportions last fall in its first survey of an Asian capital. It put food fans everywhere on high alert after it awarded 150 of the city's restaurants an unprecedented total of 191 stars, leaving Paris' eateries with their combined 95 stars a far distant second.

Though Michelin whetted appetites for the cream of the expense-account restaurants, it didn't scratch the vast underbelly that sustains and entertains the 13 million food-obsessed residents here. Tokyo offers about 160,000 places to eat six times more than greater New York and more than a dozen distinct dining genres, from street food to formal kaiseki, with tempura, sushi, soba noodles, tonkatsu (breaded deep-fried pork), yakitori,unagi (grilled eel) and izakaya pub fare in between. Each style has its own devotees, mystique and must-visit destinations.

Foreign-cuisine restaurants Tokyo's chefs prepare some of the best French and Italian food in the world, and international superstars Gordon Ramsay, Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon and Pierre Gagnaire have outposts here is another overstuffed genre unto itself.

"It can all become a bit of a whirlwind," says Mark Robinson, a cookbook writer and editor who was reared in Australia but has lived in Tokyo for the past 20 years. "It's only in the West that we think the Japanese eat sushi every day. It's just not so."

Unlike in other dining capitals, where there tends to be general agreement on the top handful of places, "there is very little hierarchy of restaurants here," says Charles Spreckley, a U.K. native and resident of 10 years who creates custom culinary tours for Bespoke Tokyo. "There are just too many, they're too diverse and you can't compare them. And everyone has a completely different list of favorites."