The most thrilling food trends lately all seem to point to the same source: Japan. To find out what’s Big in Japan right now, Salma Abdelnour eats her way through Tokyo’s most of-the-moment restaurants and discovers some local obsessions that may be headed our way next.
My neck is still stiff from the 13-hour economy-class flight to Tokyo, so I almost get whiplash when I hear the opening chords of "Here Comes the Bride" and swing around to dodge an approaching bride and groom. It's 10 a.m. and I'm in the frenetic lobby of Tokyo's glam new Peninsula hotel, plotting the day's restaurant agenda, when here comes this wedding party charging right for the spot where I'm standing. I duck out of the way just in time, and the wedding proceeds in the middle of the usual hotel-lobby bustle. My lunatic Tokyo eating schedule—40-something meals in six days—immediately snaps into perspective. In 21st-century Tokyo, like nowhere else on the planet, total sensory overload is absolutely routine.
I'm here on an eating blitz around the city, which now easily trounces New York, Paris, Shanghai, San Sebastián and anywhere else on earth as the world's most vital, influential food city. Lately, Japan has been shipping its hyper-specialized food traditions and trends to the U.S. faster than ever before (with ramen bars, soba restaurants, robata grills, artisanal tofu menus and Japanese cocktails and desserts springing up all over), but I want to check in on what's actually happening in Tokyo right now. My thrilling, somewhat crazy mission: to spend six days eating practically nonstop as I work my way through the city's best spots for sushi, soba noodles, ramen, tonkatsu, izakaya pub food, Japanese pastry and much more—and to suss out the best Japanese ideas that have yet to make it to the States.
Before my trip, I spent weeks compiling restaurant short lists from Japanese chefs, Japan-obsessed chefs and Tokyo-food-savvy friends, and I enlisted Tokyo native and culinary savant Yukari Pratt as a travel companion. Pratt used to be a private chef, then a sommelier at the New York Bar and Grill in the Park Hyatt Tokyo and at the city's posh Takashimaya department store before moving to New York City last fall. Just as crucially, she has extensive knowledge of Tokyo's food scene, proficiency in the language and a cheerful willingness to indulge my ability to eat an inhuman number of meals each day. Before the week is out, I'll have eaten life-changingly perfect versions of my favorite Japanese foods—and discovered styles of Japanese dining I can't wait to find in the U.S. soon. What follows are the highlights from my week of extreme dining.