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Tokyo, Day 1: Breakfast Sushi, Buddhist Lunch, Spicy Cod Pancakes

Kicking off my first jet-lagged day with a serene Buddhist vegetarian lunch sounds like a splendid idea—but this being Tokyo, things get off to a much more manic start. Although Pratt and I have noon reservations at Daigo, a revered restaurant that serves a Buddhist cuisine called shojin-ryori, we begin the morning in a highly un-Zen way, heading to Tsukiji fish market at 5:30 a.m. to slosh around the seafood stalls, watch the famous tuna auction and feast on market-fresh fish for breakfast. I'm torn between standing in line at Sushi Dai or at Daiwa Sushi, two neighboring, much-buzzed-about stands that are competing these days for the title of Tsukiji's best sushi. The tie is broken by a conversation I'd had with chef Todd English just before my trip. He used to own a restaurant in Tokyo and would go for breakfast at Daiwa Sushi, run by a father-and-son team, and sit on the son's side of the sushi bar. Pratt and I decide to do the same, and after a half-hour of standing in line, we're handed piece after glistening piece of squid, sea bass, mackerel, o-toro and chu-toro (fatty tuna) and uni on perfect rice: warm, lightly vinegared and loosely packed to maximize the textural contrast between the grainy rice and the silky fish. Despite rushed, tourist-weary service geared toward moving crowds in and out quickly, the sushi here is leagues beyond what's served at most higher-end restaurants in the States (and, at roughly $35 for the breakfast chef's-choice omakase, it's a pretty good deal). But the most extraordinary sushi I've ever had is yet to come.

A nap at the Peninsula and several espressos later, and I'm feeling wired (probably too wired) for the Buddhist lunch. The style of Buddhist cuisine that Daigo serves has been attracting the likes of French superchef and frequent Tokyo visitor Jean-Georges Vongerichten. But we've come because a famous Japanese sushi chef with a restaurant in New York City is a fan. (He remains anonymous here so as not to play favorites. Three guesses who it might be.) Daigo has no main dining room, just private rooms overlooking a garden filled with bonsai trees and plants from Kyoto. Besides being vegetarian, Daigo follows five Buddhist-inspired principles called go kan mon, which Pratt translates for me: 1) Respect the labor of everyone whose work contributed to the meal. 2) Commit good deeds worthy of sharing in the meal. 3) Arrive at the table without any negative feelings toward others. 4) Eat in order to achieve spiritual and physical well-being. 5) Be dedicated to the pursuit of enlightenment.

We opt for the least expensive of Daigo's three set lunch menus (ranging in price from $90 to $135), which turns out to be lavish and filling enough not to leave us wondering what we've missed by saving a few bucks. Every one of our eight courses is like a beautifully composed painting, with acute attention paid to the shape, color and placement of each ingredient. One course is a five-part arrangement that includes a chestnut capped with fried green-tea somen noodles shaped to look like the fuzzy outside skin of a chestnut, alongside a hishinomi (a water chestnut shaped like a ninja star), next to a small, roasted purple-and-green eggplant. The next course, called hiryuzu, is just as pretty: It's a deep-fried ball made of tofu, kikurage mushrooms, lily bulb and gingko nuts, soaked in dashi (kelp-based broth) with kuzu powder, a thickener that the Japan-infatuated Manhattan chef David Bouley has been talking up lately. So far today I've been eating since dawn, and I'm pretty sure that doesn't count as a good deed worthy of sharing in this meal. All I know is that I do feel enormous well-being, no negative feelings—and extreme respect for the staff's labors. I'll work harder on the other two principles.

My relaxed, hallucinatory daze turns out to be an ideal mood for wandering through Hashi Ginza Natsuno, a shop in the posh Ginza area that sells only chopsticks—hundreds and hundreds of them, from simple wooden styles to a $1,000 pair with hand-lacquered gold dots. After dropping by the swank House of Shiseido bookstore and pastry shop nearby, I'm recharged and ready for tonight's mission: a trip to the Tsukishima area's Nishinaka-Dori street, known for its shops specializing in the crispy-battered dish called monjayaki. The street is dotted up and down with restaurants that do their own version of the dish, made from a flour-based batter mixed with dashi, tenkasu (tempura bits), soy or Worcestershire sauce and dried shrimp or squid; other add-ins are included according to each place's signature recipe—for instance, mentaiko (spicy cod roe), mochi (sticky rice taffy), kimchi or pork. We stop for dinner at Monja Hazama, a classic spot with a young crowd crouched around tabletop grills, and we order the house version of monjayaki, made with spicy cod roe and mochi. The staff brings out the batter in bowls for guests to cook by moving the mixture from side to side on the tabletop grill. We eat only the crispy caramelized bits that form as the batter spreads thinly across the hot surface. With monjayaki, the batter never congeals into a solid pancake, so the crunchy bits are the endgame; eating the charred, sweet-and-briny monjayaki pieces as they cook feels like licking a bowl of brownie mix without ever baking the brownies—a guilty pleasure, minus the guilt. Even more guilt-free is the bill: $20 for two.

Day 2: Japanese Éclairs, Perfect Ramen, Sake Fix, Soba Heaven

Back to main Tokyo Now story

Published February 2008
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