Just about every week in Tokyo, a sparkling new mall seems to pop up, complete with ambitious restaurants and glimmering shops. In the past year, a number of major, architecturally bold eating-and-shopping developments have opened: Itocia, Marronnier Gate, Tokyo Midtown, Shin-Marunouchi, and many others—giving serious competition to the trendsetting four-year-old Roppongi Hills and 2006's Tadao Ando–designed Omotesando Hills. Our lunch today is at two-year-old Tokia, a mall near Tokyo Station that feels quieter and more corporate than the others but is notable for being the first outpost of star Kyoto chef Yasuhiro Sasajima's Il Ghiottone. Since it opened, Il Ghiottone has fueled Tokyo's recent fascination with Japanese-Italian hybrid cuisine. (Sasajima has added a second branch in the Mitsukoshi department store.)
Sasajima doesn't rely solely on noodles, the obvious common denominator between the two cuisines. For today's lunch, we sample his exquisite soybean panna cotta, topped with grilled sweet organic onions; a powerfully rich-tasting, lasagna-like concoction of baked kabocha squash and sea urchin with vanilla froth; and chargrilled sawara (spotted mackerel) topped with crunchy fried eggplant.
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Our plan for tonight is to visit one of Tokyo's best, most insidery sushi restaurants. This has been the subject of much debate among Pratt, myself and all the sushi-focused chefs and food-industry friends we've talked to. We decide to skip the famous spots like Kyubei and Sukiyabashi Jiro, and narrow our list down to three around Ginza. Saner people would've picked one, but we hit all three in one night: Mizutani, Kozasa and Ginza Harutaka. Like many serious sushi dens in Tokyo, all three are tiny spots with a hushed vibe and a chef reverentially slicing shiny seafood behind the bar. But Ginza Harutaka is the one that blows us away. It's been recommended by Seiji Yamamoto—owner of Tokyo's celebrated new molecular-gastronomy restaurant Ryugin—and, as with many places in Tokyo, it's devilishly (and satisfyingly) hard to find. Its young chef-owner, Harutaka Takahashi, trained at Sukiyabashi Jiro, the city's famed sushi temple. Ginza Harutaka, like the two other sushi spots we'd hit, is not an easy place to walk into as a tourist; it's best to go with a Japanese-speaking local to avoid potentially icy looks—and to have a better shot at trying the chef's most cherished fish.
All heads (mostly executive-looking men) turn as Pratt and I walk in, but thanks to her excellent Japanese and our eagerness to eat adventurously, it takes only minutes before we develop a rapport with chef Takahashi. This leads to a parade of the most extraordinary, beautifully cut, often-obscure seafood I've ever had. He gives us shako, a prehistoric-looking mantis shrimp with a slightly earthy taste; sweet, reddish aka uni; kohada, a briny silver fish; and cod shirako, a sweet, white, amoeba-like morsel that I'd be inclined to ask squeamish diners to try before explaining what it is: cod sperm. (The language barrier can come in handy.) And here I learn that there's almost nothing more delicious than perfect anago sushi: Harutaka marinates the fleshy conger eel in a sweet soy-based sauce, then broils it to order before laying it on warm, impeccably vinegared rice.
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