From Bluefin tuna auctions to baumkuchen, Tokyo has it all, and chef Oliver Lange of Zuma shares the best of his vacation to Japan.
Following rice field romps in Niigata and farm, factory tours and kaiseki meals in Kyoto, corporate executive chef Oliver Lange of the hip, izakaya-inspired Zuma restaurants headed to Japan’s capital city.
Here’s where you would find the chef eating, drink and exploring in Tokyo.
“Yakitori is one of the best examples of how the Japanese do simple food perfectly—and because of the binchotan grill and quality of the chicken, this yakitori spot is out of this world. Here, they don’t overcook the meat—sometimes it’s even medium-rare in the middle, which you would never find in the U.S.! My personal favorites were the chicken skin skewers and chicken meatballs.”
“You normally find baumkuchen, which means ‘tree cake’ in German around Christmas time. It’s cooked rotisserie style, with the batter poured over a rotating rod and heated as it turns. When you cut into it, you get a cross-section with rings that resemble a tree trunk, hence the name. It’s dense, buttery and not overly sweet—it takes me back home. And like many of the best things from around the world, the Japanese have embraced baumkuchen and put their own spin on it with seasonal citrus flavors and light glazes. My wife tasted about six version—research is hard work, you know?—and this one was the winner.”
“Ranked as one of the best bars in the world, this hole-in-the-wall joint has no menu. You just tell the bartender your favorite spirits and flavors, and they create a custom cocktail for you. I had only one cocktail, but it was fantastic and mescal-based.”
Street Food at Asakusa
“This area is famous for a few things: some of the most stunning and significant gates and shrines, as well as fantastic street food. Here you’ll find one of my favorites, takoyaki, which is a ball-shaped, battered snack filled with octopus and topped with Kewpie mayo and katsuobushi. A few other great options we had were tori karaage, Japanese fried chicken, and shishamo, Japanese smelt fried whole and served on a stick with salt.”
Silkream Ice Cream Parlor
“Cremia ‘softcream’ is really popular right now in Japan, and for good reason. It’s made from the milk of Hokkaido cows, and the dairy has a very intense, rich flavor, almost like condensed full-fat milk. It’s served in a Langue de Chat cookie cone, also made with Hokkaido butter. Not many places have it yet, but more and more are popping up. If you’re lucky like us and flying out of Terminal 1 at Narita airport, you can get it at a café near the gate!”
“This restaurant specializes in traditional unagi don, made with Japanese freshwater eel, and prepared only two ways. Be warned though: The website (and reservations line) is in Japanese.”
“I attended the famous fresh Bluefin tuna auction with a friend in the business. During my visit, there lots of wild tuna not oly from Japan but Boston, Iran, Ireland, Canada and Australia. The top fish sold that day came from Japan and went for $120/kilo. Being right in the middle of the auction was unbelievable—it’s a dream for a chef.”
“After the tuna are purchased from Tsukiji, some buyers make their way directly to this produce market to have them cleaned and cut. We followed one tuna from the auction block to the butcher’s table, where they scraped out the meat, all the way from the fattiest part to the leanest. We tried the tuna right there, and it was absolutely fantastic. Some other highlights at the market were the live squid and octopus fresh from Hokkaido.”
“Zuma is inspired by izakayas, so I love visiting them for that kind of pub-style food. This one in particular is very popular in Shimbashi, which is known for Japanese ‘salarymen’ letting loose after work. It wasn’t easy to get a reservation, but it’s very busy and has great food. Uokin specializes in seafood, and everything is served family style. I loved a variety of dishes, from familiar (corn tempura) to adventurous (panko-fried whale).”
“At this eight-seat counter, omakase-only restaurant outside of the Roppongi district, sushi is served directly on the bar (no plates) and sake is poured into one of the vessels you pick from their collection of handcrafted ceramics and antique crystal glasses. The menu is unique to each customer, and the highlight here was the uni. The chef mixed two types of uni to create a really interesting flavor since uni differ due to the type of kelp they eat, which varies from region to region. When the two versions are combined intentionally, it really speaks to the chef’s knowledge of these products.”
“I capped off my trip visiting the place where it all began. Chef Rainer Becker, the founder of Zuma, fell in love with Japanese culture and cuisine when he was the executive chef for six years at this hotel. His work here planted the seed for Zuma. So I was thrilled to go back to the source, where former colleagues remembered Rainer and his work fondly.”