“Big call.” That was what our director, Scott Tompson, said when we first reached Tokyo and I told him I thought that this was far and away the world’s best food city. A first-time visitor to Tokyo, he was skeptical, but I stood by my statement then and I’m now only more convinced of the truth of it.
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10 Oct 2013 - 12:45 PM  UPDATED 29 Oct 2013 - 2:13 PM

On paper at least, my claim would seem fairly well supported. Tokyo has the most Michelin-starred restaurants of any city in the world with 331 (the next highest is Paris with 116 stars), and that has as much to do with its sheer size as it has to do with its quality. It’s estimated that are more than 80,000 restaurants in Tokyo compared to Paris’ 40,000 (although those numbers do vary depending on how you define both “a restaurant” and “Tokyo”, as neither are particularly clear).

Certainly the top end of town is well catered for, with high-end Japanese restaurants such as Narisawa and Ryugin, currently ranking first and second respectively in Asia according to San Pellegrino’s list, and a brigade of the world’s best chefs with outposts in the city; the likes of Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsay.

But Michelin stars and awards – even an awful lot of them – are not what defines a great food scene. These days any city with a bit of cash to flash will attract the heavy hitters. For me, what makes Tokyo the world’s best food city is its depth.

Even leaving the glamour restaurants aside, there’s great food to be found in every corner of Tokyo, and at any budget. Raucous izakayas and tiny ramen joints, ten-seat sushi restaurants (please don’t call them bars) and elaborate kaiseki banquets; in Tokyo there’s a fantastic Japanese meal to suit any budget from five dollars to five hundred. Despite Tokyo’s reputation for being expensive, there are few cities in the developed world where you can eat better for under ten bucks. Even chefs like David Chang and Anthony Bourdain sing the praises, not just of Tokyo’s elite restaurants, but also of all things, its convenience stores.

And Tokyo’s not just about Japanese food. Japanese chefs have embraced the stageconcept quite unlike any other nation. Where our Aussie stagiaires may flit around European or American Michelin-starred restaurants for a few months before coming home, I’ve met more than a few Japanese chefs who have trained in Europe for literally decades. I’ve had some of the best French meals of my life in Tokyo, and with all due respect to the Italians, I know as many exceptional Italian restaurants in Tokyo as I do in Rome.

While the variety in Tokyo is one thing, there’s also the specialisation. Only in Tokyo have I been to a restaurant that only serves chicken. Or one that only serves puffer fish. There are thousands of ramen joints that make only one dish, and have lines that stretch down the street for it.

Excellence, affordability, variety and specialisation are all characteristics of the Tokyo food scene, but perhaps Tokyo’s most convincing food credential is that it is the very centre of Japan’s food universe.

Tsukiji fish market is the largest fish market in the world, and it brings together seafood from all over Japan (as well as from around the world). I recently ate at a restaurant in Tokyo that only served wine and produce from Yamanashi prefecture. To put that in perspective, it’s a bit like a Sydney restaurant that specialises just in the cuisine of the Barossa Valley.

Japan’s cuisine is infinitely regional, but no matter how remote or esoteric a dish may be, you are more than likely to find it somewhere in Tokyo. Any overseas visitor who may not have three months to travel the entire length of Japan like I did can experience authentic foods from all over the country – from Hokkaido to Okinawa – without having to leave the 23 wards.

If Paris is a city for falling in love and New York is the city that never sleeps, then Tokyo is definitely the world’s best dinner date. There’s no other place in the world I’d rather find myself footloose and with a healthy appetite.

And Scott, for his part, now agrees with me.

 

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