Kyubey, Tokyo.

February 2015

I chose this as my big night (lunch, actually) out, based on an article in Lonely Planet, in this incredible town that rivals Paris and Lyon for dining excitement. Stumbling around the internet I find, strangely, that this place looks like it used to have Michelin stars, but now it doesn’t even appear on their website. Accompanying some of the associated chitchat is the now-frequently-aired idea that Michelin is out of date and not to be trusted. For what it’s worth Michelin three-stars twelve restaurants here in Tokyo, only nine in Paris.

So much for the pundits. This was one of my most varied and thrilling restaurant experiences ever. As other reviews suggest, food (just how the flavour, consistency, contrast, etc. strikes me) is my most important criterion, but I also love spontaneity, informality, focus of attention on fresh and delicious ingredients, and a genuine effort to make someone like me feel good. The Ruth Reichel effect, I’d call it. Here, the variety and flavour were staggering, preparation and staff communication was fun and literally right in your face, everyone kindly spoke English, and I was more than pleasantly treated.

The place appears to exist on five floors, and I only saw the first and third. On the first floor, people sit at tables whereas on the third where I ate you are down at floor level on the traditional Japanese tatami mat. One sits at a long bar with an L-hook at one end, about 16 seats, and the bar consists of a wooden eating surface about a foot in width, then an elevated black polished stone surface where food is placed, and immediately beyond that the blonde hardwood blocks at which the chefs work. There was one chef for 2-3 diners, five in all out front and maybe another half-dozen in a prep kitchen behind a door.

The hostess ladies are dressed in traditional Japanese costume, constantly bowing deferentially, and shuffling around with tiny steps. The chefs (all male) describe what they are doing, shout back to the kitchen (with instant one-syllable shouted responses from back offstage), and work with dazzling facility.

I ordered a varied-looking set menu, and went away pleased and stuffed. But the price was $140.

First came two tiny snails in a liquid sauce, perfectly balanced between chewy and soft, followed by slices of crunchy sea urchin. Then there were four or five items (not courses exactly but specific bite-sized items presented individually): a wilted green vegetable with a white crunchy stringy accompaniment all to be dipped in a sour liquid sauce with chopped chives, and then a flight of three sliced sashimi (tuna, yellowtail, and… another one). The raw fish with tiny bits of wasabe, ginger, and soy sauce were the freshest and most tender fish I think I’ve ever eaten, recent experience included.

At this point my memory fails a bit. There was a slice of cooked white fish, delicious with salt, and then another cooked crustacean seafood item wrapped around fishy purée, mackerel sliced part-way through and spread between the slices with garlic, ginger, and green herbs, and then three or four other things.

Then the maki and nori sushi started, totaling I think over a dozen. At one point a wriggling live large prawn was brought to the chef, and he offered to boil it or serve it “fresh”. I opted for fresh, he snapped off the head and pulled out the tail meat, setting it on a perfect cylinder of rice, still moving! It went down like silk.

A very thin-sliced daikon sandwich had strongly-flavoured herbs inside that I couldn’t identify, but was exquisitely piquant.

A perfect giant strawberry cut in half with alcohol marinade beside a vanilla-egg gelatin cube finish things off.

The chef was courteous but never colloquial, a young Hong Kong couple from London with whom I chatted sat to my left, and an older Japanese couple to the right. The elderly lady set my chopsticks in the proper position, and was formal but friendly.

If Michelin considers this not worthy of mention how much better (and how much more expensive!) can their starred places be? The few times I’ve been to three-star cathedrals in France the price has been at least four times this for two of us, but it included wine. Here I just had a glass of beer.

Anyway, at least now I know what all the fuss is about. Spectacular.

Food 9.6, service 9.0, ambience 9.5, value 8.3.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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