There comes a time when it’s no longer enough to spend New Year’s in your own country, fighting for precious morsels of Thai food with other Thai people in crowded Thai hotspots. Instead, you opt to go to a foreign country to do these things. So it was that we ended up in Tokyo, mired in the sort of hectic, last-minute preparations for New Year’s that only bona fide desperation can inspire. Will everything get done before that clock strikes 12 and all of Japan — finally — grinds to a halt? Will everything that I’ve wanted to stuff my face with — finally — find its way down my gullet before all the restaurant, sushi bar and izakaya doors close for the holiday?
The answer: almost. I am not superhuman. At final count: 4 sushi bar trips, a handful of soba/udon noodle stops, and umpteen glasses of sake consumed. Two hacking coughs and four different types of viruses caught. Five snaking queues conquered, one while consuming streetside takoyaki while killing time to make our reservation to stand in line somewhere else. Yes, in year-end Tokyo, one must make an appointment to wait in line. Who says the Mayans were wrong?
Along the way, we discovered and rediscovered a few things. First discovery: Tokyo Skytree, the new Akasaka-area entertainment/shopping complex where no line is too long and no crowd too monolithic. Among the Hawaiian burger joints and world beer “museums” is Soba Kamimura, where a hard-working chef handcuts circles of buckwheat flour dough into gray ribbons.
At Tofuya Ukai, we got prettified Japanophile surroundings and service you’d find at a Michelin two-starred restaurant, and … not as much tofu as you’d think. When it did show up, it was what you’d expect from a restaurant that specializes in the stuff: creamy, smooth, and er, tofu-y.
That wasn’t all, of course. We ingested reams of Kobe beef, cooked in varying ways, at Gyu-an in the heart of Ginza. We downed plate after plate of deep-fried nibbles, grilled tidbits, and a large red snapper head at stylish izakaya Nakamura Shokudo. In Akasaka, @brockeats saw us through a veritable feast of grilled chicken innards on sticks at a yakitori bar. There were exercises in stomach-stretching at ryokans and more austere meals of “local” noodles and rice porridge in the foothills of Mt. Fuji. We even endured a two-hour wait to traipse into Eggs ‘n Things, a recent Honolulu transplant that appears to specialize in pancakes draped in criminal amounts of whipped cream and hot dogs without any sausages in them.
But the best thing we had all trip had to be Itoke no Tsubo, an unassuming restaurant a few steps from the Hacchobori subway exit that reads “Stand Sushi Bar” in front. It’s two stories and only equipped with room for, at most, 20 people; the menu is in Japanese and specials change day to day. But who can fault such fresh fish (twitching abalone, crabs frantically scrabbling to escape), the hefty stock of obscure sakes and a genuine eagerness to please? And such simply prepared, delicious food? Blistered broad beans in their pods, blanched sea snails, monkfish liver scattered with chives, shirako (um, it’s fish sperm) in citrusy ponzu — a dazzling procession of stuff before we even get to the sushi, which is, of course, fresh, stylish, and yummy.
This was, hands down, my favorite meal this trip, easily overshadowing disappointing outings to former favorite tempura restaurants or overhyped Japanese teenager traps where the waitresses lie to their customers. Not that I hold a grudge about these things or whatever (cougheggsnthingssuckscough). Of course, I will get the chance to make sure this is my favorite place to eat in Tokyo — possibly as soon as February. I cannot wait.