It’s Monday afternoon at Tokyo Sushi Academy’s Tsujkiji branch, and we’re about to be put to the test. Or I am anyway. Most of the other students enrolled in the intensive Japanese cooking course are professionals. They are local or from abroad, just improving their skills or adding to their repertoire. My colleague works with charter yachts out of Australia. Our sensei, Chef Hiro Tsumoto noticed a tattoo of Japanese characters on his forearm and shouted, “Hey, that’s my aunt’s name!”
I am among the civilians the academy also welcomes into the course. I’m here for the challenge, of course. But at this point I feel clearly in over my head.
Mr. Hiro, who is also one of the founders of the academy, took us through the basics of kaiseki, a word used both for the traditional Japanese multi-course meal and for the skills and techniques required to prepare it. This includes talking about a bewildering range of things, including knife cuts for slicing off the tip of a shiitake mushroom, how to tie a sprig of mitsuba herb for a garnish, and the exact temperature to best bring out the flavor of a dashi broth made from kombu seaweed and katsuobushi, or dried bonito flakes. On the subject of kaiseki, Mr. Hiro waxes philosophical briefly, noting that it is a lifelong practice and thus approaches the ineffable.
“Like a cap. What actually is kapa?” he says as a winking explanation. “Okay, let’s cook!”
I would later learn that the kappa is a mythical reptilian creature that loves cucumbers and sumo. Right now I have to immerse myself in the battle of all these professionals grabbing pots and pans and assembling the ingredients for the fish stew we’re making.
My first order arrived at the imaginary pass: individual kaiseki a serving of clear fish soup osumashi for one. My heart is racing. My hands are shaking. This has got to be the most pressure I’ve ever felt on what should be a holiday. But I love it.
A new respect for tempura and other classics
There are more obvious ways to explore Tokyo’s food scene. The pursuit of Michelin stars makes a certain amount of sense, given that the Michelin guide lists 198 restaurants with a total of 261 stars this year, more than any other city on earth. But you can get here without any meal plan.
Tokyo may seem chaotic to visitors at first, but discovery and luck are key parts of the city’s charm. If you find yourself trying to find a quiet corner – as you probably will sometimes – you might come across a gem. For example, wandering away from the crowds at Tsukiji Outdoor Market, you might stumble down some worn linoleum stairs off Namiyoke-dori and find yourself at Tohto Grill. This is a diner. No Michelin star currently or likely. But here there are truck drivers eating plates of fried saffron and braised beef tendon. There’s a jukebox and a cigarette machine, and the tuna sashimi breakfast set with sauerkraut and whitebait is unpretentiously perfect.
Culinary school, I found, adds a layer to one’s research. Also, you don’t need a week at the Tokyo Sushi Academy. I did a three hour soba intensive with Tokyo Cook and a one hour fruit cutting lesson at Takano Fruit Parlor.
In the most obvious case, things you took for granted will inspire new respect. Or at least, if you’re me, you’ll rethink your long-standing indifference to tempura. It’s just too hard to do to be indifferent. Before culinary school, I had never thought about the perfect temperature difference between the battered item and the oil it is cooking in, for example, which is 295 degrees.
I hadn’t thought that if you are skilled enough, you can cook tempura to a great extent by ear. At Tempura Kondo, where the two Michelin stars evoke a reverent hush among diners (good for listening), you can watch it all as an insider’s show. Tempura masters are busier than sushi chefs, Mr. Hiro said, and never talk to customers. Why? That’s because they stand over the oil with their ears strained to hear the “pulse” of sound that waxes and wanes as the bubbles get smaller and the dish nears completion.
And that was just the beginning of the drama. Without sweating a few hours for my academy prep, would I have noticed the knife cuts that scattered my miniature eggplant, or how the paper was folded like a kimono on my plate, or that the ginger daikon garnish was scooped into a bowl to look like bozu the temple master’s bald head?
You’ll find the same technical fixation behind most Japanese culinary preparations. You may hear the word datsusara when you talk to people who deal with food here. I heard it first from ramen expert Brian McDuxton, with whom we ate at Yakitori Yamamoto near Mitaka Station. The word datsusara captures the idea of escaping the rat race and is associated with chefs who come from the corporate world and turn their picky affections to food instead. But it speaks to a detail-oriented pursuit of food perfection in general.
Yakitori restaurants are mesmerizing places to witness the phenomenon. The chef is often right in front of you, looming over the clay box grill full of binchotan charcoal, carefully inspecting the skewers, pinching them to check for doneness, dipping them in tar sauce right up to 80 percent. Once you try your hand at this, you’ll also know that when the grill guy throws one of those skewers, it’s because the prep guy didn’t balance it properly to prevent it from rolling in place.
“That’s why you’re on skewers for three years before you touch the grill,” Mr. Hiro said.
At Yakitori Yoneda, just south of Nishi-Ogikubo Station, I noticed the tsukune, or chicken meatballs, arriving perfectly charred, slightly sweet, with a perfect spring to the bite from the potato starch added to the mixture the night before grilling. I duck under the red awning out of the rain with a skewer of medium-cooked chicken livers, another with crispy chicken skin. The tsukune here is thick, about the size of a small zucchini. And when it arrives with the diced onion and jam soft fried egg, I enjoy it even more because I recognized the perfect execution. This is still one of the best dishes I’ve had in Tokyo on many visits.
Yoneda also illustrates another point: You don’t have to spend a ton of dough to have those “best bite” moments. Good, cheap yakitori in Tokyo will set you back around ¥400, or about $2.65, for a few skewers. I think the cooking classes actually lower the price of the pleasure by letting you see how great the technique can be in many everyday restaurants in Tokyo.
Michelin-starred restaurant Kondo has brilliant tempura, no doubt about it. But so does Ginza Hageten, just down the road and at a fraction of the price. Here, the lunch crowds flock in, jazz plays in the background, and your vegetable tempura, rice, and bowl of noodles come together.
I had the same experience exploring tonkatsu, that ubiquitous panko-fried pork tenderloin that often comes with a pile of shredded cabbage. Airy is good at Butagumi, where, amidst woody elegance, you can choose from dozens of varieties of pork and where no one in the dining room is allowed to wear perfume. But it’s also great at Danki Tonkatsu, around the corner from Demboin Shrine in Asakusa. When I ate there with Yukari Sakamoto, the author of the Food for Tokyo guide, we sat side by side with anyone else who happened to be hungry and walked by.
A full bowl of heaven
At Tokyo Cook’s kitchen at Sougo in Roppongi, I spent an afternoon learning soba with chef Shinichi Yoshida, a dapper man who wears a shirt and tie under his apron. Mr. Yoshida walked me through the history of buckwheat in Japan. He explained the dashi to the glutamine content of different types of kombu seaweed, a key ingredient. He shaved his katsuobushi for the dashi from his own bonito block, dry-aged for five years, the cut surface is darkly translucent like a black gem. We made the noodles by hand by rolling out the tough, low-gluten dough with a long dowel, then cutting it into 1/16-inch strips with a huge menkiri a knife whose handle is wrapped in shark skin.
I’ve had only a few bowls of noodles in Tokyo that come close to the brilliant dish Mr. Yoshida showed me the other day, with his perfectly balanced dipping sauce of five parts dashi to one part kaeshi, a slow-simmering combination of soy, sugar and dark civilian. The first of these was at Teuchi Soba Fujiya in Shinjuku, recommended by Mr Hiro of the Tokyo Sushi Academy, where a group of people form 30 minutes before they open and your food comes with a small jug of the soba cooking liquid to drink after this your food to aid digestion.
I found the second perfect bowl at a chain called Tokyo Abura Soba with 60 Japanese locations where you order from a vending machine and get your bowl of pork chashu noodles in about three minutes. Abura soba isn’t really soba at all. It’s a brothless bowl of ramen noodles drenched in a sauce made with soy, broth powder, sugar, vinegar, and white miso, or Chinese doubanjiang. It’s stupidly delicious. It’s also addictive. But I wouldn’t have known what a series of rules had to be broken on the way to this dark bowl of heaven if Mr. Yoshida hadn’t shown me the fastidious perfection of “proper” soba.
How the pros do it
My hit the clear fish soup doesn’t go bad in the end. My salmon slices are a little uneven. And my mitsuba trim is tied in a babushka instead of a reef knot. Yet, after a rush of adrenaline and frantically placing each ingredient in the correct place in the bowl, I get the dish in time.
Mr. Hiro nods, amused by my efforts. And back at my bench, I catch a glance from my fellow yacht chef, who gives me a subdued nod of approval. “You’re fast,” he allows.
Then I head to Nakajima for kaiseki to see how the real pros do it. Eleven brilliant dishes. Or maybe 12. I lost count. I linger over one dish longer than the others, the dashi so clear in the black lacquered wooden oven bowl that I can barely see it. But I can smell kombu, katsuobushi. I can see the fish and the vegetables, all perfectly placed. And as I bite into the delicate fish and sip from that steaming broth, I have a glimpse of the years it must have taken to become so good at something both so simple and so difficult.
The soup is more than delicious. I drain the bowl.
If you go
At Tohto Grill, simple dishes cost 950 to 1,500 yen, or about $6.50 to $10.
Lunch at Tempura Kondo ranges from ¥8,800 to ¥12,100. Dinner ranges from ¥14,300 to ¥23,100.
At Yakitori Yamamoto, plates range from ¥210 to ¥980. At Yakitori Yoneda, they range from ¥185 to ¥320.
At Butagumi, pork tenderloin and tenderloin dishes cost from ¥2,000 to ¥4,200.
At Danki Tonkotsu, a meal costs about ¥2,100.
Lunch at Teuchi Soba Fujiya ranges from ¥1,200 to ¥2,000.
Noodle bowls start at ¥880 at Tokyo Abura Soba.