2021 was a tough year, but Tokyo chefs remain undeterred

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Happy New Year! Good luck, good health and good eating in the year ahead. All across Japan, auspicious toshikoshi noodles will be slurped, temple bells will be tolled and Champagne corks will be popped. The Year of the Tiger is upon us: Here’s hoping Tokyo’s food scene will roar back to life.

In 2021, the capital spent more than 200 days — over 60% of the year — under state-of-emergency restrictions that kept us from gathering, traveling, patronizing our favorite restaurants and, at times, drinking anything stronger than tea. Belts were tightened, hours curtailed, take-out menus refreshed and, on occasion, doors locked and lights dimmed.

But it takes a lot to deter the city’s indomitable chefs and restaurateurs. While it was hardly a bumper period for dining out, 2021 still brought a slew of new arrivals, excitement and anticipation. So, before embarking on the next round of gastronomy, let’s take time to salute the past 12 months.

In terms of new restaurant openings, nowhere in 2021 matched the heft and polish of Sezanne. Chef Daniel Calvert’s impeccable, modern-yet-classic French cuisine has immediately cemented his place on the Tokyo dining map — and deservedly won him a Michelin star in less than half a year.

Meanwhile, the Ishikawa Group — which includes Kagurazaka Ishikawa and Kohaku (both with three Michelin stars) — continues to hatch new ventures. In June, the Shibuya site formerly occupied by Restaurant Nanpeido reopened under the name Jinen. (pronounced “Jinen dot”). The chef in charge is Shoma Kato, who moved from Moliere (also three stars) in Sapporo to Noma in Copenhagen, and thence to Tokyo to work at the late, lamented Inua.

The Ishikawa Group also played a key role in developing the Imperial Hotel’s new Japanese restaurant, Torakuro, unveiled in November. Alongside the multicourse dinners served in the 24-seat premises in the basement of the Imperial Hotel Tower, chef Masashi Takami is also overseeing the Japanese snack repertoire at the swish new Hotel Bar on the same floor.

Les Freres Aoki, which opened in September, is a special kind of homecoming for chef Makoto Aoki. He spent 13 years in Paris, latterly running his own self-named restaurant together with his sister Miyoko. Now they are back in their hometown serving a taste of contemporary Parisian bistronomie at his convivial counter restaurant behind the Kabukiza theater in Ginza. If their family name sounds familiar, that’s because the third sibling, Toshikatsu, owner-chef of Sushi Aoki, is a Tokyo legend.

Modern Mexican fine dining is the concept behind Rubia, a two-floor operation that moved into the heart of Shibuya in March. Downstairs, the sleek, laid-back restaurant serves a la carte breakfast and brunch, and a more ambitious multicourse dinner menu. Upstairs you’ll find a quiet cafe during the day, which morphs into a DJ lounge and mixology bar at night.

The ongoing popularity of SG Club has had a ripple effect on Shibuya becoming a hot spot for cocktails. The bar’s newest spinoff, swrl, is notable for its menu of wine-based cocktails developed by sommelier Motohiro Okoshi. | GETTY IMAGES

Shibuya is becoming a major hub for cocktails these days, thanks to the massively popular SG Club. The bar’s latest spin-off, swrl, offers an intriguing range of wine-based cocktails developed together with sommelier Motohiro Okoshi of An Di, paired with an enterprising food menu overseen by chef Fumio Yonezawa (formerly of Jean Georges and The Good Vibes).

Chefs Zaiyu Hasegawa and Hiroyasu Kawate had three strong reasons to celebrate this autumn. Just as their brilliant collaboration counter restaurant Denkushiflori marked its first anniversary, they announced that plancha master Susumu Shimizu (recently of Anis) had taken over as head chef. Within a month the restaurant took delivery of its first Michelin star.

When Pizza Studio Tamaki got its first mention in the Michelin Guide — a Bib Gourmand — owner and pizzaiolo Tsubasa Tamaki was more than ready for the uptick in demand. Early in the pandemic, he had already formulated a great frozen version of his trademark pies, and by October his Pizza Labo production site in Azabudai was ready to go. Sadly, his original plans to combine it with a pizza and wine stand bar had to be put on hold, but here’s hoping that may happen in the coming year.

High-end sushi with a down-to-earth price point — that’s the admirable aim behind Ginza Onodera’s latest outlet just off Omotesando. It’s a kaiten (conveyor belt) operation but the seafood is touted to be the same quality as at its other upscale branches. For those in a hurry, it has even installed a tachigui stand-up counter.

Two restaurants of note changed their identities last year: Azabu Juban’s local favorite tempura restaurant, Yokota had an overdue facelift and became Ten Yokota, coinciding with chef Tsuneo Yokota handing over the reins to his son, Shogo. Reports indicate the quality is better than ever. And the excellent Erba de Nakahigashi in Nishiazabu has also undergone a metamorphosis. As always, the menu remains Italian-based and vegetable-forward, but since February it has been rebranded as Cusavilla.

For Tokyo’s gelato connoisseurs, 2021 turned out to have a lovely cold, silver lining thanks to the arrival in Tokyo of Giolitti, one of Italy’s oldest and most prestigious producers. The Rome-based company tested the waters with a small outlet for its artisan gelati in the arcade under Shinjuku Station (close to the funky-classic Berg cafe).

Sezanne was the standout opening of 2021. The earth tones and suave furnishings of its dining room come courtesy of Hong Kong designer Andre Fu. | FOUR SEASONS HOTEL TOKYO AT MARUNOUCHI
Sezanne was the standout opening of 2021. The earth tones and suave furnishings of its dining room come courtesy of Hong Kong designer Andre Fu. | FOUR SEASONS HOTEL TOKYO AT MARUNOUCHI

That was just a preview for Giolitti Cafe on the third floor of the Itocie building overlooking the Shinkansen lines at Yurakucho Station. Besides its full array of seasonal all-fruit, no-additive gelati — currently fresh mikan (mandarin), Amao strawberry and hojicha (roasted green tea) are the seasonal specials — you will find a full menu of antipasti, pasta and mains made fresh in-house. But it’s the ice cream cakes and paletas that are drawing the crowds, thanks to the expertise of pastry chef Francesco Taglialatela, formerly of the now-closed two-star Heinz Beck restaurant in Otemachi.

In equally sweet news, the Aman Tokyo’s stunning new La Patisserie is a beacon of beautiful design and premium pastries in the drab subterranean warren running below the Otemachi commercial district.

Wine and cheese parties could play a bigger part in our lives this coming year. Online French cheese importer Le Comptoir de France has opened its first brick-and-mortar outlet close to Tokyu department store in Shibuya, with an impressive selection of premium fromage, plus an array of natural wine, all of which can be sampled at their handsome in-store counter.

There are two names to look out for in early 2022. The first is British celebrity chef Tom Aikens, who will be the name over the door at The Jade Room, the soon-to-launch restaurant on the 31st floor of Hotel Edition in Toranomon. The second chef to watch is Atsuki Kuroda, who has moved on from Caveman in Nihonbashi and is gearing up to open his new restaurant, likely to be called AC, this spring.

There’s no knowing when, how or even if things will return to normal in 2022. One thing is for sure, though — dining out in Tokyo is never going to get boring. Buckle up and get ready to ride that tiger.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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