In subjects such as politics, art and food, being labelled "narrow minded" is usually considered an insult. But in the world's largest city, a singular focus is what every chef strives for. From noodle joints producing only soba or udon, to neighborhood tonkatsu houses and tempura counters, the seemingly elusive goal of perfection is always the same, no matter how many years the kitchen has been around.
"I think it's part of the Japanese philosophy of doing just one thing," said Yukari Sakamoto, the author Food Sake Tokyo, who gives tours of the city's eating highlights along with her husband, a former fish buyer. "Perfecting an art and doing it the best you can; that's such a big part of the culture here."
Sakamoto and I spent a long lunch together at Maisen, a tonkatsu restaurant in the swanky Aoyama neighbourhood that's been in business since 1965. The namesake is a panko breadcrumb-encrusted, deep-fried boneless pork cutlet. Think wiener schnitzel, only plumper and more elegant. Guests line up all day long on a Sunday, politely taking seats in a first-come, first-served queue. There are individual stools at a long counter, and a spacious dining room in the back, but Sakamoto took us upstairs, where we dined on the floor – tatami-style – faced with a colour picture menu offering several types of tonkatsu.
Not only did we need to choose the breed of pork (Tokyo X, Kurobota Black, Okinawan Red), but then had to decide if we wanted the roast or filet (loin). Maisen first bakes their panko, which creates an extra-crispy crust; at the table, the tonkatsu is served over a thin, wire rack, which rests on a large, earthenware plate. It's crowned with a baseball-sized mound of finely shredded cabbage, and you're offered two sauces. This is where the genius of the rack lies: as you ladle over the Worcestershire-and-sugar-based sauce, it falls beneath the tonkatsu, preventing a soggy mess on the bottom layer. The Chamiton pork loin – fed a diet of corn, tea and barley – was the richest and juiciest of the four varieties we ordered.
In the busy Shinjuku District, just a 10-minute walk from the busiest train station in Tokyo, Tsunahachi cares about only one thing: tempura. A long, wooden J-shaped counter dominates the diminutive restaurant, and this is where you want to sit, facing the action. Three men in white paper hats, ties and shirts alternate roles, as five things need to happen, all simultaneously: oil is added to small deep-fryers; tempura batter is made throughout dinner service, thinned with water until it's the proper consistency; fresh eel, shrimp and scallops are cleaned and prepped, while the delicate seafood and vegetables must be turned and checked constantly; as soon as something is finished frying, it must be served piping hot to customers on paper towel-lined plates.
"After years of doing this, the cooks know how much oil to add and how to calibrate their sauces," said Sakamoto. "Weather fluctuations and temperature play a role."
Sakamoto says in Japan, no matter where you work, employers typically expect a three-year commitment. Clearly, the men behind the counter at Tsunahachi have ample experience. My shrimp has a crispy, light shell, but inside, its natural sweetness isn't obliterated by the batter. The same is true of a delicate shiso leaf that crunches into tasty shards upon hitting my tongue.
Ramen has become ubiquitous hipster spaghetti in New York and Toronto, but the bowl of noodles in broth is treated with great respect in Japan. Affordable, even by Tokyo standards, you can get a decent bowl for less than $10. At Tokyo Tonkotsu Banraku – which refers to the slow-cooked pork bone broth, rather than tonkatsu, the breaded-and-fried cutlet – you decide what you want before even walking inside, as you encounter a large vending machine. Just hand your order ticket over to the cook. Prefer a miso-based broth? How about some extra nori (seaweed) or perhaps a soft-cooked egg? All of these options are made available on the machines' rectangular buttons. You just have to figure out which ones to press.
It takes less than five minutes for my ramen to arrive, since the cooks only have to worry about three things: the broth, the noodles and the garnish. Curly egg noodles are boiled for less than a minute, shaken off in their strainer with a motion resembling a blacksmith pounding out a horseshoe, then dumped into the steaming hot broth. At the table, you can add some togarashi (spice powder), but I really loved seeing fresh garlic cloves and the accompanying silver press, which allowed me to amp up the earthy broth's flavour to my liking.
A few hours south of Tokyo, in Kyoto, I'm eating okonomiyaki in a wood-panelled room that looks like my basement from the 1970s. Kora Tei has been slinging the large, savoury seafood pancakes here for more than 30 years. Sitting at square tables around stainless steel flat-top griddles, the Frisbee-size discs are typically jammed with squid, scallops and cabbage. A generous, artful drizzle of Kewpie mayo lends richness, while a coffee-coloured sauce of soy and sugar appeals to your inner kid. Tiny shards of dried, finely shredded seaweed adorn the top. The pancake looks like a psychedelic album cover.
At Kora Tei, much of the action happens at the 10-seat main counter, where you can see them prepare Kyoto-style okonomiyaki . This version is softer and puffier, even though it's stuffed with tofu. Served with a ponzu sauce of citrus, soy and mirin, it's topped with paper-thin wisps of bonito (dried and smoked skipjack tuna). Like the other single-subject restaurants I've visited on this delicious trip, I say something to no one in particular about how stellar the food is. But no one at the table says a word. They're all too busy eating.
IF YOU GO
Tonkatsu Maisen Try the panko breadcrumb-encrusted, deep-fried boneless pork cutlets. Think wiener schnitzel, only plumper and more elegant. 4-8-5 Jingumae, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, 81-0-120-428-485; mai-sen.com/restaurant
Tsunahachi A temple of tempura, make sure you take a seat at the counter to watch the chefs in action. 3-31-8 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 81-0-3-3352-1012; tunahachi.co.jp/en
Tokyo Tonkotsu Bankara Come here for a bowl of noodles in broth – ramen is treated with great respect in Japan. You can get a decent bowl for less than $10 served in five minutes. 3-13-5 Shinbashi, Chuo-ku, Tokyo; 81-0-3-3438-3700; hanaken.co.jp/bankara
Kora Tei The go-to spot for okonomiyaki – large, savoury, seafood pancakes. 943-3 Kamigyouku Simokiyokuraguchi Chyou, Kyoto; 81-0-75-4318961
For information about Yukari Sakamoto's food/sake tours of Tokyo visit foodsaketokyo.wordpress.com.