“Destination Restaurants 2022” selected by the Japan Times
Destination Restaurants is a list of Japan’s best restaurants published by The Japan Times. Started in 2021, the list is selected by Japanese experts with an international audience in mind. Our three judges from last year, Yoshiki Tsuji, Naoyuki Honda and Takefumi Hamada, are back again and have selected 10 restaurants from all over the country.
The selection criteria dictate that restaurants can be of any genre and located anywhere — except in “the 23 wards of Tokyo and any ‘ordinance-designated city’ (designated cities with populations of 500,000 or more).” Tokyo is renowned for having more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city in the world, and the designated cities also boast fantastic dining options. But for Destination Restaurants those locations have been excluded because “the real expression of Japan’s land and climate is to be found in its regional areas, and not its cities.” The judges are also unanimous in believing in the value of “unearthing those unique talents that tend to get lost in regional areas” and that a regional-focused list provides an “alternative to the usual popular selections.”
The Destination Restaurant of the year 2022
Villa Aida, winner of the Destination Restaurant of the Year 2022 award, is located in Wakayama Prefecture, half an hour by car from Kansai International Airport or a train ride with several transfers from Osaka. It isn’t surrounded by great scenic beauty or near any famous sites. Instead, it is tucked among clothing shops and restaurants on the main drag of a residential neighborhood that few travelers would likely go out of their way to visit unless they were headed for this restaurant. Since there are no luxury hotels nearby, most diners finish their meal and head straight back to the airport or train station. But if they arrive an hour or so early, they can tour the gardens where chef and owner Kanji Kobayashi lovingly grows the vegetables for the restaurant. The place where the zucchini and corn ripen. The greenhouse crowded with colorful edible flowers and herbs like thyme and rosemary. They may find chef Kobayashi harvesting something, scissors in hand. What dish will it become? This, you see, is where the meal begins.
Filled with anticipation, guests step inside the restaurant, which occupies a house decorated in the style of an Italian villa. The floors are wood and the walls are white plaster. Outside the windows, dappled sunlight flickers. In a setting that is neither rural nor urban, the restaurant is a world apart. It is also an epicure’s Mecca. There is only one table, for six. On chef Kobayashi’s ideal day, a pair of diners from the city join a pair from the local area and pair of farmers or artisans around the table, engaging in a conversation that leaves all of them inspired by the time they leave.
The only option for either lunch or dinner is a set omakase menu for ¥19,800 ($150). In Japanese, it is called Wakayama Flavor. Since its opening, Villa Aida has advertised itself as an Italian restaurant, but year by year it has come to fit less neatly in that category. If pressed, chef Kobayashi describes his style as Wakayama flavor. Or better yet, “my cooking.”
The omakase menu includes eight or nine plates, two desserts and a sweet served with tea. In May, the theme was “shoots and peas.” The meal began with an amuse-bouche of chips made from kinuhikari rice grown by the chef’s father and fresh tea buds picked that day. The tea buds, seasoned with a citrus yuzu ponzu sauce made in-house the previous winter, were slightly bitter and green-tasting, but not at all acrid. Their fresh flavor filled my mouth as I chewed. Next was butterbur with caramel and nasturtium. Butterbur, or fuki, is a traditional wild food deeply associated with Japanese as well as Wakayama cuisine, but the pairing with sweet caramel sauce was entirely novel, creating flavors that could only be experienced here.
An Italian restaurant in a single-family house surrounded by farms in the Kunimi area of the city of Unzen on Nagasaki Prefecture’s Shimabara Peninsula. Chef Takafumi Yoshida, who was born and raised locally, trained in Italy. Able to identify the true potential of locally produced ingredients, he expertly pairs locally sourced meals with wine and local sake.
Located in Miyajimaguchi, the departure point for ferries to the world-renowned Itsukushima Shrine in Hiroshima Prefecture, this innovative French restaurant is housed within an 80-year-old former residence. With a focus on serving freshly prepared meals, it has just eight seats at its counter. Locally born and raised chef Kenji Akai’s menu is inspired by the fresh ingredients available on the day, so there are no standard items.
A French restaurant run by Toshiya Ikehata, who was born and raised in Ishikawa’s Noto Peninsula and trained in Osaka and France. Many guests come to enjoy the seafood, including crabs in winter and rock oysters in summer, served in local Wajima lacquerware and Suzu ware ceramics. The restaurant itself is housed in a former lacquerware workshop in Wajima.
Founded more than 90 years ago in Yamagata as an inn for pilgrims coming to worship at the Three Mountains of Dewa, this inn is a rarity even in Japan for its focus on sansai, or wild mountain plants. Based on the previous owner’s belief that “local foods cooked by locals are the most delicious,” it uses local ingredients, particularly those harvested in the wild around the town of Nishikawa and Mount Gassan.
Located in the snowy Niigata city of Minamiuonuma, this inn offers Japanese cuisine in an old converted residence. Not only has its food earned plaudits, but the hands-on experiences it offers guests for growing organic Uonuma Koshihikari rice and its style of reinventing local cuisine through collaborations with chefs are also attracting attention.
An Italian-style inn in the Hokkaido village of Noboricho, which boasts many vineyards even for the Yoichi region. It relocated from Sapporo in 2017 and became more focused on showcasing local flavors. It specializes in pairing local wines with the best products from the mountains and the sea as well as produce from nearby farms. The Japanese-style breakfast with fresh local fish is also popular.
“My restaurant lacks the ‘sacredness’ demonstrated by other regional chefs winning awards in the Destination Restaurants 2022 competition, those who collaborate with local producers or use cuisine to preserve the regional history they’ve inherited,” said chef Masakazu Taira, owner of the Tokyo restaurant Don Bravo. “But I am always thinking about what I can do within that context.”
His restaurant is neither in a rural area abundant with nature and nearby producers, nor in a tourist destination. It is located in a residential area in Tokyo’s suburbs, the Kokuryo district of the city of Chofu, a place people do not usually visit in search of gastronomic delights. He therefore started from a menu featuring pizza and other items that would be familiar to the area’s residents.
Despite that, Taira learned his skills at some of Italy’s most prestigious restaurants. Using superior ingredients and techniques, he cooks every pizza with the utmost care, winning over the hearts and minds of his guests. As his restaurant began filling up more frequently, he gradually added fancier fare to his menu and raised his prices. The restaurant gradually attracted a more gourmet fan base, and the cuisine it offered changed to suit.
Today he offers pasta and pizza lunch specials starting at ¥1,595 ($11.60) and an ¥11,000 prix fixe menu in the evening. In early summer, he starts with a cold corn soup. The second dish is raw oysters with Sicilian lemon oil. There is nothing surprising in these combinations of ingredients; indeed, they are the height of orthodoxy. So I asked Taira about what he aims at with the food he makes.
He replied: “Serving a dish that people have never seen before might result in a brief surge of popularity, but it wouldn’t last long. That being the case, I want to serve dishes that everyone knows but develop new ways of cooking them to deliver higher quality.”
For example, he does not follow the Neapolitan style of making pizza, which is characterized by a soft and fluffy dough; instead he lets a dough that includes whole-wheat flour rise in the refrigerator for two to three days before baking it in a wood-fired oven at 450 degrees Celsius for just a minute and a half. The result is a dough that when baked is clearly savory, crispy and sharply delicious, a flavor that is unique to the Don Bravo group of restaurants.
Cold pasta is normally boiled until soft and then cooled in ice water, but Taira just mixes in the sauce and cools the whole thing, pot and all. The cold pasta with clams he makes with this technique is a perfect union of clam broth with noodles, a flavor so rich in umami it isn’t lost even when topped with plenty of coriander, dill and other strongly aromatic herbs.
Complementing the various hidden innovations in Taira’s orthodox menu are clearly more experimental dishes, such as confit of ayu sweetfish served with Shine Muscats and edamame. To further enhance his cuisine, he also provides alcohol pairings that incorporate wines from around the world with Japanese sake and shochu, as well as nonalcoholic pairings such as Chablis-inspired blended teas with lemon peel and other ingredients.
Opening a high-end restaurant in a residential district is one adventure, and including pizza as part of what is supposed to be a high-end meal is another, but many foodies today are starting to embrace such a bold attitude.
Kamakura Kitajima occupies a renovated old house in a neighborhood dotted with historic temples. The sukiya teahouse-style interior features a counter facing earthen walls decorated with flowers grown in the front garden by owner Yasunori Kitajima.
Kitajima sharpened his skills as a chef during 16 years at the prestigious Japanese restaurant group Wakuden, absorbing the Japanese aesthetic in Kyoto.
“When I opened a restaurant in Kamakura, I didn’t intend to make Kyoto-style food. If I’m not serving food that can only be made in Kamakura, it’s meaningless,” he said.
He did not settle on a specific direction immediately after leaving Wakuden. He did, however, begin searching for the very best ingredients. Not limiting himself to local sources, he reached out to producers and suppliers with top-notch reputations in other prefectures as well. Among them was Hiroki Hasegawa, a seafood broker in Yokosuka, Kanagawa Prefecture, with a national reputation.
“The fish Mr. Hasegawa selects is on a different level than fish from the store. Since he was also in the same prefecture as me, I decided to put his fish at center stage,” Kitajima said.
Hasegawa’s base is a fish market that sells live seafood in Yokosuka’s Nagai port on Sagami Bay. There, fish are killed by severing their spinal cords so as not to subject them to stress. This results in a clear, unmuddled flavor, the flavor of the fish itself. With Hasegawa as a powerful ally, Kitajima launched Kamakura Kitajima in May 2021.
He found that the same types of fish he had used in Kyoto tasted completely different in Kamakura.
“Take hamo (pike conger). Unlike hamo from Awaji, which is preferred in the Kansai region, hamo caught here feed on squid, giving it a different flavor,” he said. He pounds the hamo to a paste that he shapes into balls, serving them in a broth with onions from the Miura Peninsula in southeastern Kanagawa.
The omakase set menu, the only option available, starts at ¥22,000 ($170), with prices dependent on the cost of seafood.
The akahata (blacktip grouper) served as sashimi is speared, Kitajima explained. “The fish that win out in the struggle for existence swim upward in search of food. Good hata are found in water less than 20 meters deep. They taste best when they are speared with a single thrust through the head.”
The charcoal-grilled kue (longtooth grouper) is also speared. Cooked with carefully modulated moisture and heat atop a lacquerware hibachi carved in the Kamakura-bori style, the fish has a tender texture and a surprising depth of flavor.
Although Kitajima’s affection for local fish has grown steadily stronger, he does not serve Kamakura’s famous shirasu (whitebait).
“Shirasu are what small fish feed on — in other words, the raw materials that make up the fish in the sea,” he said. “Given that fish stocks have been falling recently, I don’t want to use shirasu. There’s a limit to what I can do, but if I can do something to ensure future chefs are still able to cook with fish, the keystone of Japanese cuisine, then I want to do it. Also, Kamakura has a rich history, but it’s not as well advertised as Kyoto. It would be wonderful to promote the city through food and create new cultural traditions here.”
With the local food movement as popular as ever these days, forgotten regional ingredients are in the spotlight, and chefs are usually the ones responsible for pulling them onto the gastronomical stage. Chefs have been nurturing producers in this way since the end of the 20th century. Gradually, however, producers have also begun taking the lead in educating and nurturing chefs. Sasue Maeda Fish Shop is a prime example. Located in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, the fishmonger receives orders from famous chefs throughout Japan but also supplies fish to several local chefs. Daigo Sugiyama, proprietor of Chakaiseki Onjaku, is one of them.
The Sugiyama family’s history in the restaurant business goes back to Sugiyama’s grandfather, who established a soba shop in Yaizu. Later, his father trained at Wako, a restaurant in Tokyo’s Mejiro district known for incorporating the spirit and techniques of the tea ceremony into its chakaiseki cuisine, then went on to establish Chakaiseki Onjaku. Like his father, Sugiyama trained at Wako before returning to the family business eight years ago, where he became his father’s right-hand man in the kitchen.
“Even after I was back here working in Yaizu, I thought it was no match for Tokyo,” he said. He changed his mind, however, after observing the experience of the Yaizu tempura restaurant Naruse, which became one of the most heavily booked restaurants in Japan after joining forces with Naoki Maeda, owner of Sasue Maeda Fish Shop.
In fact, the Sugiyama family has been sourcing fish from Sasue Maeda Fish Shop for three generations. What is more, according to Maeda, the family has been buying from his shop longer than any other restaurant. As Sugiyama began frequenting the fishmonger, he gradually came to view Maeda as his teacher of all things fish. Maeda selects and supplies fish to the restaurant depending on how Sugiyama wants to prepare it: as sashimi, in soup or grilled, for example. Then, based on what Maeda tells him about the fish, Sugiyama decides how to cut it and how long to cook it to best bring out its flavor.
For ¥16,500 ($115), guests receive a multicourse meal that respects the chakaiseki tradition of hospitality without clinging to its formalities. At one meal, high-quality aji (horse mackerel) that had grown plump on sakura shrimp — itself a specialty of Shizuoka as well as an important marine resource — was served in a cucumber roll flavored with pickled plum. The itoyori tai (golden threadfin bream) was simmered in a light broth; Sugiyama said he intentionally used a smaller-than-usual amount of katsuobushi (bonito shavings) and seasonings to allow the flavor of the bream to shine. Tsuruna (New Zealand spinach) harvested wild from the Yaizu coast contributed a refreshing note. The jindo ika (Japanese squid) served with colinky squash owed its sweetness to being extremely fresh. The kinmedai (splendid alfonsino) had been unloaded at the dock just that afternoon, and its eyes really did glitter like gold, as its Japanese name suggests. Sugiyama served it grilled with its scales on, the skin crackling crisp. His restaurant’s outstanding reputation, he said, comes “thanks to the fishermen who risk their lives out on the ocean to catch fish for us, and all our forebears here in Shizuoka.” His own search for delicious flavors, he added modestly, is “still a work in progress” that will surely continue in the years to come.
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