November 20, 2007 / 4:39 AM / 12 years ago

Tokyo celebrates its new gourmet capital status

TOKYO (Reuters Life!) - From tiny underground sushi bars to a full-scale French chateau rebuilt next to a shopping mall, Michelin’s first guide to dining out in Tokyo showcases the breadth of gourmet experiences the city has to offer.

Japanese eels are cooked over charcoal at an eel restaurant 'Yaotoku' in Tokyo July 26, 2007. From tiny underground sushi bars to a full-scale French chateau rebuilt next to a shopping mall, Michelin's first guide to dining out in Tokyo showcases the breadth of gourmet experiences the city has to offer. REUTERS/Yuriko Nakao

In the first Asian venture of its 107-year history, the French tire maker’s guide sprinkled more stars on the Japanese capital than any other city in the world, silencing critics who had doubted foreigners could appreciate the local cuisine.

“High praise for our food culture,” the Sankei Shimbun trumpeted in a headline, while almost all the other papers splashed across their front pages pictures of the first Japanese chefs to receive the top three-star rating.

TV variety shows were also abuzz with the news.

About 60 percent of the starred restaurants in the Michelin guide serve Japanese food, from sushi to tempura, buckwheat noodles to deep-fried tempura and even the potentially fatal charms of fugu or blowfish, which is poisonous if prepared incorrectly.

That opens up what has often been a world closed to foreign visitors.

Hidden locations, menus — where there are any — written only in Japanese and a frequent ‘no credit card’ policy have sometimes made seeking out gourmet food in Tokyo a daunting experience for tourists.

Most of the other listed restaurants are French, partly a reflection of the fact that many top Japanese chefs spend years of apprenticeship there.

“They have shown they understand our food culture by awarding three stars even to restaurants that are small and where the surroundings are not particularly luxurious,” food critic Yasuhiro Yamamoto told the Sankei.

But he was slightly skeptical about the number of restaurants included, even though Michelin insists its stars have the same value anywhere in the world.

“I was surprised at the number of stars,” Yamamoto told the paper. “I wonder if the appraisals might have been a little loose.”

Food bloggers warned that it was near impossible to get reservations at some of the smaller top-rated eateries even before they were awarded stars.

But there is no need to despair of finding an undiscovered gem in a city that boasts an incredible 160,000 restaurants.

“I apologize to those who were not included,” Michelin guide director Jean-Luc Naret told reporters this week. “From tomorrow, our inspectors will be out seeking new restaurants and chefs for the 2009 guide.”

Tokyo diners need have little fear of facing the legendary arrogance of some European chefs.

“I do my best with the fish that comes in each day,” 82-year-old sushi chef Jiro Ono of the three-star Sukiyabashi Jiro. “I never dreamed I would be awarded stars and there is still much I must learn.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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