Monday, April 23, 2007

Sweet On Tokyo

It’s been almost two decades since I last set foot in Tokyo and when my sakura-obsessed friend A suggested we head there for cherry blossom season, I found it very hard to resist. Of course it helped that A’s brother currently lives and works there and he very kindly agreed to let us…well, me really…stay in his pad.

Life has been a bit of a whirlwind lately, so from the time we decided to make the trip to the time we stepped on the plane at almost 6am on a humid Monday morning, I barely had time to do any research on the best places to eat in the Japanese capital. In any case, I figured A’s brother Tim, having lived there for over eight months now, would be able to offer recommendations. So I did what any dessert-obsessed girl would do—I downloaded a list of French patisseries and chocolatiers, from Pierre Herme to La Maison du Chocolat, and braced myself for numerous packed-to-the-rafters subway rides. Oh, and I also brought along a dedicated foldable bag for all the macarons, chocolates and other goodies that I would hand-carry home.

Tokyo did not disappoint. It heaves with people at all hours of the day. Getting from one place to another during our first couple of days was a mission in itself, and on day one and two, we found ourselves snoring in bed by 10pm, having eaten nothing but bowls of ramen (and what good ramen it was) all day. Indeed, we got lost more times that we liked, and we got caught without umbrellas in very cold rain to boot.

On day three we realised that we had found our groove with the city and learned to seriously map our routes before going anywhere so we wouldn’t get too lost (or frustrated). The Japanese were also very kind to us—giving directions even when we could barely understand one another, for shops and patisseries that were just around the corner yet unexplainably invisible to us two guileless gaijins.

In the end, I lugged home a foldable bag bursting with chocolate truffles and macarons from Jean Paul Hevin and Pierre Herme, dark chocolate studded with sesame seeds and matcha truffles from Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, two chocolate and chestnut cakes and a tin of black Russian tea from Joel Robuchon, several packets of beautifully wrapped wagashi, and more bags of rice crackers.

Food-wise, Tokyo turned out to be less expensive than we expected. While we didn’t dine anywhere posh, everything we ate—from the beautifully packaged bento boxes and egg sandwiches at the train stations to sukiyaki at a counter in Isetan Shinjuku—was divine. The Japanese not only take pride in the way their food looks and tastes, they also use the freshest ingredients that make all the difference (I’ve never tasted fresher eggs in my life).

Here then is my must-hit list of places in Tokyo, as varied as they are incredibly appealing—at least to a greedy chick like me:

For macarons, head to Pierre Herme (of course) at these addresses. Jean Paul Hevin has various outposts in the city and I found that his macarons travelled better than the ones from Pierre Herme.

Other fantastic patisseries include Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki, for its amazing selection of chocolates, cookies, teas and cakes (see their online shop on the website for the selection) and Joel Robuchon’s boutique at L’Atelier Joel Robuchon in Roppongi Hills.

Incidentally, L’Atelier Joel Robuchon is a fantastic place to sample the renowned chef’s cuisine at friendly prices. A four-course dinner costs ¥6,800 per head, plus taxes (about S$80), without wine. And what a fantastic meal it was. The entire experience was very pleasant, from the food to the service (the dishy waiters helped some too). The restaurant doesn’t take reservations, so either go early or early in the week—and be prepared to get in line.

If you can pull yourself out of bed at the ungodly hour of four or five in the morning, the Tsukiji Fish Market is worth a trip. This site has some pretty detailed pictures and information on the market. The market closes every Sunday and on alternate Wednesdays and Saturdays, so be sure to check before you head down.

The Japanese are incredibly polite, but I couldn’t help feeling like I was getting in the way of the fishmongers who are busily ferrying giant tunas along the narrow rows of the market. Us camera-touting tourists must be the bane of their existence—a right nuisance in the midst of their daily grind.

The best part of the fish market is the sushi you’ll have after. Everyone seems to head to Daiwa (Tsujiki Market, Bldg. #6, 5-2-1, Tsujiki, Chuo-ku, Tokyo | P: 03 3547 6807), much touted as the place for a sushi breakfast. I’m not much for queuing that early in the morning, so we headed to a little sushi bar (we didn’t even get its name), in which we spied several older Japanese folk having breakfast. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.

Everyone’s been talking about the new Tokyo MidTown in Roppongi. It’s huge, it’s posh and well, it’s a mall. It’s kinda like Little New York, with its coffee and bagel shops and two Dean & Deluca outlets (one little coffee shop and the bigger gourmet store). It is also home to Jean Paul Hevin and Patisserie Sadaharu Aoki outlets.

No self-respecting foodie should miss the experience of a Japanese supermarket. The noisiest, most crowded and most interesting by far is The Food Show in the basement of Tokyu in Shibuya. It has everything—from fresh fruit, meat, fish, cooked food stalls, patisseries, chocolatiers—everything. And it’s chock full of vendors screaming across the crowds, from one end of the place to the other.

Finally, for quirky home items, check out Tokyu Hands. Give yourself at least an hour (more, to be realistic) because it’s eight floors of everything from kitchen supplies to hardware to cleaning equipment and camping equipment to stationary.