A few years ago some bright sparks thought up a jolly wheeze, a new glossy magazine for the catering trade and the eating public, "Restaurant" it's called, and it does OK, publicising new restaurants, reviewing and interviewing Gordon Ramsay.
Their best PR stunt to date has been the naming of the "world's top restaurant", last year the Fat Duck this year El Bulli, both laboratories of molecular gastronomy and both bloody fantastic. It appears to be a judicious award, but frankly it's a lorryload of hokum. No offence to the 100 restaurants concerned, they're good, but as any fule kno the best meal in the best restaurant can vary dramatically from fish and chips to spare ribs. Haute Cuisine has its place, and European cooking too, but London-centric tastes hardly dominate the world. But since this is a list designed to create controversy, details like what "world's best" actually means is neither here nor there. Who cares?
Well here's the beef. Last year they changed the voting, their "Academy" now divides the world into 22 regions to make it "truly global". The Japanese/Korean jury (and there's something you don't see very often) is chaired by Yumiko Inukai, a prolific writer of note in Japan. Hooray! At last a little western recognition for a collection of regional cuisines, or even just something national, that offers what we'll modestly call here "just about the best eating anywhere in the world".
So where do Tokyo's best, the delights of Kyoto, or even Osaka's offerings lie? Top ten? Twenty? Er......well nowhere actually. Not a one in the prestigious Top 50. And in 51 to 100? Guess what? Not a mention.
What this list says is that in the world's top 100 restaurants there isn't one in Japan. And that is frankly preposterous, no matter where your taste buds lie, and whether or not you've noticed the growing number of Japanese restaurants around London and Europe. Japanese restaurants only make it into the list if they're in foreign countries, like Tetsuya's in Australia or Nobu. Phooey!
Japanese cuisines - leaving aside the cheap and cheerful noodle houses, (although why should I?) - can offer a never ending range of seasonal, fresh produce that almost defies comprehension, never mind cataloguing. I can't list them here because there are too many websites and guides to Japanese cuisine already on the web which fully describe what you get. In Britian, we observe four seasons, in Japan, they have hundreds. All over Kyoto, for example, are little restaurants, some with as few as six tables, run by invariably one person, who take seasonal specialisation to incredible lengths, bamboo seven ways, one fish six ways, and the never ending search for the best dashi. This is where you get to explore Umami, a taste the world craves but didn't even know existed until the Japanese told us.(It's what makes Parmesan cheese so yummy)
There are lots of things to eat in Japan that we might run a mile from (they're mostly moving) but to suggest that there are no world class restaurants is just plain silly.
After the jump, I've detailed what you might get next month in Kyoto, at one of the country's two best Ryokans, Hiiragiya and Tawaraya, whose Kaiseki menus change weekly according to what's in season.No pictures, I'm afraid, which is a pity since presentation is just as important as taste. It's in English, for the sake of comprehension, and also because I can't speak a word of Japanese.
After an Aperitif (Shokuzen-Shu) of Daiginjyo "Momo no sizuku", the meal starts....
First Appetiser (Sakizuke): Taro stalk, Octupus, shrimp, okra and Radish in vinegar
Second appetiser (Hassun): Simmered Jerry with Sea Bream and Sea Bream eggs, Bayberry in wine, squid with salt cured Skipjack, Baked fish with miso, Broad beans, taro, baked sea urchin, Rolled wax Gourd with prawns.
Sashimi (Mukouzuke) Sea Bream, Tuna Toro, Japanese Pen Shell, Perilla leaf, Laver, carrot, perilla, and sliced white radish.
Sushi (Oshinogi) : Cardinal Sea Bream, White Kelp, Ginger, Oak leaf
Simmered (Nimono-Wan): Soy milk skin with Tofu, baked Japanese Branquillo, salt pickled Japanese apricot, Kuzu starch sheets, Japanese citron.
Grilled Fish (Yaki-Zakana) Sea Bass,bamboo shoot,Sansho leaves, Japanese pepper and vinegar.
Simmered (Takiawase) Deep fried Kamo eggplant with minced chicken, peas, welsh onions and dashi soup.
Steamed (Mushi-mono) Steamed tofu with brown cream in a crabshell, sauce of Katakuriko, Shark's fin and ginger.
Deep fried (Ago-mono) Flounder with nori, potato and lemon.
Vinegared (Su-No-Mono) Salad of cooked abalone, wakame, yam, sword bean, cucumber and vinegar.
Soup (Tome-Wan) Miso, soy milk skin, winter mushroom, trefoil and myoga.
Rice (Gohan) with short neck clams, welsh onions, ginger.
Pickles (Kou-No-Mono) Egg plant, white gourd, cucumber.
Dessert (Mizu-Mono) Melon, Loquat simmered in honey, cherry, mint.