We can be pretty much assured that the 14th-century English poet-monk John Lydgate never pondered the culinary arts or the ranking of restaurants by food quality and ambience—the restaurant as we know it was invented in Paris some three centuries after he penned his last stanza. Yet Lydgate certainly knew his philosophical onions, for it was he who gave us this gem: “Odyous of olde been comparisonis/And of comparisonis engendyred is haterede.”
Which is to say, comparisons are odious. Or in the case of restaurant rankings, just plain silly—can the world really have a best restaurant? The people who compile the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list—a 900-strong panel of critics, chefs, restaurateurs, and professional foodies—certainly think so (it’s Noma). In fact, so passionate are they about comparing kitchens, they’ve just inaugurated a spin-off: Asia’s Best 50 Restaurants. Clearly, the world was not enough.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against the illustrious maker of fizzy water (San Pellegrino) that sponsors this effort; and I imagine that the people involved know their gourmet dining as well as Lydgate did his human vicissitudes. But there’s something about assigning a rank to dining establishments—which in many cases are as different as apples and oranges—that just, well, rankles. Such lists seem to weld together two of the worst aspects of the postmodern persona: our insatiable need to accumulate, and to judge.
That said, when it was announced in February that Asia’s best restaurant was right here in Japan, I admit to feeling a frisson of borrowed pride. And as I was visiting Tokyo from my home in Kyoto, it seemed only reasonable to head over to Narisawa to see what all the fuss was about.
Located in the upscale Minami Aoyama district, Narisawa is already plenty famous, with two Michelin stars, a spot on the World’s 50 Best list, and countless glowing reviews to its name. Thus as I step into the genkan of this stylishly spare, eponymous restaurant, I am expecting the owner to have an ego the size of Tokyo Sky Tree. Rather, a beaming fellow in jeans and an apron welcomes me with an easy “I’m Yoshihiro Narisawa. Come on in.”
The fortysomething master chef (he trained in classic French cuisine under Robuchon and Girardet) looks somewhat bemused when I ask what it feels like for his restaurant to be crowned the best in Asia, as if he’s not really given it any thought. “Oh, well. Nice. I’m very happy of course. It’s a great honor. But really, I’m just … surprised!”
Narisawa is keen to talk, but not about awards. He wants to talk about his food: about breaking from the constraints of hidebound tradition; about the blending of French, Chinese, Japanese, and Okinawan culinary techniques; about the ideas and tastes and emotions he hopes to invoke.
“Through my cuisine I want to transport people back through time, to where they can enjoy the communion that we once felt with the natural world, with the forests and the mountain streams and the bounteous oceans.” His eyes burn even brighter as he incants six magic words: “I will bring you the menu.”
Four hours later I am satiated with Narisawa’s epic degustation—16 courses of avant-garde wizardry that blends almost absurd risk-taking with technical brilliance, old-school nous, and kaiseki aesthetics. It is, quite simply, breathtaking. Edible twigs? Check. Soup made of soil from a Nagano mountaintop? Check. Tree essence? Check. Sublime fugu served on the bone; squid that melts in your mouth; Hida beef encased in a “charcoal” of carbonized Welsh onions. Check. Check. Check.
And so, is it? The best restaurant in Asia?
My own list-ophobia means that I’m not the best person to answer that question, but I can say that my hours eating, wining, and discoursing at Narisawa were among the most stimulating and enjoyable of my adult life. John Lydgate would certainly approve, for it was he who first recorded the English word for “a gifted state of natural ability”: Talent.
2-6-15 Minami Aoyama, Minato-ku, Tokyo; 81-3/5785-0799; narisawa-yoshihiro.com; 10-course dinners from US$218.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2013 issue of DestinAsian (“And The Winner Is”)