A chef’s guide to Tokyo and beyond
Chef’s Secrets: Where to eat, drink and play in Japan
When planning a trip to Japan, guidebooks, forums, travel agents, social media and friends can give you a wealth of information about Japan but nothing compares to a tip off from an in-the-know local. Living and working in Japan for many years, Australian chef Matt Crabbe runs several successful restaurants in Tokyo including dining hotspots like Two Rooms and Ruby Jacks (named after Crabbe’s grandparents Ruby and Jack). Sharing his favourite places to eat, drink, shop and play in the country he’s made a life in, Matt Crabbe knows a thing or two about Japan’s food scene.
Where are some of your favourite places to eat in Tokyo?
It’s very hard to find a bad place to eat in Japan, even on the lower end. I don’t think I’ve found any bad ones and I’ve been here for fifteen years! A dingy, little, hole-in-the-wall place next to a train station like the street next to Shinjuku Station offers a lot of great food. I like to go to Tsukiji Fish Market because I’m a restaurant owner and I like to see what produce is in season. Tsukiji Fish Market has both vegetables and fish, so I like to go there and see what’s happening in the marketplace. At the market there are lots of good sushi places offering fresh fish. There’s also a few good ramen places there.
Looking beyond Tokyo, do you have a favourite place to eat?
One of my favourite places to eat in Japan is a place called Sushi Aso in Fukuoka. It’s located in a very dense residential area – you’d never find it on your own in a million years. It’s run by a lovely sushi chef. His sushi is exquisite.
What’s the fresh produce like in Japan?
The produce in Japan is of a very high standard, it’s incredible. Everything is perfect. For example we use little tomatoes from Shizuoka that are essentially a sugar tomato. These tomatoes have seven times the sweetness of a ripe strawberry. We only use line-caught fish on our menu at Two Rooms, which is much better for the environment. I used to live in Kyoto and the vegetables from the markets in that area are beautiful. You can get things like the Kyoto carrot which is a red carrot not found anywhere else in the world. The flavour is incredible if you cook it properly. At Two Rooms we slow roast it with honey and caraway seeds. It’s exquisite but only available about one month of the year, around December/January.
What are some of your favourite Japanese dishes?
I love sushi. Tempura is fantastic. The tonkatsu (fried pork) is bad for you but it tastes great. I love soba noodles and eat soba at least twice a week. There’s a little place close to Two Rooms that I often go to that does beautiful soba.
If you wanted to impress visitors where would you take them?
Ukai Toriyama is very famous for having beautifully manicured gardens. It’s quite incredible, the money that they’ve spent on these gardens. I would recommend everyone go and visit at least once while in Tokyo.
Where do you like to go for drinks in Tokyo?
Apart from Two Rooms of course, there’s a place called Bar Radio. It’s run by a very old man. He’s been doing the same thing for over 40 years.
What sets Japan’s dining scene apart from the rest of the world?
In Japan, most things are done to a very high standard. The service aspect here is very customer-focused. It’s very professional. Also, in Japan there’s a lot of counter dining. Sitting at the counter and having a chef serve you in Japan is a special experience.
Is visiting produce markets a hip thing to do in Tokyo as compared to shopping at supermarkets?
The farmer’s market at UNU in Shibuya is open on the weekends. It’s a Western-style concept but they’ve made it their own. You can get local honey, citrus varieties like yuzu and sudachi, and gluten-free breads made in the countryside. There’s also a guy making crushed sesame using his own mill. It’s quite impressive.
What are some of your favourite regions to visit outside of Tokyo?
Kyoto is probably my favourite place, it’s a very special city with all its temples and shrines. Nikko is great and Takayama is good for hiking. Kanazawa is another top one – the food, the markets and the architecture are simply beautiful.
And finally, what food experience might surprise visitors to Japan?
The food available on bullet trains is of a very high quality. Before you get on the shinkansen (bullet train), you grab an ekiben (bento box found at train stations). They have ekiben options ranging from three dollars to a hundred dollars. You can get everything from high end wagyu to basic sushi. The dining experience on the shinkansen is quite special. There’s also a trolley that goes down the middle of the carriage serving juice, water, beer and spirits. It’s so convenient.