Dispatches from Wakiya (the Tokyo, not NYC, version) — one of the Best Chinese Restaurants in the World
By Jennifer 8. Lee | July 16, 2007
As New York ramps up for the launch of the Yuji Wakiya’s eponymous restaurant in the Gramercy Park Hotel, it might be interesting to look at the original Wakiya in Tokyo.
That restaurant is discretely tucked away in an alley in Akasaka, an upscale neighborhood known for its ryotei, discrete high-end restaurants favorbed by Japanese powerbrokers for private negotiations.
It’s really hard to find (lots of twists and turns). I had the chance to eat there last December with my friend Tomoko in my hunt for The World’s Greatest Chinese Restaurant (outside Greater China). The restaurant combines Japanese delicacy + Chinese flavors + French presentation. Japan, as I have mentioned before, is one of the few countries in the world where the top Chinese chefs are not necessarily themselves ethnically Chinese. But the food is therefore Japanese-Chinese food. One of the traits of which is small portions.
The first-floor dining room is oddly European-influenced, but in an incongruous way — more like “how foreigners would picture European-ness.” For example there was a painting there inspired by Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (very Impressionistic), but it was hung up in this gigantic, thick, gold ornate frame (very Baroque). It just struck me as strange-looking, almost as though it clashed. I couldn’t figure out why, except to think that maybe in the west we don’t hang impressionistic paintings in baroque frames? It reminds me of a Chinese chef who went to P.F. Changs and pointed out that the restaurants iconic terracotta warriors were symbols of death as they were the post-life standing army of Emperor Qin (the first emperor of “China,” so think of him roughly as psychologically analogous to George Washington, only he had a nasty bookburning campaign).
Wakiya is upscale, and we were surrounded by the Japanese version of “ladies who lunch.” But it manages to not be stuffy or too posh. Tomoko and her friend Juro went back this week and sent back these lovely photo dispatches, which look very different actually, from what we might expect from the New York version of Wakiya. (Superficially, for example, it looks like the presentation is different, the daintiness, as exhibited from the appetizer plate below, seems to have been lost.) The Japanese really like their food dainty and cute and it’s interesting when that is cast over Chinese cuisine.
Lunch can take more than two hours. When comparing it with the other Chinese food he’s had in Japan, Juro said that after awhile, he forgot he was eating Chinese. “It was simply just good food. It transcended categories.”
More photos and thoughts after the jump.
The menu consists solely of prix fixe sets. It offers lunch sets for 3,990 yen and 6,300 yen (about $33 and $52 respectively at an exchange rate of 122 yen to $1). There are three dinner sets at 10,500 yen, 15,750 yen and 21,000 yen. Tomoko and Juro opted for the cheaper lunch set, which they say was a great deal considering the quality and variety of food, as well as the atmosphere and service. Their lunch came with seven courses â€“ appetizer, soup, Wakiyaâ€™s famous chili lobster/chicken dish, a choice of one of three main dishes, a choice of one of three rice/noodles dishes (if you are still hungry, they bring you as many servings as you want), hot tea and dessert.
Dan dan noodles is a classic spicy Sichuan Chinese noodle dish, often served with with sesame sauce and garlic and cucumbers. When I had it, even in America, it was “dry-ish.” It turns out to be a runaway popular dish in Japan, and so when it first appeared at my table, the first shocked words out of my mouth were “Oh my god, it’s been rameized!” (Where did the soup come from?!?)
Clam soup. I could see this in the states, though not with the greatest popularity. Though most people think of “clam chowder” when they think of “clam + soup”
Mochi Rice Wrapped In Pork. Mochi rice is a short grain glutinous (i.e. “sticky” rice). It is slightly sweet, and is pounded to make a paste-type substance to make mochi desserts.
Rice topped with Tofu and Thousand-Year-Old Egg. I’d be curious to see if/how Wakiya and other high-end Chinese restaurants in the west introduce “thousand year old egg” which of course is not “cooked” with heat, but rather cured.
Stuffed ayu (sweetfish). Chinese cooking for the west usually does not involve the presentation of anything with eyeballs.
Mango Pudding with Almond Tofu and Ice Cream. This would be popular — familar, but with exotic and safe flavors!
Wakiya Tokyo is at Akasaka 6-11-10, Minato-Ku, Tokyo . Reservations highly recommended. 03-5574-8861. Nearest subway station is Akasaka (Exit 6). Website: http://www.wakiya.co.jp/
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