Cuisine Commendations is a series of articles where we reach out to professionals and friends of ours from around Japan and ask them about their favorite places to get their favorite food & drinks. In this inaugural edition I reached out to OTAQUEST co-founder ☆Taku Takahashi and he insisted on sharing his favorite places to get one of his favorite traditional Japanese dishes, sukiyaki!
Sukiyaki is a term that has been familiar to people outside of Japan for years due to a variety of reasons. A special dish that is often eaten during times of celebration in Japan, sukiyaki became a household name in the 60s thanks to the song ‘Ue wo Muite Aruko’ which was renamed after the dish when it was introduced to English speakers. Even though the name is recognized in the west, it’s a rare dining experience that truly can only be found in Japan. Taku explained to me in our conversation: ‘There are definitely places that are trying to provide the experience outside of Japan, but it’s never the same. It’s a special thing, so I take friends who are visiting to give them a unique and traditional experience while they’re here’.
If you’re not familiar with sukiyaki as a dish, here’s a quick rundown: Sukiyaki is thinly sliced beef prepared in a hot pot style, although the first bite of any true sukiyaki meal will be grilled. After the meat is cooked, it’s customary to dip it into raw egg before eating. ‘Egg production in Japan is considered well-controlled, so many Japanese people eat raw egg and you don’t really hear of cases of salmonella. Dipping the beef in the raw egg gives an extra smoothness; it may sound weird but it’s very natural for Japanese people,’ explains Taku.
Like many other dishes, sukiyaki also has regional differences. Kanto (eastern) style sukiyaki is focused on the combination of meat and sauce, where Kansai (western) style sukiyaki is prepared with sugar before cooking. ‘To me, I don’t see the big difference,’ says Taku, ‘sukiyaki can be other meats, like chicken, but what Japanese people expect when they hear sukiyaki is beef’. When asked about what makes good sukiyaki he tells me that it really comes down to the quality of beef. ‘Cheap beef can be very stiff and won’t have the same taste, it comes down to the amount and quality of fat. Sukiyaki uses a thin steak, and you want it to be tender.’
Today Taku is recommending three sukiyaki restaurants in Japan, which would be his first choice to take friends who are visiting Japan. ‘I chose these three locations because they provide an amazing experience for a special kind of meal. You also don’t have to worry about cooking, as all 3 locations will cook for you.’ Being a special meal, these restaurants are on the higher end of the price scale, but not out of the ordinary when it comes to sukiyaki. It’s all about the experience, and it’s one that proves to be worth the price.
Without further ado, here are Taku’s personal picks:
Ningyocho Imahan Shinjuku
Takashimaya Department Store 14F
5-24-2 Sendagaya, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo 151-8580
Ningyocho Imahan is one of Japan’s oldest sukiyaki restaurants. While they have several locations, their original store is in Ningyocho. In this article, Taku chose this particular location because being in Shinjuku makes it easily accessible to more people. It’s a large restaurant located at the top of a department store (Takashimaya Shinjuku), so getting a reservation is easy and it makes for a perfect dinner location after a day of shopping.
The atmosphere of the location is perfect for celebrations and doesn’t feel too touristy, although it is foreigner-friendly. Meals here are very rich, and you’ll find yourself full from only a few slices of beef, which is a testament to its quality. They choose their beef-based on finding the highest quality and aren’t loyal to any specific farms, which provides for an amazing experience no matter when you go.
Mishima Tei Kyoto
405 Sakurano-cho, Nakagyo-ku, Kyoto-shi, Kyoto 604-8035
Mishima Tei is a restaurant that is always ranked in the top five sukiyaki restaurants across Japan on Tabelog. ‘I would say this is my favorite sukiyaki in Japan’, Taku said when providing me with this list, ‘You’ll have an experience like you time slipped to Edo era Japan’. Located in a historical building in Kyoto, this restaurant has an incredibly traditional atmosphere.
Much like Ningyocho Imahan, Mishima Tei also selects their beef based on what is the highest quality. When eating here, the women on staff will cook for you, and some of them have years of experience, which leads to an amazing meal. While it isn’t particularly hard to make a reservation here, Taku recommends calling a day or two in advance just to make sure you can get a table.
3-6-4 Roppongi, Minato City, Tokyo 106-0032
Of the locations Taku selected, this is easily the most unique. It is located in the bustling city of Roppongi in a very old Japanese house (a rarity in busy Tokyo) that has been converted into a restaurant. Taku says that ‘it’s like visiting another world’. The owner of this location wanted to create a Kyoto-style restaurant in Tokyo, all the way down to serving traditional Kyoto appetizers as a part of your meal.
Of the locations, this might be the hardest to get a reservation at because it only has two open rooms which seat smaller parties. In addition to traditional sukiyaki, Kakuryu also serves other dishes such as obanzai (which is a delicious but simply made dish relying on vegetables and seafood with origins in Kyoto). The presentation of the dishes is absolutely beautiful, another element of what is truly a unique dining experience. ‘It absolutely feels worth it because while you’re there it feels like you took a bullet train somewhere else’ Taku said, summing up what makes Kakuryu stand out amongst its competition.