S. Pellegrino, the premier Italian maker of sparkling water, unveiled its list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants in Singapore on Monday.
Narisawa, a Tokyo restaurant where head chef and owner Yoshihiro Narisawa puts a French spin on dishes made with local ingredients, has claimed the top spot. Another Tokyo gem, Seiji Yamamoto’s Nihonryori Ryugin, came in second. Thai restaurant Nahm of Bangkok took third, while two French restaurants – Hong Kong’s Amber and Singapore’s Restaurant Andre – took fourth and fifth.
The list is compiled by tallying the anonymous votes of more than 900 expert foodies, critics, chefs and restaurateurs who submit their top seven choices in order of preference. They are allowed to vote for restaurants far and wide that they have eaten at within the past 18 months, as long as they have no interest or ownership of the restaurants they choose. This lack of rigid criteria – no box-checking or peering into pantries – could encourage judges to make more off-the-beaten path selections – at least in theory.
At a glance, this list reflects the commonly held perception that Japan and cities like Singapore (with ten making the list), Hong Kong, and Bangkok (with two in the top ten) are at the top of the Asian food chain.
But there is another trend worth noting: the rising culinary superpowers of China (with 16, including those chosen from Hong Kong and Macau and five from Shanghai) and India (with seven). Another trend – this one being a slight – shows well-known tourist spots like South Korea and Taiwan failing to make the list at all. The full list can be viewed here.
While there is indeed promise on the Chinese and Indian fronts, Tokyo still retains its place at the top of Asia’s restaurant pyramid. The city is often hyped as the culinary capital of the world with more Michelin star ratings than any other metropolis on the planet – outperforming gastronomic centers like Paris and New York. This stellar performance extends beyond Tokyo, too: The Kyoto-Osaka-Nara region (Kansai) pulled a total of 12 three-star rankings.
Even after two restaurants were dropped by Michelin in its 2013 guide to Tokyo, 15 of the city’s eateries earned three-star ratings from the French food authority; double the number of similarly rated restaurants in New York (7). When it comes to starred restaurants (not only of the three-star category), Tokyo (with 286) wallops Paris (which has 77).
Dominating Michelin’s prestigious global rankings and topping S. Pellegrino’s Asian list: There is an obvious trend here. Just what is the secret ingredient in Japan’s recipe?
Michael Kleindl, a Tokyo-based food writer who regularly contributes to The Japan Times and blogs at Tokyo Food Life listed some core points about Tokyo food culture that give it this advantage. They are fourfold: fresh ingredients, the prevalence of chefs who have learned and worked in kitchens abroad, phenomenal service standards and Japan’s highly refined attention to detail and aesthetics.
“Tokyo food culture has a culinary edge because of the access to the best, freshest ingredients available from a growing number of farmers near Tokyo producing superb vegetables, more and more organically grown,” Kleindl told The Diplomat. “And of course the fresh fish…. Many chefs have exclusive deals with fishermen to bring in the best of each day's catch. The meat (including horse) is also sourced from small farms. Tokyo has a famous pork called Tokyo X which is delicious.”
Japan’s legendary service also bears mentioning. Anyone who’s dined in Japan knows this. Kleindl said: “The excellent service in Tokyo is unmatched in any other city. Across the spectrum of small, family run joints and ramen shops to the most expensive 3-star restaurant, service is very good. The long tradition of Japanese hospitality for guests comes from the tea ceremony, and the guest is treated very well.”
This isn’t limited to Japanese fare. Shinji Nohara (a.k.a. the Tokyo Fixer) added, “Not many people think Tokyo is a city to get coffee, baguettes, croissants or pastries. But (after trying Tokyo’s) some French people have admitted to me that they are better than the ones found in Paris. If you see people's attention to details in Tokyo, you can understand why.”
These traits give Japan the extra oomph it needs to keep its global clout (Michelin) and maintain its spot on S. Pellegrino’s list atop Asia's food chain – at least for now.