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Michelin Tokyo guide turns to local inspectors, tops Paris for 3-star awards

'Tokyo 2010' guide by Michelin
‘Tokyo 2010’ guide by Michelin

TOKYO (TR) – After France-based tire manufacturer Michelin targeted Tokyo with its famous culinary guide and three-star evaluation system for the inaugural 2008 edition, the response was swift on two fronts. The book shipped a whopping 300,000 copies in five weeks yet simultaneously raised a prickly question within the local media: How are foreigners able to competently evaluate traditional Japanese restaurants?

Michelin’s response for 2010? They probably aren’t — yet that is true of the 22 other countries it covers as well.

The day before the release of the third edition for Tokyo, Michelin Guide director Jean-Luc Naret told a press luncheon at The Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan that the company seeks to place local food inspectors on the ground in each of the 23 countries it covers.

“When we come to a new country, we must work with people who understand how to rate restaurants,” explained Naret, who used three Europeans and two Japanese to evaluate Tokyo for 2008. “But it usually takes five years to move to a staff of entirely local people.”

This time, the team was comprised of only Japanese inspectors and a French editor-in-chief. The group selected 11 restaurants in Tokyo for its top three-star rating, pushing it past Paris by one for the top spot — an achievement that the company believes makes the metropolis the world’s gastronomic champ.

In comparison to last year, the 2010 Tokyo edition, available in English and Japanese from Friday for 2,415 yen, bumped the restaurants Esaki, Sushi Saito and Yukimura up to three-star status, and dropped one, Hamadaya, down a notch. Tokyo upped its total count to 261 stars, 34 more than last year, and three times that of France’s capital.

Naret maintains, however, that it is difficult to easily compare the two cities given that Tokyo has a much larger population and four times as many restaurants. It comes down to numbers, he said. “Tokyo as a city has more restaurants than Italy, Germany or Spain,” the director said. “So statistically there should be more stars here.”

The company, whose guide was first published in France in 1900, explains that the star rankings apply only to what appears on the customer’s plate and are dictated by the food’s quality, flavor, value for the money and consistency across the menu. Three stars represent “exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey,” two stars merit “a detour” and one constitutes a “very good restaurant.”

About two-thirds of the selected restaurants in Tokyo offer Japanese cuisine, such as soba (noodles), sukiyaki (hot pot), fugu (blowfish), sushi and tempura, while the remainder are mainly French and Italian. The area of research was expanded for 2010 to include izakaya outlets and shops specializing in yakitori (grilled chicken), kushiage (deep-fried meat and vegetables) and shojin ryori (vegetarian cooking).

At the start of the Tokyo project, Naret had ventured to other Asian cities, such as Hong Kong, Bangkok and Singapore. He found the selection of high-quality restaurants in Japan’s capital to be overwhelming — an attribute that was soon shared with the rest of world following its award of 191 stars to 150 restaurants, the most of any city. “Tokyo was put on the map as one of the top gastronomic cities in the world,” he said of the release of the first book. “And it was quite a shock for people on the other side of the world because they did not know what Tokyo was all about.”

Michelin’s history in Japan goes back much further than the Tokyo guide’s first pressing. The tire manufacturer entered the Japanese market in 1964, the year of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, when it supplied special radial tires for the Tokyo Monorail, which provides a link to Haneda Airport. Today the company sells tires for cars, trucks, buses, airplanes and farm equipment.

Another chapter was added in October with the release of the Kyoto Osaka 2010 guide, which awarded stars to 147 restaurants (82 in Kyoto and 65 in Osaka) and 3 ryokans (inns). Seven restaurants (six in the ancient capital) received a three-star rating, a figure surpassing New York’s five.

Bernard Delmas, president of Nihon Michelin Tire, was extremely pleased with this year’s results for Tokyo and Kyoto. “Both cities are now at the top of the gastronomic world,” he said.