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Jan 19, 2013 09:19 PM

michelin-starred izakaya

So, I went to Okagesan, a Michelin-starred izakaya in Yotsuya, the other night, and I have to say it was a disappointing experience.

After reading the rave review in the Japan Times ( ), my expectations had been raised. The meal wasn't bad, mind you - there were a few very good dishes (the smoky katsuo tataki among them), and several very average ones.

But for Y8000 per person I've had much, much better food in many spots around Tokyo. Pretty much all of which also offer more comfortable seating as well as nicer and less chilly toilets.

To be fair they do have an excellent sake selection, but again, I've been to shops with equally good selection in more comfortable surroundings, and spent only half the money. Their no-smoking policy is also a plus, and service was friendly. On the minus side is their menu policy - prix-fixe dinners, starting at Y5000, are the only choice, although they can be supplemented by add-on dishes. (Our add-on item of a tataki dish called namero turned out to be the high point of the evening.)

And at the risk of repeating myself, their seating arrangements are somewhat substandard - I really felt sorry for the party of seven men next to us on the horikotatsu who were crammed into a not-very-spacious four-top.

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  1. I dunno. I often don't agree with Robbie Swinnerton's reviews, but I think he wasn't that far off on this one. OK, the references to Michelin having been justified to give a star are way off (see below), and the praise of the oden was over the top - the oden was fine, but not exceptional by any means. But otherwise? The sashimi is good (that applies not just to the katsuo tataki) and quite original, most (though certainly not all) dishes are a cut above most izakayas and the sake selection is excellent. Yes, there are many places with a better sake selection, but it is very rare to find this quality of food coupled with a sake list of this quality. Usually either the sake selection or the food are good, but rarely both.

    I think people expect too much from Okagesan because of the Michelin rating, but that is Michelin's problem, not Okagesan's. Giving Michelin stars to decent izakayas (or yakitori places, or tonkatsu places etc etc) is absurd in my view and unduly raises expectations. It also seems quite random to me: there are quite a few top quality izakayas in Tokyo (though they do not tend to have the same quality of sake, but the drinks selection plays no role in awarding Michelin stars), so on what basis does Okagesan (or Rokkaku for that matter) get one and others don't?

    Robb S knows a lot more izakayas than I do so I would welcome some tips which izakayas to try which have a sake list and food of the same quality as Okagesan, are cheaper than Okagesan and equally centrally located. I am in a massive sake mood after a month away in Europe on wine so I would love to try such izakayas.

    13 Replies
    1. re: Asomaniac

      I agree that it's hard to find a combination of great food and a great sake list; I just don't think that Okagesan has achieved it either, although as you say the sashimi was good, and some of the dishes were above average. A lot of it though is just price performance - if dinner had been Y4500 instead of Y8000, I'd only be complaining about the cramped seating.

      I'd rather go someplace like Galali in Gaienmae - it doesn't have such a huge list but the sake is well-chosen, the food is much better, and overall it's a more pleasant dining experience (for less money).

      I'd also say that Ishii in Shimbashi has somewhat better food on average and equally good sake, at a slightly lower price point, in a restaurant that isn't a dump. (Also I believe you can order a la carte at Ishii, which is a big plus.)

      But even that old standby Toki no Ma in Ebisu has a lot of food that's better than Okagesan (e.g. their satsuma-age and their horsemeat sashimi), and a sake list with lots of interesting limited-edition bottles, at a much lower price.

      1. re: Robb S

        Thank you very much for the tips, will give Ishii a shot.

        On Galali, I have to respectfully disagree. The sake list changes all the time (they change at least one or two of the offerings on the sake menu every day), which is great, and they sometimes have some interesting stuff. However, the quality is often not particularly high (i.e., "interesting" but not top quality), and the choice is very, very limited. You know you're not doing very well, certainly in comparison to Okagesan and similar, when a run-of-the-mill Dassai 39 is the best and most expensive item on the list, as has happened to me a number of times. I agree that Okagesan's sake list is certainly not perfect and a planet apart from places like Akaoni (which has really bad food though) or even Sake no Ana. But I don't think Galali's list is anywhere near the same level (unless Okagesan have recently drastically changed / reduced their list or the quality on it - I have not been for a few months).

        Don't get me wrong, I do like Galali, I have been quite a few times (only to the sake-dominated branch as I am not a shochu fan). I think the food is generally of high quality, though they can have off-nights; for example, I once went with 7 friends and they all left very disappointed and totally puzzled that I had taken them there - poor quality food that night, be it the sashimi or some of the salads and meat items. Maybe because it was a Monday - generally not a good restaurant night in Tokyo - but that sort of inconsistency is unforgivable. The consistently slow service and surprising incompetence of many of the serving staff (except the middle aged sake guy, who really knows his stuff but is often busy) is also an annoyance.

        Agree with what you say about Okagesan in terms of price. Also, it is really annoying that you have to do the 5,000 yen menu - sometimes I would like to just have a few nibbles and sake, but am not allowed to do that.

      2. re: Asomaniac

        Also, I've only been once, but Musshu Mizuki in Ginza seemed to have achieved a good balance of food, sake, service, ambiance, location and price performance.

        1. re: Robb S

          Will try that one as well, thanks.

          1. re: Asomaniac

            Well, this post, I looved reading it, and wish my eyes could land more often on post like this. 
            I don't want to compare, or being ethnocentric ... as Kipling said 'east is east', and 'west is west'. Michelin guide in Japan is just different ! I remember having dinner again at the (now ex) one star izakaya Shinsuke, just after they got one star. They usually closed earlier at 21:30, ..but this time, as they knew I was French, they wanted to explain me the philosophy of 'iki' of their izakaya, and the night was long. The empty bottles also piled one by other. I unfortunately can't remember much, but I understand that this little family business could not manage it. Even they refused the star, in a certain way, they were quite keen about it..
            Robbs, in your recommended izakaya, any with tables (not just counters) and wine ?

            1. re: Ninisix

              Or are you looking for any good izakaya with wine? Or are you looking for izakaya with especially good wine?

              (I guess once you have tables and a good wine list you're veering into the wine-bar category, even if they serve small-plate dishes.)

              I seem to recall that Tsukinokura in Nishi-Shinjuku had a nice wine list, but I haven't been for awhile, so they might have changed. Shunju and Hibiki offer wine, but I haven't paid attention to its quality, since I almost always order sake.

              1. re: Robb S

                One option is to try Ajirutei. They don't have a wine list, but if you explain what you are after and give them a budget, they come up with good recommendations. This can be very specific (e.g., "South West France, Tannat or Tannat dominated") or really basic, as basic as "something white to go with the food we ordered").

                The food is sort of basic (but satisfying) French with some Spanish / Japanese elements. Basically an inexpensive wine izakaya in Akasaka. Having said that, Koga-san, who was rather knowledgable (particularly good with Northern & Southern Rhone, Languedoc, even some more niche stuff like German Pinot Noir, etc), has quit a few months ago so no idea if the people who replaced him know their stuff.

                This is a cheap place, at least food-wise (wine can be, too, but they do have some good stuff for breaking the bank as well).

                Shunju mentioned by Robb is much more upmarket (and expensive), and accordingly the setting is more elegant and the food tends to be better than at Ajirutei. They have some decent wine (the branch close to the Imperial Hotel anyway, I have not been to others so don't know if they have the same wine list), including a few rather unusal bottles and some really decent by-the-glass choices.

                I know lots of really fantastic wine places, but they fall more into the restaurant / wine bar category, so not sure if that's what you're after. Let me know and I'll post some other recommendations.

                1. re: Asomaniac

                  Asomaniac, oh.. i might have seen you ! I have been to the Ajirutai 5-8 times in the past 2-3 years. Last year i didn't though.. felt the consistency was lacking recently... I used to go for the wine !! yes, i am interested for 'wine bar' for myself this time !

                2. re: Robb S

                  Robbs, thank-you, i will check the izakaya Shunju in Shinjuku. I am in fact looking for good food at first for my group including some french oyaji (and including my taste!), and japanese izakaya is always welcome, and a good opportunity to order drinks each one likes.

                3. re: Ninisix

                  Potsura-Potsura is my pick for best izakaya food + wine + cost performance (they also have two tables for 4). The food is well-sourced (the chef picks out all of the vegetables from the farm behind his house in Kanagawa, each morning) and, when possible, organic. The wine list, of about 60 labels, is solely made up of Japanese wines. The sommelier is well informed, and does a great job of finding something to match your food/preferences. They also have a concise but thoughtful selection of sake, if you feel so inclined.
                  Potsura-Potsura closed for renovations last September, but according to their website, they will re-open this month.


                  1. re: wekabeka

                    Wekebeka, i have to say I know your website ! I paid more than once a visit ! These photos are great, this izakaya, how much is it ? and the wine ? 

                    1. re: Ninisix

                      Thanks Ninisix! Please leave a comment on my blog, as I'd really like to get in contact with you directly.
                      In regards to the price, the meal I blogged about cost the 4 of us about ¥6,500 p/p - pretty reasonable seeing we had 3 bottles of wine and a round of yuzu-shu.

                      1. re: wekabeka

                        Oh, thank you for your help.. I will post a comment on your website..

          2. It can be really subjective, in terms of whats "better". I have friends who swear by whole in the walls over fine dining, its a matter of preference. Michelin does seem all over the place with their reviews.

            Although I went to Horigakidou in Osaka, another izakaya, and I would say the preparation was on par with a lot of French or American fine dining establishments.

            Michelin inspectors in Japan (they are all Japanese) seem to favor delicate and ornate cooking. It's hard to pinpoint, but if you visit enough restaurants in Japan rated by Michelin and analyze them, you start to notice some reoccurring themes, versus great restaurants that have been left off the list. And indeed, many have been left off the list.

            5 Replies
            1. re: andrew_eats

              True, and also agree that many great restaurants have been left of the list. However, in the first year the Michelin Guide came out in Japan (only Tokyo at the time, maybe in 2007 or 8? Not sure anymore), 6 out of 7 inspectors were foreign, and many of the original places still have their stars, so the inspectors have changed completely (I think there is one French person and 6 Japanese now) but the tastes appear to remain similar.

              Having said that, in recent years, they have added lots of izakaya, yakitori, and so on - it is like they simply want to present what they think is the 'best-of' in every category (ie totally not what Michelin is about). You also get many decent but certainly not exceptional French and Italian places getting stars (e.g., some Basque pork place and another French place (in Kagurazaka) which I found both very pleasant but they would never ever come close to receiving a Michelin star in France. If anything, the Guide has become a worse indicator of quality, and more erratic, since the Japanese inspectors took over (after all those Japanese complaints at the initial make-up of the inspectors, saying that those pesky foreigners could not possibly understand and evaluate Japanese food).

              Sorry, couldn't stop myself from going on my usual Michelin-related rant. I was really enthusiastic when the Guide first came out - great English language resource for fine dining - but my word what a crock of **** it is. The ratings are so much more generous than in France or Germany - no consistency at all.

              1. re: Asomaniac

                Oh, please don't stop yourself from bashing Michelin - it's music to my ears... and a refreshing change from the *star* focused threads on this board!

                Apparently, out of all the restaurants in Tokyo's 23 wards, there are only 286 worth having your chauffeur make a special detour for. (*.*) This alone proves to me that the Tokyo guide is about as relevant as Kim Kardashian's views on the Palestine/Israel conflict.

                1. re: wekabeka

                  Michelin is just a guide, and still the most reliable and serious guide out there. It's not the sacred book of undisputed truth.

                  I agree that there should be an international standard for the stars, but this is probably not easy to implement.

                  What is more relevant that KK views on the Palastine/Israel conflict? Tabelog? Some blogger's opinion? Your friends? The World's Best 50 list?

                  1. re: babreu

                    Fine, but a lot of people take it very seriously, as if it was the sacred book of undisputable truth. I think it's generally a good quality resource, and the France / Germany / UK guides are reliable. There will always be hotly debated differences of opinion (e.g., St John in London has a star? Unbelievable), but by and large the entries are legit and the guide is serious.

                    This is not the case with the Japan guide. Yes, it is the most comprehensive fine dining guide for Tokyo out there in English and as such remains a very useful resource. But the standards it maintains are pitiful, I am sorry to say. It is not in the same league in terms of seriousness in comparison to its European versions (based on the assumption that the Michelin brand is trying to convey an image of consistency across the board, which BTW Michelin keeps reiterating).

                    Many of their entries in Japan seem designed to either sell more guides in this market (ie flatter their customers with an unfeasibly large number of stars) or incompetence (given that Hamadaya still has stars, I am thinking perhaps it's incompetence).

                    In addition, some of the restaurant categories either do not belong into a Michelin guide in the classical sense, or Michelin are happy to totally depart from what Michelin professes to be about (but if so, they should say so and not pretend otherwise).

                    This is not unique to Japan - to a lesser extent, this has been the case in the US as well (many restaurants there would receive a star less if they were in Europe - my US foodie friends call them affirmative action stars), and the Chinese guides by all accounts of local foodies seem to be much more misguided than their Japanese counter parts.

                    So in short, too many stars for the wrong restaurants, categories of restaurants that don't belong into the Michelin Guide, and at the same time omission of many places which deserve stars and are regarded as such by any number of serious foodies in Japan, but just not Michelin.

                    To be fair, I think I would probably find Michelin in Japan less annoying if people posting here were not so obsessed with it. I (and many others) have variously suggested non-Michelin restaurants in Michelin related debates as being at least just as good as Michelin-starred restaurant A or B, but the reaction of many posters is basically one of polite disbelief because their Bible would not agree. I find this bizarre.

                    I do understand that foreign visitors rely on the Guide here more than elsewhere because of the lack of alternative adequate English language resource, but if I see one more detailed 2-week itinerary with every lunch and dinner planned out where the author proudly proclaims that they are all Michelin-starred restaurants, and won't entertain the idea of incorporating something outside of the Guide....

                    You did hit a nerve with the World's Best 50 list though - I have posted about it elsewhere, that is definitely a much bigger joke than the Japan Michelin Guides. I find tabelog quite reliable for a lot of Japanese food, such as kaiseki and sushi.

                    1. re: Asomaniac

                      In France, 'Mimi(Michelin)' is a tradition, and in general, restaurants will be honored to have gained a star, and also commercial speaking... here in japan, there is some different ways to secure your business and become famous, like the regulars customers, important personnalities, talent,... But in my opinion, Mimi is sensibly giving recognition. Still, this gain of recognition, well, wasn't is was already the case ? 
                      Or, especially for small izakaya, could their judgement of the Michelin guide different ? Could it be that the capacity not able to withstand the increased recognition ? So they ends up proposing only 'omakase(menu only)' ?. Its seems that izakaya 'Shinsuke' did have to refuse some clients after their Mimi star win, and so.. too bad for the regulars ? I have to admit as a French that I was happy the izakaya Shinsuke got one star, I thought it deserved it.   

            2. Okay, I apologize if this is redundant but I cannot read the 2000+ words of responses to this thread already :)

              But you know what, I was in Tokyo for about 10 days at the beginning of November 2012 and my friend and I ate at the following place called Koyu in a quaint, quiet alley in Nezu:


              The man behind the counter (and lets not forget his helpful wife) is both friendly and incredibly modest for a man with his skill and his strong sense flavour intuition.

              AND IT'S INEXPENSIVE! I believe my friend and I got 7-8 dishes and two draught sake flasks for around 3000 yen.

              Among the dishes was a moderately citrusy crab rice porridge which was easily among the top 5 things I ate during my trip to Japan (which included a triple-michelin starred kaiseki meal).

              Definitely worth trying if you are still around Tokyo,

              1. Funny to learn here that they have a michelin star. My impression from a first visit tonight was that the ingredients were top notch. The various katsuo preparations and the suzuki with karasumi in particular would not be out of place in any kaiseki place. It's not as ambitious as Kirakutei (nor as expensive), but I preferred it to other highly rated places like wasosaku-ta (which I liked overall) where the wasabi comed out of the food service squeeze tube,and some of the fish could be more fresh.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Gargle

                  Okagesan ticks all the boxes for me: great food, service and atmosphere, and a stellar sake list. The warayaki katsuo tataki merits a star all of its own.

                2. Folks, no need to take this personal, but aren't you tired of putting down Michelin at every single opportunity? By now, I swear...everyone has got it: the review starts with something like ''a Michelin-starred ...''' and it inevitably ends with ''a a disappointing experience'''. Seriously, I appreciate your generous contributions and I respect all of you, but this Michelin bashing is getting way too old. Please let's assess a restaurant as it is, Michelin-starred or not. It is not the fault of the restaurant if it is has a Michelin star. If it's not to your taste, fine, but what has Michelin got to do with the restaurant? Michelin's opinion is just as good and yours and mine, which means the usual subjective stuff!

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: MichelinStarDinners

                    "...this Michelin bashing is getting way too old."

                    Much like this thread. Did you check the date at the top of this post? Gargle has just reactivated a dormant thread from Jan' 13, and neither he or I were bashing it for having a Michelin star.

                    1. re: wekabeka

                      @Wekabeka- This was not directed to you. Not even to Robb S, whom I respect a lot and whose advices have been extremely helpful, but to the general idea that Michelin = disappointment . As/per Chowhound rules/policies, let's not spend time on this. Let's move on with more constructive material. No offense. I appreciate you all.

                      1. re: MichelinStarDinners

                        First, thanks for your kind words. And second, to clarify, Michelin disappointment wasn't the point of the posting at all - I'm sure I would have mentioned it even if it was a positive review (and I'm glad to hear that other people like the place).

                        A Michelin-starred izakaya is a very unusual beast (or at least was a year and a half ago) - it's how the place was first presented to me, it aroused curiosity in others, it was a topic of conversation in itself.

                        Third though, I think assessing the reliability and strengths and weaknesses of a particular guide - whether it's the local edition of Time Out, or Tabelog, or someone's blog, or some website with a cute name - is a totally legitimate topic of discussion.

                        Criticism can also be useful to the publication in question, as it points out weak areas that could use improvement. And I think the Tokyo Michelin Guide has improved over the years, probably at least in part in response to criticism of its weaknesses (e.g. the underrepresentation of Italian restaurants in the first edition).

                        But in general if my favorite guidebook had certain strengths and weaknesses in a city I'd never been to before, and local people pointed it out, I think that would be useful information. Certainly I think the advice that if you can't get into a certain eight-seat sushi counter you don't need to cancel your trip - because there are other places just as good that simply aren't listed in that particular guide - I think that's constructive and helpful advice.

                        1. re: Robb S

                          @Robb S - You are absolutely right. Let's move on. Keep up with your great advices.