Three Days Of Dining At Tokyo's Keio Plaza Hotel

Help! I'm a prisoner in my hotel and can only eat at the hotel's restaurants!

Well, that's not exactly true. But on a recent business trip to Japan, I was booked into the Keio Plaza Hotel in Tokyo's lively Shinjuku neighborhood. Because the Keio Plaza (Tokyo's first skyscraper hotel, built in 1971) has 15 restaurants, many of them featuring Japan's most iconic culinary styles, I thought I'd give it a go. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, in one hotel, for three days. Was I crazy? I'd soon find out.

Tempura at Shun

My first dinner is at Shun, a tiny jewel box of a tempura restaurant, where I'm joined by my daughter Caitlin, a high school teacher in Tokyo. Because tempura is largely unadorned and simply battered and deep-fried, emphasis is placed on the freshness and seasonality of the ingredients. Caitlin, speaking Japanese, tells the chef she is vegetarian and that I too will be staying away from fugu, whitefish, shrimp, and the like.

An appetizer of lotus root — crunchy, flavored with green-tea salt — is livened by boiled and grated daikon radish. Our chef — standing so close, we could shake hands with him–then prepares maitake mushrooms, which we savor with a pinch of salt and a drizzle of lemon. A chunk of super-hot onion has to cool down before we can eat it, but it's worth the wait. More and more food arrives, as if in a competition: bamboo shoots with salt and lemon, Japanese pumpkin, eggplant.

Caitlin drinks umeshu, a sweet plum wine. I taste it and think, "Big mistake." I order potato shochu, a distilled liquor whose alcoholic punch may be strong, but rarely does the taste interfere with the food.

By now, I am beginning to flag. "Do I have to stop the chef or does he just keep going?" I ask. More and more: a delicate green pepper, avocado with salt and lemon, shiitake mushroom with a hint of sweetness... Finally, I hold up my hands and say, "No más," and settle for a second glass of shochu.

Japanese Breakfast in the Club Lounge

The next morning I take advantage of my booking in a club-floor room to have breakfast in the quiet Club Lounge, whose wide views of the city from the hotel's top floor provide a contemplative setting for a traditional Japanese breakfast.

First up is miso soup, composed of dashi broth (water, dried kelp, and bonito fish flakes) and miso paste, made mainly from fermented soybeans. Served very hot, the broth, topped with sliced green onions, has a restorative aroma and taste. A long strip of barely broiled and lightly salted salmon and a cubed fried egg (also called a Japanese rolled omelet) follow, along with a little cold broccoli rabe, pickled root vegetables, and a pickled sour plum that makes my face screw up with its tartness. Elsewhere on the plate are paper-thin dried seaweed, sliced pickled daikon, and boiled spinach. It isn't exactly ham and eggs, but it's a wonderful kick-off to the day.

Japanese Tea Ceremony at the Shofuan Tea Room

To its credit, the Keio Plaza sponsors numerous Japanese traditional activities for its guests, including a Japanese tea ceremony. "The tea ceremony has a Zen spirit," says our hostess, as my colleagues and I enter the hotel's 10th-floor Shofuan Tea Room and remove our shoes. Using a ladle in a small fountain, the hostess instructs us how to ceremonially cleanse ourselves by pouring water first over our left hand, then right, then taking a "drink" (raising your wet hand to your lips) before finally raising the ladle to allow water to flow over the handle, so it is clean for the next guest.

Following her lead, we bow down to the teahouse and enter through a small opening in a side wall. In the floor covered with tatami mats is a cubbyhole holding a small stove and a pot for brewing matcha, a powdery green tea served without milk or sugar. One by one we are given small bowls for our tea, which we acknowledge and drink, slowly. Knowing that it won't be easy for Westerners, the instructor tells us to make a loud slurping noise on the last sip to indicate we're done. On each tea bowl is a decorative image that points away from the drinker until he makes the final slurping noise, then the drinker turns the image to face himself, to enjoy and contemplate.

Since World War II, the tea ceremony has been used only for special occasions. "It's very sad," says our hostess. The ceremony takes time, can't be rushed, and, regrettably, doesn't fit well with modern Japanese culture.

Teppanyaki at Yamanami

I have lunch on my second day with some business friends at Yamanami, the hotel's teppanyaki restaurant, where dishes are cooked on an iron griddle. We begin with eggplant, mushroom, and lotus root, along with a Suntory beer on the side. Our garlic, we're told, is from Aomori prefecture and much admired, and will be added to our seafood grilled in olive oil. Unexpectedly, our entire corner of the restaurant is suddenly rife with garlic aroma, sweet, almost burning our eyes.

While there is some element of showmanship at Yamanami as seen in the chef's artistry with his knives, the emphasis is plainly on the food. But my dining companions are not helpful in offering me insights into their meals, because they are too busy rolling their eyes and muttering sounds like, "Mmmm," "Oh my," "Aaahh," and "Yum-yum-yum."

The chef grills spiny lobster under a copper dome while we watch in anticipation. The eggplant, from Kumamoto prefecture, is sweeter than any eggplant I've tasted. Pumpkin from Saga prefecture is sweeter than American pumpkin. Occasionally I take a pinch of salt, mixed with seaweed, to sprinkle on one dish or another. Hokkaido beef, cooked medium-rare, barely needs chewing because it's so buttery and prone to melt. Still smoking from the griddle, it's served in a robust combo with garlic chips, fried fat carved from the beef, wasabi, and black pepper.

It's enough to make me give Benihana a second chance when I get back home.

Kaiseki at Soujuan

Kaiseki is often considered the ultimate in Japanese cuisine, with plate after beautiful plate brought before the guests. The finest ceramics, lacquerware, and other serving dishes are brought out because kaiseki is as much about the presentation and experience as it is the food itself.

At the serene Soujuan restaurant, my small group enters a private room with paper walls, vase-decorated alcoves, and (thankfully) places to put our feet under the floor so we don't have to sit cross-legged. After an embarrassing abundance of bowing and scraping from the serving staff, the food approaches. I can taste the sea in the pickled kelp and herring roe. Fugu–a blowfish so poisonous that a chef must have a certificate to cook it–is chewy and jelly-like at the same time. We get a small shot of apple juice and vinegar to open our taste buds. We also drink unfiltered sake—cloudy, cold–which is becoming more popular in the USA. Kudzu dumplings and sea urchin dumplings are supported by sides of carrot and daikon radish. Bring it on: grilled yellowtail (thick, on the dry side, heavy tasting) with Japanese pepper, Wagyu beef (the best kind of chewy, and rich with flavor), scallop with mullet roe, cod roe (like a melted mush, so soft) with crab butter, scallops in a crunchy coating of golden mullet roe, and a tangy soup of simmered snapping turtle, abalone, scallion, turnip, and rice millet gluten. Our final dish is a triumph: clam soup boasting bite-size portions of tuna, flounder, and shrimp sushi. A dessert of fruit and Japanese sweets closes the evening.

Super Buffet at Glass Court

The Glass Court is the hotel's "super buffet" restaurant, where I have breakfast on my third day in Tokyo. It is a hot mess of selections: ham and congee, scrambled eggs and pumpkin salad, fried chicken and "Chinese-style" noodles. The crowds are from everywhere, across Asia, the United States, South America, and Europe. Row after row of heated dishes in the self-serve area appeal to every taste. The diners help themselves to whatever catches their eyes and carry their heaping dishes back to their tables.

The crowded serving stations yield no accidents while I am there, but it's a miracle none occur, as people back up without warning, uncertain guests make sudden turns in random directions, and children romp among the food stations with little or no supervision. Ugh, how I long for my Japanese breakfast of the previous day in the Club Lounge! The best thing I can say about the Glass Court is that there is a lot of food, and the atmosphere is, buffet-like. It seats up to 181 guests, so you'll never be alone.

Bar Bites and Cocktails at Aurora

I manage to sneak out for lunch at a monk's restaurant on nearby Mount Takao, but for dinner that night I am back at the Keio Plaza. Aurora is the penthouse bar that serves small bites and cocktails with an absolutely killer view of central Shinjuku.

After a warm duck salad carpaccio with salmon and yellow peppers, I marvel at a plate of marinated sea perch ("You're really tasting the brine!" says my friend Michael). Steamed flounder in a shrimp sauce is almost over the top in its deep-sea richness.

I drink a Japanese gin and tonic with green tea and Japanese citrus, one of the hotel's signature cocktails, and realize I've never had anything like it. A Camellia Breeze, one of the hotel's original cocktails, is made from shochu with cranberry, passionfruit juice, and Framboise liqueur — a little too fruity and sweet for me. Someone else in my party orders an Imari, a Keio Plaza original, blending sake with plum wine and peach wine.

In a light alcoholic haze, and utterly sated from the small plates, I wander back to my room and decide not to stand on the bathroom scale.

Sushi at Kyubey

Kyubey, the hotel's sushi restaurant, seats only 13 (lucky) people, although there is an adjacent space for overflow. It's an independent operation whose origins stretch back to the Ginza, in 1935. The outlet in the Keio Plaza was established when the hotel opened, in 1971. All the seafood is from Tokyo's Tsukiji Fish Market, the largest and busiest in the world.

The ginger on the counter is flavored with salt and vinegar, but my recommendation is not to use it, because the chef himself places it on the seafood as necessary. Bluefin tuna is so soft it almost evaporates in your mouth. To add more flavoring would be a crime. The flounder is a bit chewier than the tuna, with more of the flavor of the sea. The chef scoops a wad of wasabi onto his finger and massages it into a piece of freshly cut red snapper, which has been roasted for (literally) one second, to help bring out the sweetness of the flesh. Then comes more bluefin, but this part of the fish is lean and dark red. Blackthroat sea perch—white, with a hint of red—both melts on your tongue and wants chewing. Next comes some larger-than-expected sardines from which the chef expertly peels away the outer skin and serves with dabs of ginger for a taste that is bold but not salty like you might find with tinned sardines. Sea urchin, on a bed of rice held together by dried seaweed, is juicy, creamy, and sweet. Shrimp is brushed with its own chopped liver (or, more accurately, hepatopancreas), and I'm not sure that I like to see such a thing, even though it gives the taste an extra kick. Then the chef beheads three live shrimp before our eyes, shells and deveins them in a flash, and delicately slices them halfway lengthwise to allow them to open more fully. My companion's shrimp is still moving when he eats it. I have never had anything so fresh in my life. Then I'm presented with dotted gizzard shad—the chef says the taste of the fish changes as it grows. It has beautiful silver flesh but, truthfully, I find it to be dryer than most fish.

The fish just keep coming. Japanese barracuda. The cheek side of the bluefin tuna — again, barely roasted, with a taste that is warm and rich. Then — uh oh — the roasted head and back of the shrimps we have just consumed (not a lot of flavor, but really crunchy). Two pieces of sea eel—one with salt, the other with a sweet sauce—are both dry, somewhat bitter, and generally tasteless. We end with a Japanese rolled omelet (very hot) with shrimp paste.

I retire to my room, content with my full-on sushi experience.

The Verdict
Yes, dining for three days at a single hotel was something of a stunt, but I was eager to see the level of consistency, of quality, of the overall experience. Points to the hotel on all three levels. While not everything was to my taste (some too-dry fish here, some unwanted shrimp–that were still moving–there), my experience was a testament that one can have a well-rounded Japanese culinary adventure within the confines of a single hotel.

But as good as that was — and it was good — next time I'll try one restaurant in Ikebukuro, one in the Ginza, one in Roppongi, one in Harajuku, and so on, if only to convince myself that my experience on this recent trip really was indicative of the wide variety of Japanese cuisine.

The hotel stay and meals that were the subject of this review were provided at no cost to the writer.