Image: Japanese restaurant
Shizuo Kambayashi  /  AP file
A couple stand in front of a Japanese restaurant during a lunch hour in Tokyo, Japan. Paris might still be good if you've got a big wad of cash and want the best of the best. But Tokyo is really where it's at food-wise.
updated 9/3/2008 12:35:24 PM ET 2008-09-03T16:35:24

Paris might still be good if you've got a big wad of cash and want the best of the best. But Tokyo is really where it's at food-wise, at least according to the French people who keep track of these things.

When the venerable Michelin guide came out with its first Tokyo edition, it was so full of praise that it almost read like a press release for the Japan Restaurant Association. Its conclusion — Tokyo is the culinary capital of the world.

But is it, really?

Here's a Michelin morsel:

"Tokyo is a shining star in the world of cuisine," Michelin Guides Director Jean-Luc Naret said shortly after its Tokyo edition came out last November. "We found the city's restaurants to be excellent, featuring the best ingredients, culinary talents and a tradition passed on from generation to generation and refined by today's chefs."

Michelin's Tokyo guide awarded a whopping 191 stars to 150 restaurants in the Japanese capital, the most number of stars awarded in any city. Previously, Paris had the most stars, at 65. Eight restaurants in Tokyo — three French, two sushi bars and three traditional Japanese — received Michelin's highest three-star rating.

Paris can still claim to have the most top-rated restaurants — with 10. New York has just three.

The announcement was a godsend for Japan, which has been trying for years to put a shine on a tourist industry muted by the country's notoriously high prices and a powerful lineup of rival attractions just beyond its shores — such as the fabled shopping districts of Hong Kong, the beaches of Thailand, and the rapid rise of Shanghai as one of Asia's most interesting cityscapes.

Treated as front-page news and trumpeted on TV broadcasts, Michelin's glowing review was also seen as confirmation of the value of something that the Japanese have long seen as a source of national pride — their mastery of sushi, raw fish and all the other famously subtle elements of Japan's indigenous cuisine.

The guide sold 120,000 copies in just three days.

It was a hard-won honor for Tokyo.

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A team of three undercover European and two Japanese inspectors spent a year and a half visiting 1,500 of Tokyo's estimated 160,000 restaurants to decide on the ratings, according to Michelin. The guidebook series rates restaurants on excellence in cooking, service, decor and upkeep.

But the Michelin hype has met with a great deal of skepticism — especially from other reviewers.

Slideshow: Japanimated One particularly controversial pick was a sushi bar that — though on just about everybody's list for quality — is located in a basement, is cramped even by Tokyo standards and shares its restroom with other tenants. Ambiance, it would seem, is pretty subjective.

Some of Michelin's competitors say there are bigger problems with Michelin's whole premise. Why, for example, are so many French restaurants at the top of the Tokyo list? Why no Chinese, no Italian, no palaces of tofu?

"There are a lot of great cities in the world," Tim Zagat, founder of the Zagat guides, told The Associated Press. "Tokyo is an exciting place to eat. But Paris is an exciting place to eat. So is Rome."

The question, he says, is whether Tokyo is better.

"I don't think it is helpful to make that kind of statement," Zagat said. "Tokyo has the best Japanese food in the world. But it is nowhere near as diverse as other cities."

There is no doubt Tokyo — the land of the Iron Chef — has an exceptionally well-developed restaurant scene.

Zagat said the reasons are many — not least of which being the fact that the Japanese like good food, they have money to spend on it and their native cuisine is highly refined and places a very strong emphasis on tradition, freshness and the natural balance of ingredients.

Another reason, however, is that dining in is often not an option, especially for business-related meals. Homes continue to be relatively small and cramped, and getting there often involves a long commute for all. Thus, restaurants have thrived, from the neighborhood bar to the whole areas of town that are built around after-hours entertaining.

Yasuo Terui, the editor of "Tokyo Ii Mise, Umai Mise (Tokyo Good Restaurant, Delicious Restaurant)" whose first edition went on sale in 1967, was also critical of Michelin, saying that it only scratched the surface of what there is to be had in Tokyo.

"I don't think Michelin knows anything about Japan," he said.

But he basically agreed with the rating of Tokyo as the world's best place to eat.

"I think we can call it the culinary capital of the world," he said. "If you try any cuisine, it's hard to go wrong in Tokyo."

Terui said part of the secret of Tokyo's success is that many of emerging Japanese chefs have studied Italian, French, Chinese and other international cuisines all over the world, and are trying to be creative by adding to them a fusion of Japanese tradition.

He added, however, that guides have limitations — some good places are bound to be overlooked.

"You can find many places that are not publicized at all but are still good, especially when you are traveling rural Europe," he said. "I'm sure it's similar in Japan, too."

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