Two years ago, I returned from Japan.
It was my second trip to the country of okonomiyaki, a road trip of almost three months where I had spent most of my time scouring the bars, restaurants and harbors of all kinds on the island of Honshu, the largest island in the Japanese archipelago. With the objective of blowing my stomach everywhere – but to do it well, in a gourmet brigand way.
On the plane back to Paris, I stuffed some tuna-mayo onigiri and tons of furikake in my bag. I was already seriously worried: where was I going to be able to find good Japanese food in France now? This is how, knight of the bounty and defender of takoyakis in the land of frogs, my quest began.
In search of the lost izakaya
In France, there are tons of sushi restaurants, absolutely on every street corner. Chains like Sushi Shop or stuff with more obscure names like Asian Touch or Oishi Tokyo. I have nothing against them and often they are not fundamentally bad, but here it is: they are not Japanese restaurants. They serve ersatz real sushi, don’t offer anything from the wide range of Japanese cuisine and spit cheese skewers everywhere, which are non-existent in Japan.
At the risk of sounding corny, my quest tended towards a more noble goal: to unearth these real restaurants where the Nihonjin of France meet, where the atmosphere is reminiscent of Japan, where you can eat alone on a bench, where you give us a hot towel before the meal. And above all: where you can find a true sample of Japanese cuisine, from unagidon to sukiyaki, including the soba-tempura duo and karaage.
Young potential alcoholic, so I took over the izakayas. These are, on the other side of the globe, Japanese tapas bistros, where you drink as much as you eat all sorts of wonderful little things in a good casual atmosphere and at fair prices. And in Paris, what better place than rue Sainte-Anne and the Opéra district, a famous landmark for the Japanese in the capital?
Naniwa-Ya, Sapporo, Higuma: these are the three most visible izakaya-type addresses on the street. For small budgets, they are also the cheapest. There is a substantial melting pot of Japanese cuisine there: curry, gyoza, takoyaki, natto, futomaki, etc. It’s almost too much. Besides, none of them is exceptional, even if my preference goes to Naniwa-Ya. There is neither the atmosphere nor the true flavors of an izakaya. They do the job if you want to take a little shot of Japan, between friends and for cheap, that’s all. Deception.
If the “original” izakaya does not exist in this neighborhood, then where? I decided to type a little more in the originality. First, head to Shinjuku Pigalle. There, we are resolutely on a more upscale menu (and the prices too): saba-yaki, toro fatty tuna sushi and grand cru sake are on the menu. It’s delicious, the atmosphere is very pleasant and a little chaotic, Japanese is spoken there and there are images of retro Japanese porn movies in the toilets. It’s nice, but it’s also very expensive. In a similar genre, we recommend Izakaya Issé, Kintaro (near Opéra) and Peco Peco (near Pigalle), or Koko, next to the Jaurès metro station (their unagi sushi is delicious).
Give me a vibe and tempuras
And if you want top-of-the-range, there is AO Izakaya by chef Yasuo Nanamui. But for once, we are closer to the gastro than the izakaya. This is somewhat the problem in many Japanese restaurants in the capital: even if you often eat well there, you are very far from the authenticity of a real restaurant in Kurashiki or Hiroshima.
Me, I want a real Japanese haunt where it yells “Gochisôsamadeshita!” (“Thank you for this delicious meal!”) as we left. So, ignoring my unconditional love for the izakayas, I aimed wider.
The first restaurant that really gives off an air of Tokyo is the Kodawari Ramen in the Saint-Michel district. Quite simply because the restaurant represents a “Yokocho”, a narrow Japanese alley where there are plenty of bars. It’s very cool and the ramen is delicious. We recommend the Kurugoma Ramen, with black sesame. On the other hand, you will stuff yourself an hour of queuing.
On the sushi side, there is only one place that is worth it in Paris – and I am weighing my words. This is Foujita, near the Royal Palace. You will find real thick sushi there that comes out of the classic triptych of French sushi (shrimp, tuna, salmon): bonito, octopus, eel, red tuna, scallop shell, etc. And you can even eat my favorite Japanese dish, almost impossible to find in Paris: unagidon. It’s eel cooked Japanese style on a bowl of rice. And it tears.
Third and last place that stinks of Japan, perhaps my favorite: Abri Soba. Specialties: soba (buckwheat noodles), served with tempura (fried vegetables or shrimp). Here, the waiters and the cooks are all Japanese and they sometimes even speak a little French, for our greatest pleasure. With a lunch menu at 18 euros with a dish, a real miso, a small omelette and vegetables in a mini bowl, you will blow your mind. We recommend the zaru soba, served cold. And above all, make noise while swallowing, like in Japan.
The perfect Japanese restaurant does not exist
There are tons of restaurants that we would have liked to mention here: the friendly Kuma in the Marais for its curry, Omusubi Gonbein for its onigiris, Bobo snack for cheap take-out meals, Cococo for vegan bentos, Mizushi for delivery, etc., etc., etc.
But looking for the perfect Japanese restaurant in Paris is like trying to finish the cornucopia: it’s impossible, very long and at the same time quite pleasant. We are on the lookout for all the addresses, all the tips and new culinary attempts. Embark on your own quest: you will discover flavors and atmospheres as wonderful as the splendid shōtengai of Osaka, where we would like to go snacking soon.