Once Japan’s centre for rice trading, the “nation’s kitchen,” located at the mouth of Osaka Bay, also has an insatiable appetite. To be good here, restaurateurs have to be great. The massive availability of high quality produce has led to discriminating tastes that demand skilled chefs to wow their guests. One day spent in Osaka, commonly referred to as the food capital of the world, and I’m like an awestruck pachinko ball bouncing through a cosmic maze of gastronomy.
In Osaka, it’s all about looking good and showing individual flare. Fashion, whether in clothing or food, is impeccable and über-cool. We can accessorize our lives here with everything we never dreamed we needed. A panoply of colour and design courts every consumer demographic and style from Strawberry Shortcake to Marilyn Manson. Designer perfumes waft through the air, electronics boggle the imagination and immaculate food courts send my eyeballs and taste buds into rabid delirium.
I am in sensory overload in Japan’s largest underground shopping area, and on it’s longest shopping street. Housewives with no time to cook visit Kuromo Ichiba Market for wagyu beef, fruits that look too perfect to be real and sweet smelling bakeries that would leave Parisians swooning. There’s even a section devoted solely to blowfish. Along Tenjinbashisuji Street, we sample foods from tofu and pickled vegetables to fatty tuna with the most unbelievably butter-y texture. We cannot wait to sit and enjoy at the snack tables. Here we are served tea and tempted by more savouries. Doguyasuji is the street for kitchenware and appliances: knives to high-tech pizza and doughnut makers; everything we could possibly want for our own kitchen. All roads lead to…the snack park—totally gourmet underground food-courts that are like pristine galleries of Japanese cuisine. I nibble on takoyaki (deep fried octopus), ikayaki (crepes of barbequed squid), okonomiyaki (savoury pancakes choc full of seafood), Osaka zushi (pressed sushi) and trendy torikara sticks (fried chicken). I buy gifts of green tea, artisanal chocolates, over-sized fruits and confectionary. I want to taste everything I see!
Within this culinary milieu, Osaka is dotted with Michelin-starred restaurants and chefs. At the renowned Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Osaka, two such chefs can be found at the esteemed restaurants La Baie and Xiang Tao. Aware of fierce competition, the Ritz-Carlton has, itself, focused on being the apex of this culinary destination. Seventy-five percent of its revenue comes from food and beverage, which means each of its restaurants maintains excellence in their distinguished qualities.
At La Baie we are in a palace. The stage is set for flawless French-Japanese fusion paired with select wines from an award-winning sommelier. Xiang Tao provides the warmth of rich wooden design and a certified Chinese Tea Sommelier to pair with exquisite Chinese cuisine. The Italian dining experience at Splendido is elevated by a unique “wine buffet” in which 10 select wines are chilled around an elegant wood and marble buffet-style table. Each may be sampled and paired with dinner. Seductive aromas from the wood-fired pizza oven are irresistible, and we eagerly await biting into the crackly thin crusts. Afternoons, the table is filled with a delicate desserts and confections buffet.
Japanese dining at the Ritz-Carlton’s Hanagatami is like a journey through a “choose-your-own-adventure” book. We can start at the tempura bar, the teppanyaki bar, the sushi bar, or head directly to the kaiseki room. Engaging with the chef at the sushi bar, he shows me his selection from today’s catch. With smooth razor-like precision, he slices tuna, skip jack, sea bream, perch and eel, and presents them to me like a decorative gift basket. I savour each and every morsel. The chef in the tempura bar offers me a platter of raw prawns, whiting, vegetables and gingko nuts. He suspends them for seconds into the tempura-fryer from which they emerge light and crunchy. No peace for the wicked. I am immediately escorted to the teppanyaki bar for marbled wagyu from Kumamoto. Silent and meticulous, the chef slices garlic and beef. An array of salt from Okinawa, France, Spain and Africa are arranged for dipping. Joined by guests from around the world, we share the common language of relishing Japanese beef. Unlike kappo dining, where the chef prepares food in front of the guest, kaiseki is the magic behind the curtain. The dining room, designed around a Japanese garden, is calming. The dishes are complex reflections of the region, season and imagination of the chef. Delicate tofu made with sea urchin, shrimp wrapped in yuzu-splashed shizo leaf and a treasure trove of artful re-configurations of nature are paired by the sake sommelier. Every detail, every ingredient is brilliant.
At the hotel’s Lobby Lounge we relax with cocktails and soft live jazz. Afternoon tea is a parade of fine teas, specialty coffees, homemade cakes and chocolates. In the evening, the lounge transforms into a “bistronomy” venue called Mature. Covering all the bases, the Gourmet Shop offers several signature items from each of the hotel’s restaurants. One can take home select spices, cakes and pastries, and from the chocolate boutique, refined praline combinations and chocolates. For a chef, this is the best place to be, because the passion that is invested here reflects the flavours and the tastes of the culture.
The hotel’s panoramic view of the cityscape may be electrifying, but it is the in-house gastronomy that encapsulates the culture and dynamism of Osaka. In the nation’s kitchen, this is indeed “the chef’s table.”
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Publisher of DINE and Destinations magazine.