Beneath Tokyo’s neon skyline is a utopia of fashion and gastronomy. Each neighbourhood, a unique labyrinth of shopping and eating, from underground food gardens to vertical cityscapes, offers everything under the sun. A map of Tokyo’s transportation system looks like a magnified microchip, and one taxi fare can cost as much as a succulent wagyu steak. “Where to stay” is key. From the myriad options, I look to where the Queen of England has stayed, and go there—to the storied Imperial Hotel.
Inside the art deco styled Old Imperial Bar, I sidle up for a frothy Mt. Fuji cocktail with a cherry on top, representing the iconic snow-capped mountain and the rising sun. It was once referred to as the Wright Imperial Hotel, because of its Frank Lloyd Wright design, but a structural renovation in 1967 gave it a modern tweak. Today the hotel is a virtual museum of art deco. It’s a surprise to see relics in the main lobby, as well as furniture, paintings and rooms designed or inspired by Wright. There is even a Frank Lloyd Wright suite. A favourite of celebrities, the Imperial is home to many firsts. Beneath the hotel is Japan’s first shopping arcade, offering Japanese arts and traditional items from select shops. It is also where the “buffet” was introduced to the Japanese as “Viking” style dining. Overlooking the grounds of the Imperial Palace on one side, it is within walking distance from the Ginza shopping area on the other, and houses 13 restaurants.
Dapper, uniformed-wait staff bow at La Brasserie; except for this courtesy, we could very well be in Paris. Toulouse Lautrec-style paintings on the wall, velour banquettes, white tablecloths, polished silverware and mineral waters from France, Italy and Japan set the stage for the special menu served to Queen Elizabeth II. Scottish smoked salmon is sliced tableside and double consommé is a twice, re-filtered clear and robust confluence of chicken and beef stock. When The Queen came to Tokyo and stayed at the Imperial Hotel, the chef learned of her favourite foods and created prawn wrapped in sole, and draped it in a light gratiné sauce of fresh cream and stock made from prawns. Queenly fare, indeed. Another original menu item was made for the Russian opera singer Feodor Chaliapin, who craved steak but suffered a bad toothache. The chef made a very soft filet by soaking it in onion juice and sautéing it with onions. Like Chaliapin, I relish every tender morsel of this uniquely textured and aromatic filet, happily lost in translation between oishii and très magnifique. For dessert, our waiter, a proud interlocutor, prepares flaming cherries jubilee with resolute focus and care.
Jackets are required, and provided, at the popular Les Saisons, where service is impeccable. Both Japanese and French cuisines require meticulous detail—the two marry well—and flourish with the virtuosity of renowned French chef Thierry Voisin. Paté of wild duck with quince enrobed in liver with an onion purée and poached pear is a rich medley of bold flavours and textures. Brilliant shellfish sauce heightens crisply seared red tilefish perched atop a seaweed butter-scented potato and garlic sea urchin. Relentlessly courting our palates, the chef presents an assortment of cheese, followed by delicate praline mille-feuille and a luscious scoop of hazelnut mousse. We are bedazzled.
Waking up with familiar comforts and amenities, I gaze out the window at the hustle and bustle below. In the 1920’s, Art Deco emerged as an embrace of modern industry and technology. Within the dizzying intensity of this 21st Century megalopolis, there is ease and respite in the Imperial Hotel’s embrace of this classic motif.