Forget Paris, New York and Rome. The real home of gourmet dining is Tokyo, according to the new Michelin restaurant guide unveiled on Monday.
In its first ever Asian edition, the result of more than a year's research by five undercover inspectors, Michelin awarded more stars in Tokyo than in any other city in the world.
Eight restaurants, five serving Japanese cuisine and three French, were given the coveted three-star rating, which Michelin defines as exceptional cuisine, worth a special journey, and means a massive boost in business and profile for the chef.
The effect could be even greater in food-obsessed Japan, where many people think little of traveling and lining up for hours to eat the latest delicacies.
We were so surprised by the quality of the cuisine here, Jean-Luc Naret, director of the Michelin guides, told a packed news conference in Tokyo. Not only Japanese making French cuisine, but Japanese food in all sorts of genres.
He added that a star won in Japan had exactly the same significance as a star in Las Vegas or Paris.
Twenty-five Tokyo eateries got two stars and 117 were given one star, compared for example with Britain, where only three restaurants in the whole country have three stars and 12 have two.
Some critics and chefs had expressed doubts about whether Europeans were capable of appreciating the finer points of Japanese food, even though two members of the five-strong inspection team were Japanese.
The New York edition of the Michelin guide, first published in 2005, was criticized for favoring French restaurants.
I think the selection proves the opposite, Naret said. Sixty percent of the starred establishments serve Japanese food, with most of the rest French, plus a handful of Chinese and Italian and one Spanish.
Others had said the fact that some of Japan's gourmet food is served at counters in out-of-the way basements might be a hard sell to Europeans expecting more luxurious surroundings.
But Michelin says the star ratings are based purely on what inspectors find on their plates.
Chef Hiroyuki Kanda was shown on television in his modest counter-style establishment, Kanda, throwing his arms in the air and shouting Banzai! after hearing he had been awarded three stars.
Tokyo's three-star Japanese restaurants are Hamadaya, Kanda, Koju, Sukiyabashi Jiro and Sushi Mizutani. The three-star French restaurants are listed as Joel Robuchon, L'Osier and Quintessence.
Three-star chefs from around the world were set to attend a celebration for their Tokyo colleagues later in the day.
I hope more and more people will come, like these chefs, and see what is happening in Tokyo. It's really worth the trip, Naret told reporters.
The first Michelin restaurant guide, aimed at chauffeurs in the early days of motoring, was published by the tire company in 1900 and the star rating system was introduced in the 1920s. The organization only took its first steps outside Europe in 2005, with its New York guide.
Michelin remains tight-lipped about which cities will be targeted in future guides -- Naret said only that a second Asian city would be announced in a few months.
(Reporting by Isabel Reynolds, editing by David Fogarty)