By Steve Trautlein
Roy Yamaguchi needs no introduction to the vast majority of American gourmands. The 52-year-old Tokyo native is celebrated for melding the flavors of Hawaii—his ancestral home—with ingredients and cooking techniques from around the world. Although described as “fusion,” Yamaguchi’s cuisine lacks the fussiness that that term suggests. In signature dishes like blackened ahi with soy-mustard butter and crispy lobster “potstickers,” the chef serves up a hint of the exotic while retaining his common touch.
This approach has proved to be a tougher sell in Japan than in the US While Yamaguchi’s celebration of fresh seafood and honest flavors accords well with the local dining aesthetic, restaurant-goers in Tokyo have, until recently, lacked the sense of adventure necessary to appreciate his ambitious approach.
No longer. Since moving from a dowdy Aoyama location to posh new digs in Roppongi Hills in 2005, Yamaguchi has found an audience ready to be enchanted by his culinary verve.
It certainly helps that Roy’s Tokyo Bar & Grill is situated on the fifth floor of Roppongi Hills’ West Walk corridor—one of the city’s most exciting dining and nightlife venues. Neighboring hotspots include Bamboo Bar, with an avant-garde interior designed by New York’s David Rockwell Group; Rigoletto Bar & Grill, the latest effort from up-and-coming restaurateur Yoshihiro Shinkawa; and Yasaiya Mei, a vegetable-nabe eatery that has become one of the year’s most surprising success stories. Roy’s location also comes with a pedigree: when Roppongi Hills opened five years ago, the space was originally home to Olives, the first Tokyo effort from Boston-based celebrity chef Todd English.
Though Yamaguchi runs some three dozen restaurants from Honolulu to New York, he makes sure to visit his Tokyo outpost several times a year. During these stopovers, he designs—and cooks—seasonally inflected menus that put his full talents on display. The chef’s most recent visit, in late October, featured hearty autumnal fare like pumpkin gnocchi in cream sauce with rotisserie chicken and chopped nuts. A dinner in August showed his deft touch with delicate summer flavors, most memorably a dish of scallop carpaccio with a citrus dressing and earthy slivers of carrot and daikon.
At Roy’s Roppongi location, the interior and the service match the expectations set by the cuisine. A can’t-miss date spot, the restaurant is suffused by low lighting, with floor-to-ceiling windows that frame the iconic Tokyo Tower. The space would serve just as well for a power dinner, thanks to its sober atmosphere and serious New World wine list. Thick linens, heavy flatware and a classy semi-private dining room complete the elegant scene.
For many diners, Roy’s is best-known for its weekend and holiday brunch, a three-course feast that gives even budget-conscious foodies a chance to sample Yamaguchi’s cooking. Though the restaurant loses some of its charm in the daylight, the all-you-can drink sparkling wine option keeps the entertainment factor high. For years, this was the best weekend dining deal going, but the recent introduction of champagne brunches from many of the city’s luxury hotels has made it less of a singular treat. Roy’s has responded in kind by introducing a Moet & Chandon option, though the less-expensive plan, which features Trevisol Prosecco, is still the most attractive.
When Yamaguchi visits Tokyo, his restaurant often hosts island-themed parties, replete with music and hula dancing. The guest list includes a who’s who of Hawaiian expats, like former sumo star Konishiki, who is apt to take a turn behind the mic. They all come to savor the island atmosphere and to get a taste of home cooking— which, thanks to Roy Yamaguchi, has gone decidedly upscale.