Foodie Confidential

Click for a table in Japan

Japanese entrepreneur Takashi Yamada hopes his online platform Tableall can be a personal concierge for restaurant bookings

In his 15 years as managing director of sales in investment banking company Goldman Sachs Group in Tokyo, Mr Takashi Yamada, 38, had to entertain clients frequently.

He dined out so often that he got to know chefs and restaurant owners, and his friends in Singapore would ask him to help them make bookings at restaurants. He frequently obliged.

Mr Yamada shuttled between Tokyo and Singapore frequently, as his Japanese wife, 37, moved here four years ago so that their two sons, aged five and three, would have a "better education".

Wanting to bridge the gap between tourists and Japanese restaurants, he left his job at Goldman Sachs to start the two-month-old, Singapore-based Tableall (www.tableall.com), an online platform for booking restaurants in Japan. Mr Yamada also moved here to join his wife and children nine months ago.

So far, the 11 restaurants listed are all located in Tokyo. By the middle of next year, he plans to include restaurants from Kyoto, Kanazawa and Hokkaido, which he noticed are popular tourist destinations.

  • WHAT WOULD YOUR LAST MEAL BE?

  • Sushi. My must-have is torotaku, a sushi roll where takuan (pickled daikon) and toro are mixed together. After all the main sushi items have been served and when the chef asks if I want anything else, I will ask for torotaku. It is refreshing and a good way to end.

His focus is on small Japanese restaurants - some have only eight seats - and he pays for the seats two weeks in advance. With this approach, the restaurants have "no reason to say it is not economical".

A recent Bloomberg article on Mr Yamada and Tableall boosted interest in the site and he has had no issues filling the seats. He also receives requests for bigger table bookings, which he tries to accommodate if the partner restaurant agrees. However, he cannot accept requests for restaurants that are not listed on Tableall.

The economics graduate is well aware of the difficulties faced by foreigners who want seats in prominent restaurants. He says: "First, the Japanese owners may not speak English. They may also mishear allergies, which can be very dangerous. Also, if someone cancels a trip, he doesn't always call the restaurant to cancel."

He also says that tourists do not necessarily stay in hotels, which can help diners make bookings for the restaurants. "It is trendy for people to stay in Airbnb accommodation, but then you can't book a restaurant. All this cuts the attractiveness of a trip to Japan."

Hoping that Tableall can be a personal concierge for restaurant bookings, he does not focus only on Michelin-starred restaurants. He says: "One of my references is restaurant-ranking site Tabelog.com. Mention this site to any Japanese and he will know that it is trustworthy. I like to pick restaurants that are lesser- known, but loved by locals."

Since restaurants reject Michelin stars, were you rejected by any restaurants?

Yes, one of them is Matsukawa, a traditional kaiseki restaurant in Minato-ku. It opened just after the earthquake in 2011. No one went out after the earthquake, so it was a tough time for them. The restaurant owes a lot to its regulars for their support back then, so they don't want to open up to foreigners.

Which restaurants listed on Tableall are your favourite?

I would pick Kasumicho Suetomi in Minato-ku, a kaiseki restaurant which is also loved by chefs.

At Sushisho Saito in Akasaka, they speak good English and provide good hospitality.

My wife and I like to go for kaiseki at Tokuyama in Nishiazabu. We also like Kohaku, a kaiseki restaurant in Kagurazaka, which was recently awarded its third Michelin star.

What are your favourite Japanese restaurants in Singapore?

I like Hashida Sushi at Mandarin Gallery, Ashino at Chijmes, Yakiniku Yazawa at Robertson Walk and Shinji by Kanesaka at Raffles Hotel.

Any others that you like?

I love to eat Peking duck, and I go to Imperial Treasure Super Peking Duck at Paragon for it.

For Chinese cuisine, I go to Grand Shanghai at Grand Copthorne Waterfront Hotel in Havelock Road. To eat quality dim sum, my favourite place is Wah Lok at Carlton Hotel Singapore. For good steak, I head to Bistecca Tuscan Steakhouse And Restaurant in Mohamed Sultan Road.

Any favourite hawker foods?

I like chicken rice, but mostly, I check out what everyone else is eating and follow them. When I'm in one-north, I would go to Timbre+ hawker centre at Ayer Rajah Crescent.

Do you cook?

I love to bake cakes, which I learnt from helping my mother, starting when I was three years old. I make pancakes for my children on weekends for breakfast.

Are you an adventurous diner?

Japanese, French and Chinese people eat anything, don't they?

Chinese people love to eat frogs and snakes; the French eat escargot and we Japanese like to eat turtle. I'll eat anything as long as it's good.

The sad thing is that I've been allergic to shellfish since last year. I must have eaten too many oysters and abalone before. So I feel terrible when I tell the Japanese chefs that I can't have shellfish - it's like I'm disrespecting them.

Do you have a sweet tooth?

Yes, I like Japanese desserts with red beans. I go to Ah Chew Desserts in Liang Seah Street for its mango sago and mango pudding.

Any favourite tipples?

I like everything except gin. I enjoy sake and potato-based shochu as they have stronger flavours.

What is on your foodie wishlist?

I'm looking forward to going to Sydney as it's a big foodie city. I would love to eat at the acclaimed Quay Restaurant.

What are your views on the food industry in Japan?

There is more focus on the chef now. They have to entertain more. Now, with awards such as Asia's 50 Best Restaurants and the Michelin Guide, chefs have become stars.

I believe this is a good trend, so that diners know who is cooking their food. After all, food experiences have become a big culture.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 18, 2016, with the headline 'Click for a table in Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe