THE SOY OF COOK­ING

Nel­lie Blun­dell en­joys a visit to a re­mark­able Miche­lin-starred tofu restau­rant in Tokyo

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Asian Indulgence -

SEVEN cour­ses of tofu? I am in Tokyo, on my way to what’s been billed a tofu restau­rant, which is baf­fling enough, but a tofu restau­rant with a Miche­lin star? This I have to see. In its glossy brochure, the Tokyo Shiba To­fuya Ukai an­nounces: ‘‘ When you walk through the gate of the premise you are trav­el­ling in time and space, giv­ing be­hind you ab­sur­di­ties of ev­ery­day life wrapped up and de­mol­ished com­pletely into an­other di­men­sion. You are in­vited to freely in­dulge your­self in gour­man­dise.’’

Now that is some rhap­sodic copy­writ­ing. But as I round the cor­ner and walk through said gate, I find my­self in dumb­struck agree­ment. Right be­neath the blink­ing lights of the space-age Tokyo Tower, in the heart of the city, I am sud­denly trans­ported back to the days of geisha and samu­rai.

At the sim­ple wooden gate, a large pa­per lantern and flut­ter­ing ban­ner an­nounce the Ukai. Once inside I’m in an 18th-cen­tury mer­chant’s res­i­dence, its cen­tral court­yard lit with lanterns and land­scaped with raked peb­ble paths, sculpted pines and arched wooden bridges over carp-filled ponds.

This is an­cient Ja­pan. Well, ac­tu­ally, it’s mod­ern Ja­pan made to look an­cient be­cause, un­til re­cently, this site was a down­trod­den bowl­ing al­ley and car park. Now it’s among Tokyo’s top din­ing des­ti­na­tions, one of a se­ries of high-end restau­rants run by the Ukai group.

I move through the court­yard, cross­ing bridges and peb­ble paths, to be greeted at the en­trance by a ki­mono-clad host­ess. With an el­e­gant wad­dle, she leads me to my friends wait­ing in a private din­ing room. I tread dark pas­sages of black-lac­quered beams, where at any bend a phan­tom ninja might lurk.

The pa­per-screen door slides open and I slip off my shoes to step into a tra­di­tional za­shiki-style cham­ber, all sparse fur­nish­ing, tatami-mat­ting floors, a dip un­der the ta­ble for my legs and, in the cor­ner, a steam­ing iron ket­tle hang­ing over hot coals.

The spe­cial room isn’t be­cause we’re VIPs; ev­ery­one here dines in private spa­ces. The restau­rant is com­prised of 55 rooms seat­ing more than 500 din­ers, and all of th­ese tatam­i­floored en­claves are ar­ranged around the court­yard with views on to the lantern-lit gar­den. You’d never know Tokyo Tower was soar­ing into the strato­sphere above.

So what’s on the menu in a tofu restau­rant? Well, not just tofu, I’m re­lieved to find, though there is a lot of that.

The food here is based on tra­di­tional kaiseki cook­ing, Ja­pan’s most highly re­fined cui­sine, with each el­e­ment care­fully bal­anced and ev­ery in­gre­di­ent cho­sen and pre­pared in har­mony with the sea­sons.

We start with abura-age, del­i­cate slices of deep-fried tofu, char­grilled in the court­yard grill­house with sweet miso and egg cus­tard. Un­packed from its beau­ti­ful red lac­quer boxes, it looks like vegemite on toast but tastes so light, crunchy and de­li­cious we all want more. Then, at the head of the ta­ble, our host­ess places a huge earth­en­ware pot on a bra­zier of hot coals. Inside, squares of but­ter­soft silken tofu sim­mer in soy milk richly flavoured with dashi stock.

The tofu is very good. As some­one who eats tofu only in pu­ri­fy­ing bouts of self-flag­el­la­tion af­ter too much in­dul­gence, I think of the stuff as squares of old sponge, but this is dif­fer­ent. The Ukai’s tofu is made from Hokkaidogrown beans, at their own farm in Owadamachi, in the foothills of the Oku­tama moun­tains be­hind Ha­chioji, where the lo­cal wa­ter is fa­mous for its pu­rity.

The pa­per screen slides open af­ter each course and with much bow­ing and sweet smil­ing our host­ess presents one in­cred­i­ble dish af­ter an­other on gor­geous ce­ramic and lac­quer­ware dishes. Sashimi, snow crab, abalone and, how could I for­get it, milt. What’s milt? you might ask, as do we. Cod sperm or cod gen­i­talia, ar­gue the Ja­panese among us, but be­fore we can get to the bot­tom of it we de­cide to give it a go. What­ever its ori­gin, it’s ac­tu­ally not bad: a bit like brains, fatty and rich.

Seven cour­ses later and the Ukai gets a rap­tur­ous thumbs up. We’re not the only ones to rave about it: the Miche­lin crew has given it one of its pre­cious stars. The fancy food guide vis­ited Tokyo for the first time last year and worked it­self into a lather over the qual­ity and cre­ativ­ity of the city’s restau­rants. In a frenzy of praise, they be­stowed an un­prece­dented 191 Miche­lin stars on 150 of Tokyo’s finest restau­rants. That’s the most the guide has awarded a sin­gle city and al­most three times Paris’s run­ner-up haul of 65.

The idea of a tofu restau­rant might seem odd, wor­thy and, dare I say it, bor­ing, but the Ukai is worth its weight in gold soy­beans.

Check­list

Tokyo Shiba To­fuya Ukai, 4-4-13, Shibakoen, Mi­nato-ku, Tokyo 105-0011; www.ukai.co.jp/shiba.

www.miche­lin.co.jp

Smooth as silk: One of 55 el­e­gant private spa­ces at Tokyo Shiba To­fuya Ukai

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