THE SOY OF COOKING
Nellie Blundell enjoys a visit to a remarkable Michelin-starred tofu restaurant in Tokyo
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.
Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai, 4-4-13, Shibakoen, Minato-ku, Tokyo 105-0011; www.ukai.co.jp/shiba.
Smooth as silk: One of 55 elegant private spaces at Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai