Yamato: Notes from the underground


Call it the B1 syndrome, if you will, or perhaps the bargain-basement phenomenon. But the sad truth is, you don’t dine well at the bottom of a building.

There are notable exceptions to this rule of thumb, of course, especially around Ginza. More often than not, though, the fuel stops that underpin high-rise office buildings are functional noodle joints, itameshi chain restaurants or generic shokudo that churn out donburi at lunchtime then morph into smoke-filled sake pubs by night.

That is not the case with Yamato. It’s stylish and modern, large but still intimate, and utterly professional. By genre, it belongs in the rapidly expanding category of “new-wave super-izakaya” — albeit in far more traditional guise than most similar operations. The only indication that you’re buried deep below salaryman territory is the remarkably reasonable price structure.

The look is that of a ryotei in rural Kyoto. You are greeted with great formality by women in country, cotton work suits. The interior incorporates antique timbers, screens and furniture salvaged from traditional buildings and given new life here.

Its warren of rooms covers a surprisingly large area. If you are wise, you will have reserved seats in the main dining area, which has by the low, wooden doorway a miniature pond and garden. A counter runs along two sides of the room, and behind it is a kitchen area with a charcoal-fired kama (country-style cooker) of baked mud.

Yamato’s menu is a similar blend of farmhouse simplicity with a healthy infusion of Kyoto refinement, big-city sophistication and a major dollop of inventive creativity. The specialty of the house is tofu, which is produced in Yamato’s own workshop and of which it is justifiably proud. It also makes fresh yuba, the creamy, delicate skin that forms on the surface of soy milk as it is heated.

This is a rare treat, especially in a place of this kind, so start your meal, as we did, with an order of yuba sashimi. The yuba is collected in rich layers, folded and served in the center of a large, lacquered wooden platter filled almost to the brim with freshly made soy milk. Topped with a dab of freshly grated wasabi root and dipped in a dark, savory dip of tamari, it gives off a rich, natural sweetness, with absolutely none of that overpowering aroma you associate with fresh soybeans.

Other yuba dishes include steaming hot suigyoza, delicate Chinese-style dumplings wrapped in skins of soy rather than wheat flour; chawanmushi (hotchpotch); yuba with kimchi; and yuba shabu (essentially the same dish as the sashimi, but served hot).

Yamato’s ultimate trademark dish, however, is its elaborate tofu salad. Two circular disks of tofu, the size of a generous serving of foie gras, are layered on top of each other, the lower of them dressed with a savory sesame miso sauce that is daubed artistically around the perimeter of the plate. On the top is a colorful arrangement of herbs, pickled vegetables and cherry tomatoes, giving it the appearance of a sophisticated French dessert.

There are plenty of other dishes that do not involve tofu, ranging from grilled eggplant with slices of fresh tomato and dainty garlic-flavored rusks to charcoal-grilled fish, although mention should also be made of the remarkably unsmelly, homemade natto grilled over charcoal on wide, brown hoba leaves. Throughout, servings are small, just enough for two people to nibble on as they sip their sake, of which a small but very adequate selection is provided.

There are rice dishes to close the meal and fill the belly — a tasty zosui of rice, chicken and vegetables; a good genmai chahan (not suitable for vegetarians, though, since the brown rice is stir-fried with egg and chunks of ham) and even Yamato’s own version of curry udon.

The only drawback at Yamato for those who do not read or speak Japanese is the menu, which is written in a cursive script that would be hard to decipher even if the lighting was less dim. However, this can be circumvented by ordering one of the set courses (they start at 3,000 yen but you will get a much better selection of plates for 4,000 yen or above) and asking for a few extras, such as the tofu salad, to be added on.

To do this you will have to call in advance. But that is essential anyway, since Yamato is hugely popular and without a reservation you will be forced to wait your turn outside the entrance in the soulless purgatory that comprises the basement of this strangely spelled building.

Yamato also has a sister shop near Shinbashi, offering much the same menu, in similar surroundings and at the same reasonable prices: 8-9-4 Ginza, Chuo-ku; tel: (03) 5537-6060.