Tofuya Ukai is one of those “only in Japan” experiences. In the heart of the city, minutes from Roppongi and at the very foot of Tokyo Tower, you round a corner and find yourself in front of a samurai-era merchant’s residence, its low-slung wooden gateway announced by an imposing white lantern and a tall banner fluttering in the wind.
A winding path leads you along smooth flagstones, through a second gate to an inner garden of shrubs, rocks and pools filled with ornamental carp, surrounded by a complex of half-timbered buildings decorated in resplendent vermilion. Two years ago, this site was a run-down bowling alley and car park. Now it’s Tokyo’s top dining destination, the showpiece in the growing portfolio of restaurants run by the Ukai group.
Think of this as the sophisticated urban cousin of Ukai Toriyama, the wonderful restaurant “village” out in the hills of Takao, west of Tokyo. Instead of rustic farmhouses, here the core of the premises is a 200-year-old sake brewery transplanted from Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture, massive polished beams, thick-walled warehouse, and all. You are greeted by kimono-clad staff, then ushered through winding passages, past a miniature sake museum with ancient vats and a wooden sake press, to your private dining room.
There are 55 rooms in total, enough to seat over 500 people. Apart from a few chambers at the front of the house that are equipped with tables and chairs for wheelchair-friendly access, the rooms are in traditional zashiki-style, with simple, spare furnishings, tatami floors and leg wells. The layout is carefully designed so that all rooms have views over the inner garden, with its thatched grill house and wooden waterwheel turning lazily. Tokyo Tower remains totally out of sight.
Given such remarkable surroundings, it would be easy to surmise that the food here is perhaps of secondary importance. Not so. As the name suggests, the menu revolves around tofu, incorporated into refined kaiseki cuisine.
What distinguishes Tofuya Ukai from other restaurants of this ilk is that they produce all their own tofu. It’s made at their own in-house workshop in Owadamachi, in the foothills of the Okutama mountains behind Hachioji. The beans are grown in Hokkaido; the local water is famous for its purity; the tofu is made and delivered daily.
At both lunch and dinner, they offer a choice of full-course set meals (from 5,500 yen at lunch and 8,400 yen at dinner). You must order in advance, which gives you the opportunity to discuss the menu and adjust it to your own preferences. They can provide entirely vegetarian fare. When we went for lunch earlier this month, we notified them that one of our party was allergic to seafood, a request they took on board without any ado.
The menu is seasonal, changing every two months. Here are some of the highlights of our recent nine-course lunch.
Age-dengaku: Thin strips of deep-fried tofu (abura-age), grilled over charcoal and basted with a special sweet-savory miso sauce. Prepared in the thatched grill house visible in the center of the inner garden, this is delivered to the table in stacks of handsome boxes of red lacquer. The squares of golden abura-age are warm and crisp, their flavor hinting lightly of the charcoal grill. These are slivers, barely even a couple of bites each, yet their simple subtlety lingers in the memory.
Otsukuri, the sashimi course: A few slices of market-fresh fish, perfectly accompanied by a flask of chilled sake. Recommended is the supremely fragrant Kariho Daiginjo — an elegant, expensive brew, totally appropriate to the setting.
The hassun course: Seasonal tidbits, beautifully arranged to highlight the artistry of the kitchen. The standouts here were delectable morsels of wagyu beef from the Ukai ranch in Hyogo Prefecture, simmered with ginger (think gyudon for the gods); and wild fuki (butterbur) stems, steamed and anointed with a white shira-ae dressing, the gently fibrous texture balanced by the creamy mix of tofu and white miso.
Tosui-tofu: The house special is a chunky ceramic nabe hot pot heated over charcoal in the center of the table, containing blocks of smooth tofu in a thick white soup of soy milk, and topped with fresh-made soy-milk skin. The soup is so rich with dashi stock that no extra seasoning is needed, and the tofu slips down like a smooth, savory custard.
Deep-fried ayu (sweetfish): This comes with a kaki-age (tempura) of tiny sakura-ebi shrimp. Excellent, but overshadowed by what had come before.
We closed with rice, miso soup and pickles; fragrant shincha green tea; and, as dessert, a green ume plum steeped in a clear syrup.
Throughout, there was not a single note or flavor out of place. Service was as attentive as you’d expect at a long-established ryokan. An English translation of the menu is provided on request. Best of all, we were allowed to linger as long as we liked in our room.
It was only after three leisurely hours of chatting and enjoying the rain-softened view of the garden that we tore ourselves away. As we stepped out from this tranquil, pampering oasis, blinking and culture-shocked, we were already planning our next visit. No doubt we are not the only ones to do so, which is why, 18 months after opening and despite its scale, a meal at Tofuya Ukai still needs to be booked well in advance.
The historic, the tranquil and the casual: three more tofu picks
Tokyo’s most historic tofu restaurant is also its most down to earth. Sasanoyuki was founded in 1691, when Uguisudani was better known for nightingales than shabby love hotels, and it’s as unpretentious as the humble bean curd that is its claim to fame. Order one of the set meals and they will bring a succession of courses, featuring tofu in all its multifarious guises. Be advised: tofu is about 95 percent water, so it can end up very filling.
Sasanoyuki: 2-15-10 Negishi, Taito-ku; tel: (03) 3873-1145; www.sasanoyuki.com Nearest station: Uguisudani (JR Yamanote Line) North Exit. Open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m.; closed Monday. Set menu from 4,500 yen (lunch from 2,000 yen); English menu; major credit cards accepted.
A narrow bamboo-lined passageway leads you from the busy street and into Goemon’s tranquil courtyard, with its garden, trickling waterfall and carp pond.
Think of it as a miniature (and more affordable) version of Tofuya Ukai, except it’s been in existence for about 100 years longer. In clement weather, the open-front bowers make a delightful alternative to the main dining room.
In winter, they serve yudofu hot pots that warm the cockles.
Goemon: 1-1-26 Hon-Komagome, Bunkyo-ku; tel: (03) 3811-2015. Nearest station: Hakusan subway station (Mita Line). Open 12-2 p.m. & 5-10 p.m. (Sat. & holidays 12-8 p.m.; closed Sun.) Set meals from 6,000 yen; Japanese menu; no credit cards (cash only).
The casual basement bar-restaurant formerly known as Shigezo Syoutou on the outskirts of Shibuya now goes under the new (and rather Irish-sounding) name of O’ Tofu! 716! Otherwise, it is much as it was when we reviewed it in 2001.
The menu remains defiantly tofu-centric, blending in plenty of Asian flavors to match the palm-fringed beach-front decor.
O’ Tofu! 716!: Joware Bldg. B1, 1-1-3 Shoto, Shibuya-ku; tel: (03) 5738-5680; Open 5 p.m.-4 a.m. (Sun. & holidays 5-11 p.m.) Nearest station: Shibuya; major credit cards accepted; Japanese menu (a little English spoken).