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Tofuya Ukai -- Jan 2008 report

Clearly, I suck at life. But I FINALLY wrote about my meal at Tofuya Ukai back in January. Pictures are here.. http://www.alifewortheating.com/tokyo... and the description is below. Enjoy!

I had only been in Tokyo a week, but my practice of the Japanese art of kuiadore was progressing quite nicely. By eating my way to financial ruin and an irreversibly larded midsection over the past several years, I had actually been getting a head start on connecting with this culture before I even arrived. Or at least that’s what I told myself as I tried to justify walking around with this ridiculous piece of paper in my hand. Let me explain…

It was my last night in Tokyo, and I was on my own for dinner. Both of my friends had already left, and our collective knowledge of Japanese had gone with them. Beyond food words, I know essentially nothing (for me this is a trend across several languages, English included). So I asked a staff member at the hotel to write out a simple message for me on a sheet of paper — Please give me the longest menu this restaurant offers. Thank you.

To observe this woman using all the willpower she had to stifle her laughter is to understand how much the Japanese value politeness. But she indulged me nonetheless, and soon I was on my way to Tofuya Ukai. Adam had actually been before on a previous trip and so his endorsement echoed the praise I had already been reading, so I was quite excited for my dinner in the shadow of the nearby Tokyo Tower.

I arrived to find three set menu options priced at ¥8400, ¥10500, and ¥12600. (Word to the wise: lunch prices are about half that.) My disappointment was palpable when I was given an English menu and an English-speaking waitress came to take my order — I couldn’t use my paper now! In any case, I got the “Yuki” set menu (the largest, natch), which featured beef as the main course. But I was intrigued by the fish main course on the middle “Tsuki” menu also, so I asked if it would be possible to work that in as well. Her surprise (disgust?) when I made that request reminded me how easy is it to feel like you’ve just offended someone in Japan. After running downstairs to get permission, she hesitatingly said they could do it for an additional ¥1800, an offer I happily accepted.

Things started off with some steamed shredded turnip, yam, tofu and mushroom. This was served in a soy-based broth and dotted with wasabi. With a firmness almost like a mushroom, this was the first of many textural incarnations of tofu that I would see that night. The other flavor accents here were sweet, salty and hot all at once, each interacting in a different way with the subtle flavor of the tofu.

Next was deep fried tofu with miso and scallion, and tamago topped with shredded turnip. The texture of the fried tofu was spongy, but in a good way — a very good way. It was also crisp on the outside and tender within. An added plus was that it was served very hot, which really activated the aromas of the miso and scallion. The Japanese-style omelette, meanwhile, displayed a restrained balance between sugar, soy sauce, and mirin. And a skilled cook must have prepared it, as the result was a custardy smooth texture and a taste that skewed neither too sweet nor too salty.

My waitress claimed my sashimi course would be more “special” since, along with the main course, it offered the only distinction among the differently priced menus. But unfortunately they brought a dreadfully mundane trio of ebi (shrimp), maguro (lean tuna), and karei (flounder). I liked the presentation on a bed of ice, but it only intensified the ghastly mental image of cocktail shrimp I got every time I looked at this (unfortunately) cooked shrimp. I’d just had live kuruma ebi (tiger prawn) a few days prior to this so I wept a little inside as I found this tough and flavorless by comparison. I found consolation in the crunchy and tasty shrimp head, although the maguro was mediocre and the flounder, forgettable.

Next up was a fish dumpling with shredded scallop (I think) served in a hot broth. “Dumpling” seems almost a misnomer for something that graces your tongue with such lightness. I really hope there is a poetic Japanese term for these things. The texture was a cross between soufflé and custard, and the flavor was just slightly sweet. Think exceptional quenelles de brochet with a Japanese sensibility. The fish broth just tasted so pure and I really liked drinking it as a soup for a clean finish.

The next dish held three separate presentations: soft buckwheat tofu topped with uni; boiled abalone served with seaweed; and the gracefully translated “rape and milt in bitter-orange juice”. You can top all sorts of things with good, fresh sea urchin roe to create something successful, but I thought the nutty buckwheat tofu matched with it particularly well. The softness of the tofu also mimicked the creamy uni, creating nice textural continuity. The abalone had the firmness characteristic of that tasty mollusk but it was neither tough nor chewy. In another display of culinary minimalism, its flavor shined brightly and simply. But, oh, about that milt! You might know it as shirako (meaning “white children” in Japanese), but let’s call a spade a spade — it’s fish semen. And it was the single most delicious thing I ate during this trip to Tokyo. One would expect that being presented with bodily fluids meant for ingestion would arouse a certain level of inquisitiveness, but I’m actually still unsure to which species of fish I owed this pleasure. Though I failed to ask who the — shall we say — benefactor had been, that ignorance tasted blissfully good. Smooth with a mouth-coating creaminess, the milt’s flavor was delicate and subtly sweet. Meanwhile, the slight bitterness of the orange juice and broccoli rabe contrasted the natural flavor of the shirako beautifully. I just loved this dish.

The waitress then brought a huge bowl holding a sea of warm soy milk and an island of silken tofu. She proceeded to set this on the table and carefully ladle it into a smaller bowl. This seasoned soy milk was just delicious. Its warmth unleashed a satisfying aroma almost reminiscent of cinnamon. The taste was sweet and nutty in a way that reminded me of the almond milk I enjoyed in Sicily. The unadorned block of tofu was bland, but dressed with kombu and soy sauce its taste was enhanced. And its texture was totally deserving of the “silken” title.

There were two components to the fish course that came next: salt-grilled Spanish mackerel with yuzu, and a croquette fashioned from a mixture of lotus root and rice. The salt-grilled fish was dead simple but just stunning. The skin was beautifully charred, while the flesh remained moist. A squeeze of fresh yuzu juice and a sprig of some sort of tempura-fried herb heightened the natural flavor of the fish even more. Meanwhile the croquette had just the thinnest crispy layer on the outside while the inside was a moist and creamy blend of glutinous rice and lotus root. I was reminded of a particularly rich form of Italian arancini that are filled with béchamel, but this somehow had a lightness to it, and a delicate sweetness I found almost enchanting. I really enjoyed this course.

The charcoal-grilled beef, on the other hand, I was not entirely thrilled about. In fact I thought it pretty pedestrian. Seasoned simply with salt and pepper, I expected a stronger beef flavor to shine through but it never did. The seared outside I’d enjoyed so much on the fish was nearly absent here. It was instead just gently browned, although it was thankfully rosy pink on the inside and thus fairly tender. But oddly, between this course and the sashimi, the two courses that accounted for the higher priced menu were the most disappointing of the evening. Frankly neither warranted spending the extra cash. I guess even in the food paradise that is Tokyo, you can’t win ‘em all.

The last savory course included a wooden dish full of rice topped with snow crab, miso soup with tofu, and pickled vegetables. Never have I encountered a culture that cooks its rice so incredibly well as the Japanese. Seriously. It’s something to behold. Each grain here had integrity and flavor on its own, while seamlessly disappearing into an ocean of others. It was not clumpy or dry or broken. It was not over- or under-cooked by a second. With nothing accompanying it but a few pieces of sweet snow crab, it was, in a word, fantastic. The miso soup was basically umami in a bowl, and I enjoyed the lone piece of tofu floating in it that had soaked up that flavor. The pickled vegetables were good also, like a savory palate cleanser. But I’m still thinking about that rice…

Dessert is usually an incredibly simple (or completely non-existent) affair in Japan and this was no exception. Just a small cup of red bean soup and couple of wedges of fresh persimmon. The soup was fortunately less grainy than red bean desserts can often be, but I wouldn’t call it particularly great. The fresh fruit was just a simple, clean way to wind down the meal. And I also happen to really like persimmon, so it was a happy ending.

After the meal, I sat in the now-empty dining room drinking tea for a bit before deciding to explore the restaurant grounds. Passing back through the lobby I saw a huge barrel full of soy beans, this tofu-focused restaurant’s raison d’être. From what I could see from my upstairs window the enclosed garden area looked quite peaceful, and it was. An outdoor grill area still smelled of charcoal. A small stream snaked between the different private dining houses. I could have stayed out there for a while just relaxing, but I was already chilling a bit too much on that nippy January evening.

While I wouldn’t call this the single best meal I had in Tokyo (that would be Kyubey), I would say my dinner at Tofuya Ukai was an eye-opener. The wonderfully varied texture, temperatures, and presentations of tofu I saw that night shattered a lot of the pre-conceived notions about certain soy products, (okay, that last one’s actually pretty good, but still). I think Adam said it best — Japan makes you a better person. This meal showed me that maybe this tofu stuff isn’t just for hippies and Buddhists after all. So I say forget all the crap you’ve heard and tasted before. Tofuya Ukai should be on any Tokyo short-list. After all, where else are you going to get your milt fix?

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  1. Thanks for the detailed review, I will try the restaurant out (though I am not usually a milt fan, but we'll see). It is a 10 minute walk from my apartment and yet I have never been. Your review has tipped me over the egde.

    1. Thanks. I enjoyed this detailed write up. It would be interesting to counter it with someone who is an admitted admirer of tofu up front....Shirako is usually cod milt.

      8 Replies
      1. re: Silverjay

        Indeed. One of the friends I joined in Tokyo had tried shirako a year or so prior to this, and we had been asking for it at restaurants (mostly in NY) with no luck ever since. It was definitely a pleasant surprise to just have it show up on a menu without even asking for it. I definitely had the impression it is usually cod milt, but according to oh-so-reliable wiki, it can sometimes be anglerfish or blowfish, which was news to me. Just didn't want to be inaccurate, so I figured I would be vague! :)

        1. re: tupac17616

          Shirako from blowfish is available as well in winter time, normally served by restaurants specialized on fugu. The last time I had it was grilled-robatayaki style, slight crispy on the exterior skin and soft inside, absolutely delicious.
          My impression of shirako is from the angerfish as well. I usually ordered it along with the liver (ankimo) in winter time, and just assumed they come from the same fish (anko).
          It is interesrting to read your American perspective that tofu "isn’t just for hippies and Buddhists after all". The region where I am from (Singapore), this is just such a common comfort dish that I forgot some people will treat it more as exotic.

          1. re: FourSeasons

            I don't think I treat it as exotic. The "hippies and Buddhists" comment was mainly for comic effect. But I would say that the vast majority of the tofu I've ever had in the US has been of bad or mediocre quality.
            I sought out Tofuya Ukai specifically because of their emphasis on tofu since I thought it would be nice to experience what a restaurant (and a culture) that was new to me could do with an ingredient of which I had never had a great rendition.
            I think in the end I am open-minded enough to have the perspective that a great version of basically any ingredient on the planet exists. The fun is in trying to find it.

            1. re: tupac17616

              Tofu in the U.S. really is lousy. But the "hippies, Buddhists" thing- not the most culturally sensitive comment to make on the Japan or any Asian board. I enjoyed your whole review and then had a WTF moment when I read that bit. Sounds like you enjoyed the meal though.

              1. re: Silverjay

                Duly noted. Certainly was not my intent to offend.

                1. re: tupac17616

                  Although if you have suggestions for two other cultural sectors that have a high propensity for vegetarianism, I would gladly edit that bit.

                  1. re: tupac17616

                    I think the takeaway is what Fourseasons noted above- tofu has a different image in Asia and it's not equated with vegetarianism at all. And there are many great tofu dishes among Asian cuisines that combine meat or fish with tofu. If you're in NYC, there are good places you can try dishes like Japanese hot pot, Chinese mabo dofu, and Korean soondobu.

                    1. re: Silverjay

                      Good points, all of them. A great version of mabo dofu can bring me to tears (of joy). Best rendition I've ever had was in Shanghai of all places. Sichuan province is very very high on my list of places I'd like to visit (and by that I mean eat). Also, will have to try soondobu. Thanks for turning me on to that! Cheers.

      2. Hi tupac,

        What a great review! :) I missed Tofuya Ukai on my last trip, and after another acquaintance of mine just went and reported back in similar fashion as you (verbally), it's definitely on my list for my next visit. :)

        Thanks!

        1 Reply
        1. Love shirako as well. Had them the first time in Mikawa as a tempura and I still like it that way. Creamy and light at the same time. Yum. One can actually get shirako here in HK at Ten Yoshi which is a tempura place. There are very few places that would have it though.

          1 Reply
          1. re: HKTraveler

            Shirako is getting quite common in Singapore too. One or two decades ago, only very few top end restaurants carry it in their menu; nowadays, it is even available on mid end restaurants. The one you described on tempura layer is available at TenShin in Regent Hotel Singapore.