Tofuya Ukai is one of those “uniquely Japan” experiences. In the heart of the city at the very foot of Tokyo Tower, you turn around a corner and find yourself in front of a Meiji era merchant’s residence, its low-slung wooden gateway announced by an imposing white lantern and a tall banner fluttering in the wind.
As the name suggests, the menu at Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai revolves around tofu, incorporated into refined kaiseki. The tofu served at Ukai is produced at the restaurant’s own workshop in the Okutama mountains behind Hachioji from Hokkaido soy beans. Made and delivered daily, the tofu at Ukai is a level beyond the best you’ve ever tasted.
御品書 月 Oshinagaki Tsuki
先八寸 – Sakihassan – Appetisers
Seasonal tidbits, beautifully arranged to highlight the artistry of the kitchen.
Sea bream sushi wrapped in sakura leaves 鯛桜すし was delicious and I wished there was more than just one piece. The sakura leave protected the fish from drying up, and infused the tai with a gentle hint of sprint.
Deep-fried turban shell with bamboo shoot 磯香さざえ was a delicate dish, the shellfish was battered and deep-fried, yet still soft and tender. Bamboo shoot was simmered with spinach and other vegetables, but you only see one of each as evidence.
Vinegar mozuku seaweed with octopus 蛸もずくwas the least technical of the three appetisers, with mozuku in sweet vinegar and paired with a slice of octopus.
名物 – Age dengaku – Signature
Deep-fried tofu with miso あげ田楽 Age-dengaku is made by frying sliced-tofu and then cooking it with wood charcoal.
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 flavour hinting lightly of the charcoal grill. These are slivers, barely even a couple of bites each, yet their simple subtlety lingers in the memory.
御椀 – Owan – Covered Bowl
Deep-fried fat greenling and julienned vegetables in a hot broth あいなめ沢煮. Sawani 沢煮 is a Japanese technique of boiling fish in stock and a lot of vegetable.
Ainame 鮎魚女 or fat greenling is the same species as scorpion fish but without the spines. The texture is similar to snapper, but since it was fried, we could tell the delicate difference.
御造り- Otsukuri – Sashimi
御造り has two meaning in Japanese. In Kansai and kaiseki talk, it is used as a reference to sashimi. In polite talk, it means make-up as in dolling up for the occasion.
Today’s sashimi 本日の湊より was a selection of the best catch of the day. Two tiny blocks of chutoro (fatty tuna), not yet primed for the season, and two slices of ishidai (striped beakfish), which was fatty and delicious in its own way. There was a small black cube of seaweed in jelly, which I could not fathom the taste because it was smaller than a lozenge
Together with the sashimis was a serving of bamboo sake. Ukai started as a sake maker, and you can expect great sake from them. And by putting it in the bamboo canister, it was infused with a slight bamboo fragrance. The sweet sake was perfect with the sashimi.
合肴 – Aizakana – Simmered Course
Steamed clam with yuba and sea urchin 吹き寄せ蛤. A huge akagai clam was steamed and its juices used to cook the yuba tofu skin. Fresh uni was added as the final touch. Tour de force! Packed with umami and flavours of the sea.
名物 – Meibutsu – Signature
Tosui Tofu – Tofu in warm konbu seaweed soup 豆水とうふ. The house special is a chunky ceramic nabe hot pot heated over charcoal, 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.
焼物 – Yakimono – Grilled Course
Charcoal-grilled Wagyu beef 特選和牛炭火焼. Just look at the plating, What a piece of art! Perfect Ohmi beef with just that slight amount of fresh mustard.
御食事 Takenoko gohan
Steamed rice with bamboo shoots たけのこご飯 – 御飯 香の物 赤出汁 gohan, konomono, akadashi – rice, pickles, miso soup
Steamed rice with bamboo shoots was an appropriate end to the Kaiseki course.
甘味 – Kanmi – Dessert
Green tea jelly with strawberry and sweet azuki beans 春苺と抹茶よせ. A sweet ending to a fantastic meal. The dessert was a very proper (and boring), green tea jelly with sweet red beans. But the strawberry was such a surprise. Very sweet, but it was improper for me to ask for more, so we have to leave it as there.
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.
There are restaurants that provide excellent dining experiences, and then there are others that will not only excite your taste buds but also transport you to Japan of yesteryear. Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai is exactly that place.
The area that the restaurant is located is right next to Tokyo Tower and Shiba Gardens. 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.
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.
The restaurant is located in the heart of the city — in fact, at the very foot of Tokyo Tower. Yet, once you step through its wooden gate (following a near-royal-fit greeting) you find yourself a world away. A thick-walled warehouse, vermillion torii gate and the ornamental koi (carp) pond are just a few features that make you completely forget that you are in the center of one of the most modern metropolises in the world.
Ukai is housed within a samurai-era merchant’s residence where a 200-year-old sake brewery was transplanted from Yonezawa, Yamagata Prefecture. As we were greeted by the kimono-clad staff and escorted to our private dining room via the winding passages and silent hallways, we admired the traditional elements of the Japanese interior: massive polished beams, sunken hearth, ancient vats and a wooden sake press.
The rooms are in traditional zashiki-style, with simple, spare furnishings, tatami floors and leg wells. Throughout, the service at Ukai was impeccable and best of all, we were allowed to linger as long as we liked in our room. Admittedly it was hard to tear ourselves away from this tranquil, pampering oasis.
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.
If you decide to visit, (which you definitely should) book in advance as making the reservation is quite hard — you’ll know why when you visit!
Tokyo Shiba Tofuya Ukai 東京 芝 とうふ屋うかい
4 Chome-4-13 Shibakoen, Minato City, Tokyo 105-0011, Japan
Tel : 03-3436-1028
Date Visited : Apr 2019