TL:DR I had a fantastic meal with the vascular surgery team in one of the most famous restaurants in Japan, so read on for more delicious details.
Things are a little less hectic here in Nagoya. The pace of life is slower than Tokyo, but it has given me a bit of a breather, and time to reflect on my experiences in Tokyo. I said I would write about it, and here it is. The most expensive restaurant I have ever eaten at, and one of the greatest food experiences of my life so far – Shiba Tofuya Ukai.
At the beginning of my placement in Jikei with the vascular surgery team, one of the doctors asked me if I liked tofu.
“I haven’t really tried it, but I would like to”, I replied, thinking nothing of it. Most Japanese people love food, particularly Japanese food, and are keen to share this important part of their culture. One of the most frequent questions I have been asked is, “Can you eat x?” and “Can you drink y?” Doctors are also into algebra, apparently.
“We will take you to a tofu restaurant”, he said nonchalantly, and the next thing I knew the doctors had made a reservation for my last day at Jikei. Things often went like that in Tokyo, and I found it best to go with the flow, and to make the most of the experiences. Throughout the course of the month I heard snippets of information about this mysterious restaurant we were going to. First, it was very good. Next, it was right underneath Tokyo Tower and had a fantastic view. Suddenly, it was Michelin started and one of the most famous restaurants in the country. It was sounding better and better all the time, and the excitement was building. The name of the restaurant was Shiba Tofuya Ukai, and it serves kaiseki ryori, Japanese haute cuisine, specialising in tofu. Kaiseki ryori consists of many small courses brought out one after another, and often reflects the best in Japanese seasonal produce.
The setting was simply breath taking. As we approached the restaurant it felt as if this was no ordinary place. We entered through a little gateway, and looking up, we could see the beautifully lit Tokyo Tower piercing the skyline. I knew it was close, but I didn’t realise we were going to be practically under it! I had expected to walk straight into a nice restaurant, but this was so much more. Between the buildings was a beautiful and ornate Japanese garden, complete with Koi carp and a little bridge. It was amazing, and all part of the experience. We were guided along by our host to a room with tatami on the floor, traditional rice straw matting, and a pit under the table where we could put our legs rather than sit with them folded the whole time. I went ahead with half of the doctors, as the other half were in an emergency operation and wouldn’t be able to make it till later. Drinks were ordered, and as usual, I got the docs to order for me. It’s always more fun when they pick out something interesting. The sake arrived at the table in style, served from a large piece of bamboo. We toasted “Kanpai!”, and the night began.
The menu consisted of a mixture of fish, vegetable, and tofu dishes, and sounded stunning. I was particularly looking forward to the two tofu dishes on the menu: fried tofu and tofu simmered in soy milk. Tofu was in the name of the restaurant after all, so they must be good at it. I’m going to run through the meal as I experienced it, course by course.
To start, we had prawn coated with dried mullet roe, sweetcorn tempura, taro, a bayberry, and a cup with octopus and white wood ear fungus.
The staff looking after our group came out with a few miniature chests of drawers, which was to be our second course. They took out a drawer for each person, and on that was two slices of fried tofu covered in miso paste, with a little bit of salad on the side. The fried tofu was fantastic. The texture was perfect, and the flavours were good too. It had a lot more bite than normal tofu. It’s something I would like to try cooking myself.
The soup course was up next. Conger eel and wax gourd. Delicate, fragrant, and light. Everything that traditional soup isn’t, but I don’t know if soup was the right word. I would call it a broth, or light stock. I enjoyed it, but it was unlike any soup I have ever had before.
The sashimi, or raw fish, of the day. I believe it was tuna, but I can’t be sure. Whatever it was, it was good.
Roasted aubergine with sesame sauce. I never knew aubergine could taste this good till I came to Japan. I loved the sesame sauce too, and it complimented the aubergine flesh beautifully.
The second tofu course was brought to the table simmering in soy milk, untainted by frying or other cooking methods. I liked the taste, and the soy milk itself was delicious, but I’m still not sold on the texture of virgin tofu. It was vastly improved by the addition of dried seaweed pieces.
Grilled swordfish was next. It was good, but not overly remarkable. It tasted the same as a lot of other fish.
Anago, or saltwater eel, served with rice was next. This one was simple, and came with wasabi for a little kick. It also came with miso and something else that I can’t remember, but wasn’t photograph worthy apparently. Miso soup seems to be served with every meal here. I’m going to have to start making it when I get back home. I don’t think the miso I had in Belfast tasted like the Japanese stuff. Either that, or I have gotten a taste for it. It may well be an acquired taste.
And the finale was fig in a delicate jelly, served with Japanese tea. It was a great way to round off the meal, and even though there were a lot of courses, none were too heavy and I didn’t feel uncomfortably full.
After a few rounds of sake, the shochu turned up. Shochu is a distilled spirit that can be made from sweet potato, rice, barley, buckwheat, and sugar cane. It’s stronger than sake, and served mixed with mizu (water). I wasn’t the biggest fan of the shochu – it tasted like diluted ethanol – so I stuck to beer and sake.
Earlier in the evening the doctors were talking about natto, or fermented soy beans. They’re a marmite kind of food, with a distinctive smell and taste, and not generally appealing to foreigners, but loved by many Japanese. I hadn’t tried natto before, so they took it upon themselves to make sure I didn’t leave Tokyo without having experienced it. When the rest of the doctors arrived in from the operation, Dr Maeda was wielding a plastic bag and said “We didn’t think this meal would be filling enough for you, so we’ve brought you some natto” or words to that effect, followed up by his infectious laugh. Dr Ebisawa was my natto-sensei, teaching me the art of natto. On its own it doesn’t taste of much, but mixed with Karachi (Japanese mustard) and some other condiments, it isn’t that bad. Not fantastic, but definitely edible. Everyone seemed taken aback that I could eat it and keep a straight face, but I’ve eaten things much worse than natto here. I’m still looking at you, shark fin. The plastic bag and cheap polystyrene containers offered a stark contrast to the high class, traditional Japanese restaurant around us. That’s what I loved about the doctors though – even though we were eating at this fancy restaurant, no one was really dressed up. Maybe a polo shirt, and jeans, but nothing more formal than that. It was such a relaxed and fantastic evening.
And all of this started with the simple question,
“Do you like tofu?”
Yes, Kanaoka sensei…yes I do.