Kaiseki is Japan’s haute cuisine, a traditional meal of several individually-crafted dishes. It’s as expensive as it sounds, and since our budget won’t allow us to repeatedly indulge in kaiseki, we wanted to be careful about the restaurant in which we’d experience it. After considerable research, we decided upon Tofuya-Ukai. I doubt we could have made a better choice.
Found at the foot of the Tokyo Tower, Tofuya-Ukai is one of the most popular kaiseki restaurants in the city. From the moment we walked through the gate, we were enchanted. In the middle of noisy, modern Tokyo, the Tofuya-Ukai offers an oasis of serenity and tradition. A path through a Japanese-style garden, complete with cherry trees and a koi pond, brought us to the main building where a woman dressed in a kimono greeted us with a deep bow.
After checking our reservation, she showed us to our table. And I don’t mean, she pointed us to a spot across the dining room full of other guests. No, we followed her on a circuitous course through the building, which looks more like the residence of a powerful daimyo than a restaurant. She led us through a hall with enormous sake barrels and down a long hallway, before sliding open the doors to our compartment. We removed our shoes and stepped into a simple tatami-floored room with large windows looking out onto the garden.
Our kaiseki lunch was served in seven courses. As indicated by the restaurant’s name, tofu is the house specialty and was the centerpiece of the main dishes. I don’t mind tofu, but have never understood its appeal. However, I’d never had tofu like this. Delicate and rich, the white squares floating with kelp in a large copper pot were so pure and lovely, I didn’t want to touch them. All the tofu served at the Tofuya-Ukai is made in-house, and it’s delicious.
The food was just a single part of what made the experience so memorable. The quarters were lovely, and I’d have been satisfied to simply spend an afternoon sitting on the tatami and looking out onto the garden. And the service! The waitresses brought in the plates one by one, theatrically placing each in front of us with precise, studied movements. The plates and bowls were always different, individually suited to each dish, and the presentation of the food was thoughtful, emphasizing the freshness and color of the ingredients.
The Tofuya-Ukai wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny. Kaiseki is an essential Japanese experience, and one we’re happy to have had at Tofuya-Ukai. If you’d like to eat here yourself, make sure to get reservations early, as the restaurant fills up weeks in advance.
We visited the Tofyua-Ukai with friends from Spain, one of whom writes about food on the blog Chic Souffle. If you can read Spanish, or just want to see more mouth-watering photos of the food we ate, check out her take on the Tofuya-Ukai.