Tofu is not the heaviest food in the world—but seven courses of it is no joke, so I skip breakfast today in anticipation. Lunch is at Tofuya Ukai, a two-year-old paean to artisanal tofu that has become one of the city's toughest reservations; weekday lunches tend to be the easiest to book and are less expensive than dinner. Of all the Japanese-cuisine genres and subgenres that have been finding their way to the States lately, handmade tofu has, to my formerly tofu-indifferent sensibility, been one of the most revelatory. I love the soft, pillowy tofu that has been appearing at restaurants like En Japanese Brasserie and Kyotofu in Manhattan.
The path to Tofuya Ukai, housed inside an old sake factory that was shipped in from the Yamagata prefecture and rebuilt here, leads through what's basically a tofu theme park: A wooden bridge goes over a koi pond and passes through a garden and past a tofu retail shop and an outdoor stand where a chef grills the bean curd over coals for one of the courses on the set menu. The walk is somehow magical and transporting, despite the slight kitsch factor. We've booked our lunch in a private room, for a bargain 5,500 yen (about $50) per person. Once we settle in on our tatami mats, a kimono-wearing waitress brings out the first course: unbelievably creamy, handmade walnut tofu. We linger over it, but the courses that follow are just as outstanding. There's luscious deep-fried and chargrilled tofu with sweet miso and egg custard; namafu, an ultradense wheat gluten, served with persimmon and sesame sauce; and tofu nabe, a hot pot of soothing, fresh, snowy-white tofu simmering over coals with soy milk.
I'm ready for something a little scruffier now, so before dinner we stop in at Yamariki, an 85-year-old izakaya (a pub serving food) that's beloved by local salarymen for its chargrilled pork and its long-simmered pork-innard nikomi stew. The fragrant, intensely meaty broth goes down a little too easily with my sake shots, and I know I'll be revisiting this place in my food fantasies for weeks.
If izakaya food has an opposite, it would have to be kaiseki, the elaborate, picturesque, multicourse meal that has its origins and its most famous practitioners in Kyoto. Kaiseki is bound by rigid rules that govern which courses are served in which order, and kaiseki chefs usually hew close to their restaurant's house style of cooking. A growing number of restaurants in the U.S. do traditional kaiseki, but I haven't yet come across kappo, a less-hidebound but still ceremonious relative of kaiseki. Kappo chefs have more leeway in inventing dishes for a given night's series of decoratively plated courses, and kappo restaurants tend to be less formal and more affordable than kaiseki (though hardly inexpensive).
Local star chef Hiromitsu Nozaki runs one of Tokyo's most respected kappo restaurants, Waketokuyama, and Pratt and I have booked seats tonight at the upstairs chef's counter, where one of chef Nozaki's young protégés, Ryuji Takemura, crafts each course and hands it over the bar. Even after our hypnotic tofu lunch and our pork-innard snack, this dinner sustains our attention over nine gorgeous courses. My favorites are the monkfish liver on green-soybean yuba (soy-milk skin), served with ponzu sauce and daikon radish grated with togarashi, a red pepper that represents one of the few spicy ingredients in Japanese cuisine; and the basket made of fried konbu seaweed, presented alongside uni-topped shimeji mushrooms and a sweetfish served with its own salted, fermented eggs.
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