When I moved to Tokyo this summer, I resolved to eat through at least 20 Michelin stars within one year. I printed out a list of all of the Michelin-starred restaurants and started researching some of the ones that sounded good. How does a restaurant "sound good" just by the name? I don't know, it's a lot like choosing a book based on its cover. For example, an Italian restaurant by the name of Monnalisa was immediately noted with a "pass" because the name just sounds so cheesy for an Italian restaurant, whereas the name Tofuya Ukai immediately caught my eye because I suspected it might be a restaurant specializing in tofu, which it is. I put a star next to it, indicating it was one of the restaurants I wanted to garner a star from (along with Tapas Molecular Bar and Ryugin and a few others).
Maybe it was the Michelin star or maybe it's the picturesque location with Tokyo Tower in the backdrop of a beautiful, serene traditional-style building with a lush Japanese garden, but securing a reservation at Tofuya Ukai was the most difficult one I've encountered to date while living in Tokyo. Weekends get booked months in advance, as do dinners, so I had to settle for a lunch slot. The full menu is available at lunch, as are a few lunch-only options. We opted for one of the abbreviated lunch options since we had reservations at Tapas Molecular Bar that night.
The first impression is quite...well, impressive. After you walk through the garden, which makes you feel like you are in a small town or village rather than steps away from the chaos of central Tokyo, you are greeted by extremely polite female servers in traditional garb who escort you through the silent hallways to your private dining room, each of which has a gorgeous view of the garden.
However, like a book with a captivating cover but badly written story, Tofuya Ukai's cuisine was sadly disappointing. It wasn't bad, per se. Just...underwhelming. I love the tofu kaiseki at Ume no Hana, which was not on the 2009 Michelin list, so I (falsely) assumed that Tofuya Ukai would be even better. But I think Ume no Hana does a much better job of presenting a vast array of tofu-derived food items that dazzle and delight, while Tofuya Ukai leaves you slightly hungry and wanting (for more variety, more flavor, more...tofu - strangely, there weren't all that many tofu dishes in our tofu kaiseki). Afterward, I couldn't help thinking: "THAT was a Michelin-starred restaurant? The Michelin guide is SO losing its credibility."
I recently purchased the 2010 Michelin guide and discovered that Tofuya Ukai lost its star. So maybe the Michelin guide isn't completely un-credible.
Lotus root cake and simmered mushrooms in starch-thickened broth.
Deep fried tofu skin and tamago (sweet omelet roll)
A tiny (but beautifully presented) portion of sashimi
Quail meatball and yam in simmered broth. The quail meatball had some strange crunchy bits, which I couldn't help but wonder were bones or beak of quail. Shudder. Needless to say, I didn't finish the meatball.
Hassun - assortment of small dishes. Our hassun included rice cracker-batter fried shrimp, pickled turnip and salmon roe and tofu with peanut dressing
Fresh tofu in soymilk broth - this was my favorite of all the courses. The broth is savory and very satisfying.
Rice with salmon, pickles and miso soup. The salmon was severely overcooked and I refused to eat it - after one bite, I declared: a Michelin-rated restaurant should NOT overcook salmon (which even the most basic decent chef will not screw up)
Steamed sweet potato dessert with red bean paste - slightly bland and not very good
Private dining room with view of garden
Food rating: ** and a half
Bang for buck rating: *** (the scenery is gorgeous, at least!)
Location: at the foot of Tokyo Tower
Average price of meal for two (lunch): 13,000 yen (~$145)