There are times when, as a diner, one should make sure one’s socks have no holes: say, at Tofuya, a delightful restaurant by the Isuzu River, in Japan’s Mie Prefecture.
I had lunch there with seven young chefs from the UK, winners of the British Hospitality Association’s Seven Samurai competition, whose prize was a week-long culinary tour of Japan. In adapting to the cultural shock of removing one’s shoes and squatting around a low table, they were far more successful than the ungainly Gannet, slumped in a corner, legs self‑consciously sprawled.
There is a calm, cool beauty to a shiziki, the traditional Japanese dining room. Tatami mats, woven from soft rushes that impart a grassy fragrance, cover the floor in an elegant jigsaw; lattices of blond wood form screens and windows, backed with translucent paper; the table has a zabuton cushion for each diner; and there will invariably be a view of a Zen garden.
Food and tea are served gracefully too. Tofuya, as one might suspect, specialises in tofu dishes – ethereally silky, served with sea salt – but also in anago (local conger eel), crisp and fragrant in a batter more reminiscent of a chip shop than tempura. Joining them on the lacquer tray was a bowl of rice with shreds of umami-packed kombu (kelp), while more umami came from a bowl of deeply savoury miso soup with a slight smokiness from its flakes of charcoal-dried bonito.
There was a pleasingly wobbly egg custard, a little bowl of squid and seaweed in a dark, treacly miso, and various pickled vegetables added freshness and zip. Even for Japan, where it is difficult to eat badly, this was a sensationally good lunch.
So too was dinner in Tokyo, at Shiba Tofu-ya Ukai (pictured), another tofu specialist, where our shiziki was obligingly fitted with a horigotatsu, a well under the table in which my legs could happily lurk. Our kaiseki meal (a multicourse, rigorously seasonal feast) was superb, featuring not just a hotpot of homemade tofu in seasoned soy milk – its harmonious blandness perked up with soy and shreds of kombu, and sheets of deep-fried tofu, lacquered with miso – but clams with vinegared miso; rice with long flakes of crab and a dab of minced ginger, garnished with a pine needle; and steamed rice topped with a tangle of tiny white fish. All – like the room in which it was served – was precise, beautiful and perfectly balanced.
As I left, negotiating the unexpected turns of a Zen garden after one too many flasks of sake, the illuminated red and white steel of the Tokyo Tower loomed overhead: I do not know the Japanese for rus in urbe, but nowhere is it more appropriate than at Shiba Tofu-ya Ukai.