For those who travel for the love of food Japan is likely at the top of your list or, at least, it should be. Be prepared for an unparalleled eating adventure as a vast culinary universe awaits visitors in this food-obsessed country. From luxury fine dining to down-home local eats the options are endless. In fact, I recently read in one of the travel magazines that Japan itself is a food Mecca. Bold statement, but I can see where they are coming from. I could spend a lifetime eating my way through Tokyo alone and I still don’t think I would make a dent. Japanese take their food scene to a whole new level – incomparable to other countries. Japanese food culture and how they approach ingredients, cooking technique and service is indeed world class.We have been in Tokyo only for three weeks and already managed to discover heavenly coffee and dessert spots, as well as a small eatery serving mind-blowing ramen (and I will surely write all about it!). However, for our first Thanksgiving night here we opted to explore different level of Tokyo’s food scene and made reservations in a Michelin starred Teppanyaki restaurant UKAI-TEI located in Omotesando. Teppanyaki style dining dates back to 1945 when the Japanese restaurant chain Misono introduced the concept of cooking Western-influenced food on teppan (iron plate), and it became particularly popular among tourists who enjoyed both watching the skilled maneuvers of the chefs preparing the food as much as the cuisine itself. To make it even more attractive to foreign visitors, the chain increased the performance aspect of the chef’s preparation, such as stacking onion slices to produce a flaming onion volcano.
However, UKAI-TEI takes more classy spin on this traditional dining style. There are no crazy stunts performed. Instead, Chefs demonstrate their refined cooking techniques by utilizing limited tools – namely, just a huge flat grill and two metal spatulas. The main purpose is to showcase the food as each ingredient is dealt with utmost care and respect.
But let me start from the very beginning. The restaurant is very easy to find as it is located on the top floor of Chanel building. With Christmas around the corner you are bound to enjoy dazzling illuminations everywhere you go and a ride up to the restaurant was an exception. As soon as you come out of the elevator, you are welcomed by a hostess who ushers you to a red elegant lobby and has you seated at a tiny swanky bar with a view.The restaurant is located in an elegant and stately 19th century merchant house. The ambiance immediately strikes with the opulence of an imperial Japanese home as well as elements of Western beauty.Soon, another staff member arrives to escort us to the main dining hall. Passing through the hall lined up with a display of miniature porcelain antiquities we emerge into a spacious room with a semi-circular open grill and a panoramic view of the neighborhood via glass window as a backdrop. I loved how every diner enjoys a front-row seats to the action.The waiter brings the menu and without much contemplation Mr. B and I decide to go with Chef’s Special Course, an 8-course tasting menu, as it includes all specialties of the restaurant. Menu tends to change every season as the Chef strives to showcase seasonal ingredients. Honestly, I was secretly hoping to try Matsutake mushrooms, but chestnut was the main pick of the day to feature fall.Mr. B also opts for wine pairing along with his meal, while I settle for a glass of rather fruity Cabernet Sauvignon. I am not a wine connoisseur and won’t even pretend to be one. That’s a skill I yet have to hone. Anyway, let’s move on to the feast.Queen Crab & Caviar in Jelly arrives as a first course. Though not one of my favorite dishes, it was certainly refreshing and light. I think, even though the crab meat was cooked beautifully it was the punch of flavor from caviar that elevated this bite to a whole new level and made it shine. Next, Seared Foie Gras with Roasted Fig and Red Wine Sauce was a smooth and buttery melt-in-the-mouth bite which caused nothing but genuine oooh and aaah from both of us. Perfect balance of sweetness and acidity from the sauce as well as a classic addition of fig added an extra depth of flavor and a complexity to the dish. Even though I had multiple courses ahead of me, I didn’t hesitate to grab the bread and dip it in the remainder of the sauce. Overall, I ranked this dish as one of the best foie courses I have ever had, completely up to par with my Guy Savoy and Joel Robuchon experiences.At this point our Chef brought out a platter filled with fresh seafood for our next courses. He started with prepping the specialty of UKAI-TEI , Steamed Abalone. The preparation of the abalone is half the excitement and slightly reminded me of Kālua, a Hawaiian tradition of cooking a pig in sand. The Chef covers abalone with palm leaves and a mountain of salt, and then steams everything for quite a while under the copper dome.While our abalone was resting under the hot steam, we were served our next course and the tribute to fall season, Chestnut Cream Soup. I won’t lie, even though I am a huge fan of chestnuts I did not expect much from this course thinking its flavor is too subtle to shine. Gosh, was I utterly wrong! What we had in front of us was an insanely scrumptious, gorgeous cream that was full of earthy and sweet chestnut flavors. There were small chestnut bites added for a subtle contrasting texture. I took my time savoring every scoop of this heart-warming soup to prolong my pleasure as much as possible. In fact, I could eat this every day and was actually inspired to try recreating it at home. While we were busy oooh-ing about the dreamy cream soup our Chef started cooking Sautéed Lobster. The lobster was cooked to perfection and melt in your mouth, however the dish lacked a hair of salt. Even though we thoroughly enjoyed the course it was not packed with any particularly striking flavors that would put it apart from other lobster dishes I have tasted in the past.
Thankfully we had a little pause till the next course as it was time for part 2 of the show a.k.a. grand reveal of Abalone.Accompanied with seaweed and creamy yet zesty ponzu sauce its deeply flavorful taste certainly matched the striking presentation. Since this was the first time of me sampling this marine snail I cannot judge its quality by comparing it to my previous experiences. However, I certainly indulged in this particular course and consider it to set a high standard for the future.
As a final main course the Chef brought out a platter with Ukai ‘Best Quality’ beef, i.e. A5, the highest grade wagyu beef they sell in the entire restaurant. It is treated like a gold and is put in front of you to admire. For a good reason, note the exquisite marbling of fat throughout!The Chef recommended having it ‘medium rare’ which would allow some of the fat to render. So, why is this particular type of beef so highly regarded? It’s all about that extraordinary granite-like fat marbling. Considered the caviar of beef in Japan, Wagyu (which literally means “Japanese cow”) refers to specific breeds of cattle that come from a pure bloodline. Where the best Western beef has white streaks running through it, Japanese wagyu is more fat than flesh, a slab of white with a splattering of pink. This is achieved primarily by keeping animals indoors for the most of their lives, feeding them an intensive high-grain diet. The tradition of giving them beer to drink is meant to increase their appetite in the hot summer months, while they may be massaged to alleviate muscle problems arising from limited space and exercise, rather than to improve their meat. There are four Wagyu breeds: black (accounting for more than 90% of Wagyu beef), brown/red, shorthorn and polled. Even though Kobe is the most famous, all three regions produce premium quality beef. The restaurant usually chooses its cuts based on the quality of the meat on a particular day, not based on which of three regions it originates. For most families, Wagyu beef is a delicacy reserved for special occasions. If you ever go to Japan I heartily recommend you splurge, because while it is expensive, it is unique.This steak is pure decadence – buttery, luxuriously tender, and mouth-filling savory flavor combined with a palate-coating richness. It was served with white onion, coarse black pepper, garlic chips (so good!) and two types of sauces – wasabi and ponzu. Each provided a wonderful accompaniment to the beef. However, both Mr. B and I agreed that wagyu is packed with its own rich flavor. I made sure I savored the last few bites without any additional compliments. Last but not least, each set menu ends with what they call “meal”, which is some form of starch served at the end. In our case it was Steamed Rice with Surf Clam served with miso soup and picked vegetables on a side. Rice was cooked to perfection with that beautiful sticky yet silky texture. As for miso, Mr. B quickly proclaimed it to be the best miso soup he has ever had. This came from a person who hates miso soup. It was truly wonderful and I chose to have it at the very end as it seemed to sooth my otherwise overworked belly and settle all the food I have previously savored.
Little did Mr. B and I know that by indulging in our savory courses we have experienced half the excitement. Once we were done with main courses the waiter came up to inform us that the dessert was served in a separate room. We were whisked away into another gorgeously appointed salon. The beautiful and opulent setting was reminiscent of a vintage European tea room.Design elements like dark woods, plush banquettes and dim lighting evoke a Gatsby-esque vibe. A dessert cart graces the center of the room. A pleasant music plays in the background while guests leisurely sip on their tea/coffee and munch on delightful dessert. As part of the tasting menu we could choose one main dessert accompanied with our choice of tea/coffee and then add any of the ‘petit fours’ off of the cart. The waitress highly recommended Japanese Mont Blanc, a seasonal dessert featuring chestnut. A luxurious spaghetti-like mound of sweet pureed chestnuts covered a creamy vanilla ice-cream as a blanket. A pure heaven! Mr. B’s choice fell on Chocolate Sundae which he savored in a split of a second without even sharing a bite! Ugrrr! After that a waitress rolled the cart to our table to offer a selection of those ah-mazing looking dessert bites. It was really hard to decide which ones to try, but I settled on a macaron, raspberry chocolate, strawberry soufflé and chocolate truffle. You can sit here at your leisure for as long as you want. If you don’t feel like dining, you can come straight to this room and enjoy “afternoon tea”. As long as you order one dessert, you have your endless choice of “petit fours” off of the carts. As if all this was not enough, UKAI-TEI had more surprises in stock for us! When I initially made reservations I was asked if we were celebrating anything special to which I responded it was a Thanksgiving dinner date. During dessert course we got this congratulatory platter, a rose for me and a printed and framed photo of us as a memory. As we were about to leave, the hostess escorted us all the way out to the street. Attention to clients and a top-notch service is truly astounding. Thank you UKAI-TEI for a truly magical dinner.
To sum up, would we be back here? Absolutely! I already know I’ll be bringing my girlfriends to this stately tea room when they visit. Overall, we thoroughly enjoyed our dinner particularly memorable courses being seared foie gras, chestnut cream soup, abalone and that heavenly wagyu beef. UKAI-TEI certainly set an excellent tone to our future culinary endeavors in Tokyo.
Disclaimer: This is not a sponsored post and all opinions are my own.