|Photos by Anne Fishbein|
Umenohana, which shares the first floor of a Beverly Hills parking structure with the newest location of Duttons Books, is spacious almost to the point of infinity, long, curving halls forking off into paneled tatami rooms and sleek executive dining rooms, glassed-in wine caves and secret kitchens, an intimate bar and public dining rooms almost beyond counting. The walls are covered with the kind of artisanal faux finishes that are as labor-intensive as the quiet rubbed-finish Japanese art that adorns the place. The main dining room bristles with humming tabletop induction burners, although there is never a food smell; it is wired with expensive sound equipment, although the music, W Hotellobby trip-hop mostly, is barely audible. The restaurant is feng shuied to a degree scarcely imaginable outside the context of a sumo arena or a shrine, mirrors and leaves and water features everywhere, and I wouldnt be surprised to learn that the building managers office has on file a chart of the branching flow of chi at least as detailed as the electrical diagram.
Umenohana is the first major tofu kaiseki house in the United States, the first American branch of a big Japanese chain, a luxurious fortress of bean curd in all of its sundry forms. There is tofu salad and grilled tofu steak, tofu made from sesame and an unbelievably delicious tofu made from fresh milk, not to mention freeze-dried tofu and tofu made to order, tofu cookies and tofu gelato. Yuba, the delicate skin skimmed off the top of simmering soy milk, is wrapped around asparagus, served in a shot glass with sea urchin or piled into a martini glass with a few precious grains of caviar. Tofu en gelée, buried beneath a trembling fish-stock gelatin studded with a confetti of finely cut vegetables, is the kind of dish you might expect to find in a Michelin-starred French restaurant, if Michelin-starred restaurants served tofu.
There have been a certain number of Tokyo chains that have established beachheads in Los Angeles, including Chaya, Torafuku, Furaibo, Gyu-Kaku and Yoro No Taki, but there has never been a restaurant quite as grand as this. The restaurant takes up a huge space in some of the priciest real estate in the world, and the build-out must have cost millions. Some Japanese magnate must have thought that the yoga addicts, the size-zero Hollywood set and the rock & roll vegan earth mothers would crowd into the restaurant like carnivores piling into Mastros down the block. They should, but expensive tofu tasting menus may be a harder sell than, say, garlic lobster or all-you-can-eat steak, and I suspect Umenohana has been having a little trouble filling tables. Fewer than half of the dining rooms in the restaurant are open even on a Saturday night, and the posters outside the entrance barely mention that it serves tofu at all. The restaurant just retooled its menu toward what the owners imagine to be California taste, adding things like lobster salad, Chilean sea bass with tomato sauce, and a truly horrifying dish of rubbery duck breast and undercooked eggplant that is clearly Umenohanas equivalent of the Landlubbers Platter, beefing up the à la carte menu, fortifying the selection of sakes.
But the basic unit of consumption at Umenohana is still the kaiseki menu, a set dinner of between five and eight courses whisking you through the madcap world of freshly made tofu. (The lowest-priced Umenohana menu is probably the one you want, by the way; the higher-priced menus have more sashimi, which is no better than youll find at 100 other places.) And whether you end up tasting the dumplings wrapped in a fluffy coat of shredded tofu that looks a little like a flotaki rug, a trio of tofu shooters or a sashimi assortment served in a miniature model of a Japanese set of drawers, you will end up, or should end up, with the tofu made at table.
You have, I assume, tasted tofu, but Umenohanas fukufuku tofu, coaxed into existence in a tabletop steamer, is astonishing: a quivering, tremulous substance so delicate that sheets of it must be maneuvered to your bowl with special bentwood implements that resemble something out of the Frank Gehry workshop circa 1992, a stark-white foodstuff that dissolves into pure flavor the second it reaches your tongue, with a sweetish aftertaste so subtle it could almost be a rumor. The waiter leaves behind two ceramic jugs of sauce with the tofu, one a suave, cornstarch-thickened liquid spiked with slivered vegetables and shiitake mushrooms, the other a muted version of the fiery sauce that traditionally seasons the dish mapo tofu it is to the original Sichuan dish what Japanese curry is to the Indian kind, which is to say delicious in spite of itself. And although either of the sauces is of the type you could easily see yourself slurping down as soup, some kind of governing mechanism seemingly built into the molecular structure of the fukufuku tofu will probably restrain you from spooning more than a bare ounce or two into your bowl.
The yuba made to order is dramatic you watch a square pot of soy milk simmer until you can lift a fragile skin off the surface, which you then flavor with a few drops of soy sauce and a bit of grated ginger. My friend Sandi was so mesmerized by the yuba that she put off dessert for 20 minutes until every drop had transformed itself into the slippery, gooey membrane. Dessert, it bears mentioning, was tofu crème brûlée.
Umenohana, 443 N. Canon Drive, Beverly Hills; (310) 860-9236. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Kaiseki menus from $38 to $74. Full bar. Valet parking. All major credit cards accepted. Recommended dishes: meneoka-style milk tofu; fukufuku tofu; hikiage yuba.
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