A treat for the senses at Mt. Takao
Every time I think I have exhausted discovering the beauty of Japan, I find a new place or space that takes my breath away. Although, as much as I dine out, rarely do I get a chance to visit a restaurant so idyllic and atmospheric that a visit there is as much about the ambiance as it is about the food and impeccable service. Thanks to my co-worker and food buddy Jeff, a group of colleagues decided to spend a day-off over a nice Japanese meal in a beautiful setting. Well, the words ‘nice’ and ‘beautiful’ turned out to be huge understatements as we arrived to one of the most picturesque restaurants I’ve seen so far. Nestled in the verdant woods of Mt.Takao, Ukai Toriyama offers a quintessential Japanese ambiance matched with faultless service and delicious food.
The restaurant itself is a part of the highly-regarded Ukai chain. I had truly memorable dinners both times J and I visited their teppanyaki restaurant Ukai-tei Omotesando. However, Ukai Toriyama immerses you into a completely different cultural experience.
The restaurant is located inside the gassho-zukuri style houses harking back to the heritage of Gokayama region. Surrounding cedar and maple trees, small meticulously manicured Japanese gardens, ponds filled with koi and the sound of trickling water from the small stream along the woods are all a true treat for the senses. In short, if you want to find yourself in a spot that exudes a sense of history, elegance and stateliness and be transported to the Japan of yesteryear, this is the place to be.
You can be seated either in the larger dining area, or given one of the cozy private rooms that are dotted around the woods. With the arresting view of the pond, maple leaves starting to change the color, fluffy verdant moss and the subtle sound of shamisen we were all ready to kick our shoes off, get comfortably seated on the tatami floors around our tables and prepare for the feast while also secretly wishing every lunch break looked like this.
The menu is quite extensive, and we opted for one of the lunch sets. Our meal consisted of a succession of exquisitely plated and utterly delicious courses. As always, menu highlighted delightful seasonal ingredients and I was thrilled to try a few new ones. We also ordered a few drinks like oolong tea, yuzu juice and sake served in a beautiful bamboo, which is supposed to add wood flavor to the drink.
The appetizer set included grilled walnut tofu which had perfect creamy and rich texture and packed ton of flavor.
I particularly loved minced scallop covered in almond flakes. It was creamy and moist from the inside with a nice crunchy crust from the outside and added nutty taste to it. For our second course, we tried incredibly smooth-textured sweet taro potato topped with yuzu zest, and minced shrimp meatball paired with spinach. All the flavors were very well balanced and came together nicely. Piping-hot egg custard filled with ginko nuts and tender chicken meat followed next – a delicious dish that never fails to please my taste buds. This particular restaurant specializes in grilled chicken (although they do have wagyu beef on menu as well) and we got a whole tray of poultry and vegetables on the skewers which we grilled ourselves on traditional hearth. Attention to detail and aesthetics is once again astounding – look how even the sand for the grill is perfectly raked.
We started with hitting up the hoba miso – rich miso with pieces of tender chicken fillet are wrapped in a magnolia leaf and cooked on the grill. I was excited to eat this because I tried it before during my visit to Takayama and loved the unique savory taste it had.
A special sauce was served on the side and we were instructed to periodically dip the meat in the sauce as we grilled it. Admittedly, I thought the pieces of chicken were a bit too thick to grill and it took a while, but it all was still utterly tasty. Traditionally we ended the savory part of the meal with a serving of pickles, miso soup and a bowl of rice which, this time, was covered with yamaimo. It looked very much like a pancake batter, had slimy texture and lacked in flavor except for a hint of dashi. Certainly, not my favorite part of the meal, but I did enjoy sampling the favorite local ingredient though. Our lunch was brought together by a delightful dessert – zenzai with perfectly cooked mocha balls and a side of refreshing grape sorbet.
I don’t think any of us really wanted to leave our cozy hut. We seemed to visit at a perfect time, with foliage starting to peek and the rain further added to the scenic ambiance. Looking outside our large glass doors and taking in the serenity of the garden was a truly soothing experience. I also hear the place is breathtaking during summer when the area is filled with thousands of fireflies.
Once you are done savoring your meal, you are welcome to peruse the gardens and even visit the second and third floors of the big gassho-zukuri house which is furnished in a traditional way and displays interesting antiques.
They even have a little store where you can pick up some condiments, sweet treats and little souvenirs. Of course, weather permitting, you can always walk off your meal by hiking up Mt. Takao. We, however, chose to head back home. Couldn’t wish for a better treat on a long weekend.