It’s been a while since I’ve shared a restaurant review here on Just One Cookbook, and I am very excited to share today’s restaurant – Ukai Toriyama (うかい鳥山) with you. As you may know, traditional Japanese food is not just about the flavors of the food. In Japan, when we cook and serve meals for our family, we consider what dishes should be served, what the food pairing works, and what ingredients to use to have all the colors for a healthy meal.
Ukai Toriyama – the Quintessential Japanese Experience
For Japanese restaurants, they go beyond just the presentation and flavors. A lot of thoughts are put into consideration for the ambiance, the service, usage of the best seasonal ingredients that are available for the customers. If you are planning to travel to Tokyo and has a day to get away, I highly recommend experiencing Ukai Toriyama, a restaurant like no other. Let me share with you my amazing meal there last time I visited with my family.
Where is Ukai Toriyama?
I actually learned about Ukai Toriyama from Mr. JOC. He went with friends on one of his trips to Japan and he kept saying we needed to go whenever we visit Japan. Last summer, to celebrate father’s day with my dad and Mr. JOC, we made it into a family excursion. From where we live in Yokohama, it’s about a 1 hour drive depending on the traffic condition. If I use public transportation, it would take 2 hours each way and that’s part of the reason why we didn’t visit sooner.
So what’s so special about this restaurant? There are quite a few surprises. First of all, if it’s not the biggest restaurant in Japan it definitely is one of the largest. Ukai Toriyama is located west of Tokyo near Hachioji, situated in dense forests near the foot of Mount Takao (高尾山). The restaurant itself is over 200,000 square feet (18,580 square meters) with beautiful gardens and dotted by individual buildings and dining rooms.
If you arrive early and have some time, go across the street from the main entrance of the restaurant. Just up the slope there is a Gassho Style (合掌造り) house built at the location with antiques and tools on display. It was really cool for us to see it again after visiting Shirakawa-go 白川郷 not long ago.
Beautiful Gardens of Ukai Toriyama
As you enter the main entrance, there’s a counter where the host greets you and a sitting area where you can wait. One of the unique characteristics about Ukai Toriyama is that most of the dining rooms are private. While you’re waiting you can walk around the beautiful large garden.
We walked around the garden before our meal as we were waiting and took lots of family pictures. Hopefully my children will remember this one day as they look at the pictures. The garden of the restaurant extends from the front all the way to the back. It’s breathtaking as you walk around. Every flower, every plant, water features, bridge, and all the elements made me feel like I’m traveled to another time.
After waiting for about 15 min, our room is ready and our host lead us to our private dining room. It was on the second floor of one of the building so we had a great view of the garden and the surroundings.
The Food at Ukai Toriyama
The menu is simple and straight forward at Ukai Toriyama, there are 5 courses you can select from (as of June 2016):
- Char-grilled Chicken Course ￥5,830
- Char-grilled Chicken and Carp Sashimi (佐久鯉) Course ￥6,700
- Char-grilled Beef and Chicken Course ￥8,860
- Stone-grilled Beef Course ￥9,500
- Char-grilled Beef Course ￥11,880
As there were 4 adults, we opted for a mixture of beef/chicken course and the chicken/carp sashimi course so we could try a bit of everything.
The first dish that came out was soft sesame tofu with sesame sauce, the tofu had a mochi like texture and the sauce was smooth and super flavorful. The tofu with nutty sesame sauce was served on a dark dish which contrasted well. The small bits of crushed sesame on top added a touch of elegance to the dish.
The second dish was a cold dish, with delicious duck slices. As you chew on the duck, each bite has more and more flavor that comes out. The dish was served with shredded gobo and eggplants, cooked perfectly so each ingredient retained its texture. Everything was soaked in a delicious dashi.
The next dish was a simple clear soup but it was deceivingly flavorful. The mountain vegetable was not overcooked and slightly crisp. Besides the mountain vegetables, there were tender pieces of chicken in the soup. The chicken was drenched in rice flour to keep the moisture and juice, it was ridiculously soft. As you you slowly sip the soup, The vegetable and chicken dashi had many layers of taste.
On to the sashimi course – the carp sashimi was just fabulous. The texture was firm and slightly crisp, tasted super fresh, and after dipping in miso with yuzu kosho (柚子胡椒), it had a delightful sweet and slightly spicy taste and finish.
Now the main event, the barbeque beef and chicken. I love the attention to detail the restaurant thinks about, you can see below even the sand for the grill is perfectly raked.
Hmm… what can I say about the meat… OMG! The chicken was juicy and perfect texture. You know when you bite into a piece of chicken, and the juice flows out from the meat… it was just like that. Tip – remember to dip in the sauce just before done so it doesn’t burn. The beef simply melts inside your mouth and worked really well with their paired soy sauce. The meat was sweet and super tender. The only feedback I have is – I WANT MORE!
As we’re winding down, the grilled fish is served next. The ayu was paired with a vinegar sauce, the entire fish is edible from head to tail and it was super fresh. Keeping with the fresh ingredient and flavor theme, it was just slightly salted and the meat was sweet. I know sweet is a weird way to describe fish but you have to taste it to believe me.
Besides the protein, there were also vegetables for barbeque. The fresh shiitake crunches under your teeth, releasing its woodsy flavor bite by bite. It almost tastes like oyster mushroom.
Lastly the rice dish to complete the Japanese meal. The chicken soboro had finely minced chicken just slightly flavored, with thinly sliced ginger on top. The rice is perfectly cooked and kept hot with the cover (another thoughtful point for the restaurant). Who wants to eat cold rice right? The pickled radish (takuan) and cucumber were not too salty and contrasted well from the soft rice and the chicken with their crunchy texture. Along with the rice dish the miso soup had nameko mushroom with akadashi.
When the meal was over, it didn’t feel like we just had lunch. It was an experience we went through with our senses. The beauty we observed with our eyes, the sound of the river and water wheel, the smell of barbeque, the flavors we tasted.
I think Ukai Toriyama delivered a true Japanese dining experience. They allowed their guest to taste the freshness of the ingredients, and feel the care they put into every dish and the entire dining experience.
One more reason why I’m sharing this now is during the summer time, the restaurant releases thousands of fireflies at night while you’re dining creating a magical experience. The garden view is better during the day but if you want to experience the fireflies it needs to be at night.
Access Information by Train:
On the Keio Line – From Shinjuku Station, get off at the last stop on the Keio Line, Takaosanguchi Station. Travel time from Shinjuku to Takaosanguchi is approximately 50~55 minutes on the Special Express or the Semi Special Express.
On the JR Chuo Line – Transfer to the Keio Line at JR Takao Station and get off at the next station, Takaosanguchi.
On the JR Yokohama Line – Transfer to the JR Chuo Line at Hachioji Station, transfer to the Keio Line at Takao Station, and get off at the next station, Takaosanguchi.
The restaurant shuttle runs daily from Takaosanguchi Station every 20 minutes between 10:00am and 08:00pm (On-the-hour, 20 and 40 past the hour).