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Sunday, Sept. 8, 2002
TOKYO FOOD FILE
Three hours of pure bliss
Toto-an lies inside Tokyo -- but only just. You will find it far from the throbbing heart of the city, on the western fringes of the greater metropolis, not so far from where the Tama River flows.
It's a long way to travel, but a meal at Toto-an (the name means "the hermitage of the lamps") repays any amount of time and effort. You know that as soon as you see its imposing, thatched wooden gateway. You make your way down a path of polished stones below a canopy of tall zelkovas. Lanterns glow dimly, guiding you through smaller gate and down to an ancient farm building.
Until the early 1990s, this massive, 400-year-old rice warehouse was being left to rot away. Thankfully, it was saved from demolition and, after extensive refurbishment, it reopened some five years ago in its new incarnation as a repository for the culinary arts.
You will be ushered up a flight of well-patinated stairs to the main dining area, a beautiful space with polished wooden floors, burnished walls of packed earth and low windows affording glimpses onto the garden below. There is a choice of seating arrangements: low tables set on rush matting at floor level; or rustic European tables and chairs. The decoration in minimal, just a couple of antique folding screens and spot-lit ikebana in a bold, modernist vein. In the warm glow of the washi-covered lamps, you feel immediately at ease.
We'd like to call the Toto-an style "country kaiseki" with a modern sensibility -- multicourse meals that follow the long-established sequence, presented with exquisite care but also with style and verve. Not only are the ingredients served according to their appropriate season, but each dish is a visual representation of that season, reflected through the arrangement, the style of cooking and the vessels in which it is presented.
Thus, in spring, wild ferns and the shoots of hardy mountain plants feature strongly on the menu, and the seasonal accents are sprigs of ume or perhaps an early cherry blossom. In mid- to late September, the motifs are those of moon viewing. Later on it will be the rice harvest that is celebrated, along with the cornucopia of the mountains -- mushrooms from the wild, the glistening green fruit of the ginkgo tree and golden ripe persimmons.
Although spring and autumn are always the best seasons for washoku, a meal at Toto-an is always memorable, even in summer, when we last visited. The focus of the kitchen at this time of year was directed toward providing relief from the heat, while also stimulating wilted appetites. This was achieved magnificently from the very outset -- in fact, as soon as our first course of appetizers was set in front of us.
Freshly harvested junsai (water shield), its curious texture simultaneously crunchy and gelatinous; a small glass of creamy fresh yuba, topped with grated tororo yam and a dab of caviar, rich in flavor but so smooth we could almost drink it; and a single bright-orange Chinese lantern, in which the "cherry" in the center was a miniature orb of wheat gluten (nama-fu) flavored with kinkan citrus. All these were arrayed in a hand-beaten silver bowl, set off by a spray of green maple leaves. It was a brilliant, inspired opening for the meal.
The rich, appetizing broth of the suimono (clear soup) revealed steamed white tororo yam, flecked with slivers of shiitake and konbu, some tender hamo (pike conger) with a blob of pickled ume paste, a slice of yuzu, and crunchy "noodles" of raw daikon.
The sashimi course was another visual masterpiece. The fish -- white, full-textured hirame (bastard halibut); pink akagai cockles, crunchy but tender; and iwana (char), a soft, mealy freshwater fish -- was served in wedges of green bamboo that were set on a bed of crystal ice resting in the center of a whole young lotus leaf, balanced on a wide hand-thrown ceramic platter.
The serving dish for the next course, the hassun, was a long, thick section hewn from a green giant bamboo. This contained a rich, savory nikogori aspic of conger pike; lightly cooked prawns; and cuts of soft roast duck breast interspersed with slice of yuzu.
Nothing at Toto-an is less than remarkable, but the signature dish is always the grilled river fish. In summer that means ayu (sweet fish). The cooked fish were brought to the table in a rattan basket overflowing with bamboo leaves that were pressed down onto a small container of glowing charcoal. The aromatic smoke from the smoldering bamboo perfumed the room while adding extra notes of flavor to the soft, flaky, white flesh of the ayu.
After such subtlety, the final main course seemed close to decadent. The waitress appeared bearing cuts of raw beef -- the finest Matsuzaka wagyu -- along with large, smooth river stones that had been heated to a great temperature. Only a few sizzling seconds and the meat was sealed, leaving the buttery-rich core a delectable rare pink. Seasoned with a simple ginger-accented soy dip, this was the crowning glory of the meal.
We closed the evening with rice, akadashi soup and crisp pickled vegetables, followed by a slice of melon and a reviving bowl of frothy, bitter macha tea. In all we had spent over three hours at the table and were not just satiated, we were elevated.
As on previous visits, we left feeling a sense of great well-being and gratitude. This was not merely for the pleasure of the meal we had just consumed, but for the reassurance of knowing that somewhere this fine exists -- and really so near at hand.