Sunday, 25 May 2014

Unforgettable Shoraian, Arashiyama Japan

Shoraian yudofu
If you're visiting Kyoto (and you really must), then Arashiyama just west of the city should also be on your itinerary. The setting by the Hozu River is tranquil once you get away from the busy, and a bit touristy, main street, even in the midst of the masses around cherry blossom season. The world famous Bamboo Forest casting its haunting green glow into the sky is there, along with the stunningly serene Tenryuji Temple. You might know that Kyoto has a reputation for some of the finest tofu in Japan, and hey presto, Arashiyama can help you out there too. Shoraian (also Syourian), nestled on the side of a mountain a short walk from the main street, specialises in tofu but it's not vegetarian. The location, food and service at Shoraian contributed to one of the most memorable meals of my trip to Kyoto.

I had read a few blog posts before getting to Kyoto which warned that Shoraian is a hard place to find, so I left plenty of time to get there. Ignore the other posts because it was a cinch, really. We caught a bus from central Kyoto (from Maruto-machi dori at the bottom of the Imperial Palace gardens where we spent the morning) right to Arashiyama Station. It only took around 35 minutes and cost about Y150. With Arashiyama Station to your back, walk left down to the river where you hang a right and walk along the water's edge until you can't walk any further. It'll take 10 or 15 minutes considering you'll want to take some photos of the boats on the gorgeous jade green waters and the colourful trees. You'll eventually come to some roughly cut stone stairs heading up the mountain on your right hand side and then the sign, in Japanese, which points along the stone path towards the restaurant on your left.
Arashiyama scenes and the entrance to Shoraian
If you do arrive early though, follow the sign up the hill to a beautiful lookout which has a view up the river and out over the mountains. On a sunny day it's stunning. Booking a table at Shoraian can be a bit of a challenge (the website has no English option and the menu has to be pre-ordered), but with the help of our hotel concierge we managed to get a Thursday lunchtime reservation and chose the Y5,800 menu which came to 11 courses. Including tax and service (sometimes excluded from the advertised menu price) and tea, the meal for two came to Y12,528 (£75 or so). For the entire experience, I consider it good value for money.
Shoraian: from top left Assorted specialties, Yuba, Layered yuba with wasabi, Tofu and burdock
Our meal started with a palate cleanser of sorts - a scoop of chilled silky smooth tofu topped with a goji berry and a sprinkling of salt washed down with a glass of crisp plum wine. On the hot day that we spent in Arashiyama it was a brilliant beginning. A large plate of assorted specialties followed and focused on seasonal mouthfuls like a squishy firefly squid, two gorgeously tender bamboo shoot preparations, and a "maki" of salmon wrapped around daikon and mustard with a shiso wrap. Less successful was a piece of grilled fish, which was overcooked and dry.

The proprietor of Shoraian is an accomplished calligraphist and we were presented with a postcard of one of her recent works, which was then reflected in the playful dish resembling the cherry blossom tree. The fluffy tofu blossoms were ethereal and light, while the slightly crunchy burdock root trunk had hints of soy and vinegar. The second dish in this course was a fantastic layered yuba preparation dressed with a light soy and topped with some grated wasabi.
Shoraian: Yudofu preparation
Next came the yudofu - blocks of silken tofu were simmered for three or four minutes in a pure kombu-spiked broth to warm through before we spooned them into our bowls. To this we added flavourings like spring onion or a scoop of a spicy and numbing pepper preparation (see first picture in this post). With the Y5,800 menu you can order a refill of the tofu, which, of course, we did. I love the simplicity of yudofu, since it lets the quality of good tofu shine. I had a very enjoyable tofu meal in Tokyo on an earlier visit to Japan, but I think this simple yudofu was better.
Shoraian: the wonderful tofu gratin with its hidden gems and the fragrant toyuba tempura course
We moved onto "Toyuba tempura" with crunchy deep fried yuba and a terrific preparation of ebi sakura - the baby shrimps in season at this time of year - cradled on a shiso leaf. What a great mouthful of sweet shrimp and fragrant shiso onto which we sprinkled matcha salt. Tofu gratin sounds crazy, but the preparation was quite incredible. The small ramekin hid treats like firefly squid and a block of namafu, which is used a lot in Buddhist vegetarian cooking. A few chunks of daikon and some aubergine were also hiding in there. The tofu itself was gooey and rich, like a warm hug on a cold day.
Shoraian: Grilled wagyu, Agedashi tofu, rice with fragrant peas and fried baby fish
So far, so full, but there were a few more courses to come. The menu we chose came with a meat dish. Grilled to medium perfection, the slightly fatty wagyu was deliciously tender. Under the mound of meat, which was topped with grilled spring onions, was some grilled aubergine. There was a wasabi and soy dressing to go with this simple dish. A perfect example of agedashi tofu followed. The fried tofu was incredibly delicate, barely holding together, and came in a slightly viscous sauce. Finally, the rice course arrived. We topped the rice, smelling of fragrant fresh peas, with the small bowl of fried baby fish. Pickles included some spicy turnips.
Shoraian: desserts were tofu ice cream in a caramel sauce and a rose bavarois
Before dessert, we rested for a bit with a glass of hojicha and enjoyed the view from our seat by the window looking out at the trees and river. The sweet finale was thankfully small and light. I chose the tofu ice cream in a light caramel syrup, which was topped with a square of mochi. Mr B went with the rose bavarois, which was light as air. I preferred the refreshing ice cream to the fruity bavarois though.

We were the only western tourists at Shoraian during the meal but the staff were welcoming and spoke enough English for us to understand each course. The restaurant itself is only small, with three tables arranged by the window, and a larger one that was occupied by eight elderly Japanese. They had supported seating instead of the tatami mats that we made ourselves comfortable on for the two hour meal.

Arashiyama: Tenryuji Temple and gardens
I would go back to Shoraian in a flash and suggest that it's a must for anyone visiting Kyoto who is looking for something a little different from the city. As I mentioned at the start of this post, Arashiyama is famous for the bamboo forest (think House of Flying Daggers) and the stunning gardens of the Tenryuji Temple. I was struck by the Zen gardens in many of the Buddhist temples I visited in Kyoto. It was a beautiful setting to gaze on the water and contemplate the unforgettable meal at Shoraian.
The towering Bamboo Forest in Arashiyama

2 comments:

  1. This was one of the places I had on my shortlist but just couldn't fit everything in. Another time, I hope, as every post I read on it makes me salivate.

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    1. It was one of the highlights of the trip Kavey - the setting and the food were just magical. The lovely elderly Japanese group were so sweet too. They said, through the owner, that they were impressed with our chopstick skills!

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