A Unique Tofu Lunch in Arashiyama

Arashiyama is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Kyoto, meaning there are also a ton of places to eat lunch in the area. From street food to classy Kobe beef, the options are plentiful. I recently stopped by a wonderful tofu restaurant along the riverside in Arashiyama to try something that proved a little different than some of the other tofu that I've tried in Kyoto.

Tofu Matsugae is dwarfed in popularity by its neighbor, the well-known Yoshimura soba noodle restaurant. On days when the line is too long for noodles, a meal at Matsugae is just as enjoyable. There's even some culinary crossover, as soba (buckwheat) is used in creative ways at Matsugae, and you can order a side dish of the same noodles that everyone else is waiting for next door.

The first thing you notice inside Matsugae is the traditional atmosphere, complete with tatami floors, low ceilings, and walls paneled with natural materials. The understated atmosphere in the main dining room feels like stepping into a high-end traditional dining space. If you're lucky enough to get a view of the garden while you dine, you're in for a real treat. It really is a top notch landscape and offers just the right amount of detail and design for its relatively small size. I was there on a rainy, misty day, and the wetness of the moss and the raindrops clinging to the pine needles made for an enchanting view. Unfortunately, there are only two tables in the room that get an unobstructed view of this magnificent landscape, so get there when they open and hope they're not reserved.

The menu at Matsugae is fairly simply, and the main draw here are the set course tofu meals, of which you have three to choose from. They all include hot or cold tofu, dipping sauces, appetizers, rice, and a variety of small side dishes. The mid-size course (2,778 yen) was more than enough food and provided great insight into the special cuisine at Matsugae. The medium level course includes tempura, and the highest options adds in some soba noodles.

What makes the tofu here special is that it's not just the plain white jiggly cube that you usually find in Kyoto. Slightly tan in appearance, Matsugae's tofu is flavored with soba buckwheat, giving it a rich, nutty taste and a slightly less slippery texture than usual. The taste was very noticeable when the tofu was eaten on its own, but when dipped in soy sauce or the excellent sesame dressing provided, it was not as distinct. Salt and shredded ginger were also provided as toppings. Paired with the soba tofu are green cubes of tofu flavored with matcha tea powder from Uji, the famous tea town just south of Kyoto. The effect is largely visual, as the matcha flavor doesn't really come through much. Overall, the presentation of the checkered white and green cubes is really pleasing, and there is more than enough tofu to fill you up. It's up to you if you want it served in lightly flavored hot broth, or in a wooden bucket of chilled soy milk. I tried both, and it's hard to say which was better. They're simply different. It just comes down to your seasonal preference.

Before the tofu arrives as the main course, diners are treated to a satisfying small appetizer selection. The steamed pumpkin and mushroom was fine, and the raw gluten cakes topped with sauce and roasted soba were interesting, but perhaps difficult for a western palate. The cold yuba was by far the most tasty. Yuba is the skin that forms on boiled soy milk, and at Matsugae it's served chilled with a small dollop of wasabi on top. Incredibly refreshing on a warm, humid day in late summer.

Next up is a small dish of grilled eggplant and simmered nishin (Pacific herring). This sweet and flaky fish is one of my favorite foods in Japan, and it did not disappoint at Matsugae. To be honest, I was not expecting to have nishin served with tofu. It doesn't have a strong fishy taste and has a light, flaky texture, so it actually complemented a tofu meal well.

Along with the main tofu course, tempura and rice with pickles are also brought out, ensuring that you won't leave Matsugae hungry. The tempura was really filling (that's a nice way to say "a bit too much") and the sizes of the pumpkin slice and the bunch of mushrooms were much larger than what you usually find. The best part was the small bite of fried yuba, which was the first time I've seen that included in a tempura variety (ate it before I could take a pic, sorry!)

They do their best to work soba into almost everything at Matsugae, so the rice and pickles were unique as well. On top of the rice was a large helping of small dried fish and buckwheat kernels. The taste of the soba came through beyond the fishy, waxy texture of the little fish and paired nicely with the pickled daikon radish and seaweed served as a side dish. Even these pickles were covered in soba, and I found the soft and tart soba kernels to be a great way to finish a meal.

Well, almost finish a meal, because dessert soon arrived. What I initially thought was a scoop of ice cream turned out to be kudzu mochi, a kind of pudding made from a starchy root and flavored with green tea. Not going to lie, a few years ago I would not have been able to eat this. Over time, I've become more used to some of the more challenging textures in Japanese cuisine, and I quite enjoyed this rich, thick pudding.

This lunch at Matsugae was especially unique in the way that it incorporated soba into the dishes. This is not the normal tofu that I eat on a regular basis, so it was a very interesting experience. It's tempting to compare the tofu here to my other favorite spots in the city, but this is probably unwise. Matsugae does their own style of Tofu that works well as a part of their special meal, and it stands apart from what else you can find in Kyoto. I recommend this restaurant for lovers of tofu who want to try something new in a great setting, although if you don't get a table with that amazing garden view, it'll be up to you to decide if your visit was truly worth it.

Matsugae is conveniently located near where we end our Arashiyama Backroads Tour.