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We've come to the time of reckoning when we must atone for our sins of holiday over-indulgence. Seeking an antidote to the culinary three-ring circus of December, I headed to Eiji, a tiny Japanese restaurant on the edge of the Castro known for its house-made tofu. The oft-maligned soy bean curd is low in fat and high in protein, both New Year's resolution-friendly attributes, but the allure of freshly made tofu goes beyond its basic health benefits. The soothing, baby-food-like texture and subdued flavor belie a simple richness that seemed fitting for the austerity measures of the new year.
San Francisco, CA 94114
Region: Castro/ Noe Valley
Chef/owner Eiji Onoda makes other traditional Japanese dishes at his eponymous restaurant, but he's known for his tofu, and the three types offered on the menu are studies in texture, temperature, and restraint. The most basic is the cold version, a bowl of fresh, spoonable bean curd sprinkled with a few bonito flakes that tastes like virtually nothing except a faint nuttiness that disappears as soon as it's detected. The hot version, ankake tofu, is a warm custard topped with a dark, starchy sauce that adds an earthy backbone to the dish, though it has the same pleasing absence of any strong flavor. Neither dish is flashy; their unadorned flavor is just the thing for a palate recovering from months of overstimulation.
But the thing that people go to Eiji for is the oboro tofu, cooked to order from soy milk that chef Eiji makes himself. It comes to the table bubbling in an earthenware pot, a cloud of steam rising when you lift the ceramic cover. "Oboro" means "clouded" in Japanese, and this tofu is slippery and soft, with large curds that dissolve in your mouth. By itself, this bean curd is as bland as the other two, but you add flavor by mixing in the artist's palette of condiments that accompany it — sesame seeds, chili-laced grated daikon, chopped green onions, bonito flakes, ginger, tamari. Or you can eat it on its own, savoring the velvety texture.
Simplicity is a virtue that's also celebrated in the seafood soup, yosenabe, a caldron full of white fish hunks, large prawns, shellfish, vegetables, and mushrooms of all shapes and sizes. The broth tastes faintly of seafood with a whisper of spice, but mostly it's nothing except warm and nourishing. Above all, it feels restorative, like life's coming back with every sip — along with all those brain cells you destroyed on New Year's Eve.
Shellfish also appear in the miso soup, if you so choose, though the clams don't add much to the simple soup and at double the price, don't seem worth it.
The restaurant's interior mimics the austerity of the menu. The room is all warm wood and soothing beige and white tones. There are scarcely more than a half-dozen wooden tables clustered closely together in the tiny room. Reservations are necessary to ensure one, and there's always a wait for those who come hoping for a drop-in table. Despite its size, the room never gets too noisy, and the service is attentive but unobtrusive.
Daily specials are written on butcher paper above the bar, and most of them branch out from the same tired teriyaki chicken territory with intriguing Japanese specials that are anything but muted. An interesting bitter melon and sliced mackerel salad is well worth ordering when it's in season, with thin slices of vinegar-dressed bitter melon alternating with fishy, oily mackerel — two bold flavors that balance each other out. The same was true in a terrific dish of eggplant baked with miso and walnut, one of the richest things we ordered that delivered an umami-rich wallop to the tastebuds.
Chef Eiji also excels at simple cooked fish preparations, like the miso-and-soy black cod, a better-than-average rendition of a standard Japanese dish that involves marinating the oily fish in miso and sake and broiling it. The cod comes out buttery with a crisp skin, the fish flaking apart with the slightest provocation from the fork, and the deep umami flavors of the marinade permeating the oily fish. Another crowd favorite is the grilled toro: thick slices of fatty tuna belly steak plated with salad for a meaty entree that offers something different from the rare tuna steaks seen on menus at most seafood restaurants.
All that plus a long sushi menu, though Eiji isn't quite a sushi bar — all the prep is done back in the kitchen. But there are still thick, luscious slices of sashimi, and the nigiri rice is perfectly seasoned. You could also order from the list of serviceable rolls, but ordering Americanized sushi at a place offering such authentic pleasures seems entirely beside the point.
For dessert, there are strawberries in mochi, a simple treat that often sells out (request it when you make your reservation). A large strawberry is wrapped in thin slices of starchy rice dough and served chilled. The sweetness from the berry plays nicely off the not-too-sweet, glutinous rice wrapping, for a dessert that's not rich but satisfies just the same — just enough indulgence for a fresh start.
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