"Is hating on tofu passe yet?," an exasperated Slate columnist recently asked. Unfortunately, in most corners of American eating society, not quite yet, but an innovative dish I encountered in Honolulu could help sway the remaining skeptics.
Chefs - who've long swiped flavors from the Far East - continue to borrow liberally from the Asian pantry, enlivening their dishes with miso, lemongrass and ginger: I was surprised to recently learn the highlight of an acquaintance's Valentine's Day dinner at Sazerac was a steak sauced with sriracha. But among upscale restaurants, even those specializing in Asian cuisine, tofu is usually a token item. Monsoon serves a crispy tofu side dish and tofu-stuffed rolls, while Wild Ginger serves a crispy tofu and tofu satay. There's currently no tofu available at Revel, although Joule's smoked tofu and filet paired with preserved tofu might be the best local examples of fancy tofu fluency.
The masters of tofu diversity are Seattle's traditional eating houses, where menus list ma po tofu, tofu soups, tofu puddings, tofu stir-fries, tofu curries and an array of other dishes which don't treat tofu as second-rate meat. The city's also home to a number of fresh tofu producers, including Northwest Tofu, which supplies Monsoon's bean curd.
In San Francisco, artisans are trying to bridge the cultural gap with organic, meticulously-made tofus. But they're primarily reaching farmers market shoppers who favor single-origin coffee and bean-to-bar chocolate. At Morimoto Waikiki, by contrast, the tofu razzmatazz is aimed at tourists trying to decide between the seared duck breast and braised lamb shank.
Morimoto's "yose dofu" is a bowl of soy milk which sets tableside. The process isn't any more complicated than other popular at-table preparation techniques, such as cooking raw meat in a hot pot or setting fire to kaseri cheese, but servers enhance the drama by making guests promise not to lift the lid for a few minutes. Once the soft, silky tofu's ready, guests are encouraged to garnish it with scallions, kimchi and soy dashi. It's a great gimmick, and one perfectly suited for Seattle, which has plenty of Asian influences to honor.
Tableside tofu isn't new at Morimoto, which also isn't the only restaurant offering the service. The San Francisco Chronicle in 2010 listed four restaurants making tofu to order, including Ozumo. "It's a whole magic trick," Ozumo's corporate chef told the paper. But the practice remains a rarity: Last October, Grub Street allowed Morimoto "might be the only place (in New York City) to get fresh tofu tableside."
Guests privy to the fun are nearly always won over, Morimoto Waikiki's exceutive sous chef Andy Reagan says.
"Tofu isn't one of those things people get excited about," Reagan says. "This adds to the excitement."