Is tofu dessert? Your answer to that question will determine how you feel about Kyotofu, New York’s newest dessert destination, and possibly the most eloquent argument yet for incorporating soybeans into your diet. Like its precursors, ChikaLicious and Room4Dessert, Kyotofu endeavors to turn the meal’s last course into a dedicated evening outing, accessorized with fruity cocktails and wrapped up in a sleekly designed, date-friendly package. Over the next few months, acclaimed pastry chefs Sam Mason (formerly of WD-50) and Pichet Ong (Spice Market, 66) will be leaping into the fray, high-concept confections at the ready. But with its focus on the flavors of Japan and the gracefully subtle incorporation of soy into eleven out of the fifteen items on its short menu, Kyotofu is making its own distinctive mark on an increasingly crowded postprandial market.
This isn’t your college food-co-op tofu, though, or some arbitrary marketing ploy. The owners were inspired by a Kyoto tofu manufacturer, Kyotofu-Fujino, and its affiliated cafés—in fact, the family of one of the partners owns it—but they tailored the concept for a Manhattan market. They hired a Japanese chef, Ritsuko Yamaguchi, to work within certain Far Eastern flavor parameters, but her desserts fuse Eastern and Western techniques and presentations. They also have a dainty, delicate quality—a femininity, you might say—which makes the place a magnet most nights for dainty, delicate females and chirpy, dessert-nibbling aesthetes of the opposite sex. They’re probably also drawn by the clean, contemporary look of the space, which was conceived by Hiro Tsuruta (the designer of ChikaLicious too) as a home in Kyoto, with a long pathway leading to the entrance, or, in this case, the dining room. On the way, you pass the glass-walled kitchen, where Yamaguchi can be seen drizzling syrups and cocking tuiles at jaunty angles.
Twelve tables are arranged around the edges of a room that feels a bit like a professionally wrapped present, or the inside of a wedding cake, with high tufted white banquettes, coarse stucco walls, and amber light pouring from deftly hidden sources. The menu is appealing in its brevity (unlike the equally appealing beverage list, which is voluminous and potentially disorienting, if the highly hands-on owners didn’t helpfully suggest pairings of wine, sake, and shochu cocktails). One could work one’s way through it in two visits, as we did (but then, we’re not the world’s daintiest eaters). In a wise move, the kitchen offers a few savory tidbits, which can be ordered separately or in a bento-style appetizer plate. None of these will jeopardize your appetite for dessert, and all are tasty and somehow vivifying: the warm nori-wrapped rice balls studded with salty bonito; the light tofu-chicken meatballs; the toothsome black edamame (only vaguely darker than the familiar green); and the quivering dome of excellent housemade tofu.
But seriously, now. You’re not there for the edamame. You’re there for toasted-walnut Tahitian-vanilla parfait, a milky semifreddo of sorts topped with maple-soy-mascarpone mousse. And tofu cheesecake, which has only the barest hint of sansho pepper and some unadvertised—but, to any fan of the local variety, discernible—cream cheese, not to mention a black-sesame-cake crust and a dollop of vanilla-white-bean paste. A cup of chilled black-sesame-sweet-tofu pudding is a bit subtle in the black-sesame department, and even though the ginger in the ginger-infused okayu, or rice porridge, is restrained, it’s still as soothing a bowl of dried-cherry-speckled rice pudding as you’re likely to find anywhere.
The most traditionally Japanese dessert is the anmitsu, a helping of jellied squares flavored with plum sake and garnished with mini mochi, azuki red-bean sauce, and a bean-paste cream flecked with toasted soy flour. The least Japanese, to our mind, was that dessert-menu staple, the warm chocolate cake—though, to be fair, it did involve a chestnut mochi and green-tea cream, and it was pretty delicious. There was no tofu in that one, as far as we know, but even newly converted soy fiends like us won’t hold that against it.