Monday, December 2, 2013

The Perfect Tempura Lunch - Tokyo's Rakutei

For the past few trips to Tokyo, I always tried to find time for at least one decent sushi meal, and one tempura meal. This time, I booked myself a lunch spot at the Michelin 2-starred tempura restaurant Rakutei in the neighborhood of Akasaka.

There was a sense of serenity as I walked into the restaurant, which was located in the basement of a building on a quiet side street corner. There's only 11 seats spread around the L-shaped Hinoki counter, and behind the counter was Chef Shuji Ishikura with his apprentice working by his side and his wife working behind the kitchen and also as the server. He opened this restaurant some 40 years ago, having trained at the legendary Yamanoue Hotel. Chefs from Kondo and Fukamachi, where I went in the previous trips, came from the same school, so I was curious to check this one out to compare.

Rakutei runs the same menu for lunch and dinner - so some may find it a bit pricey in lunch standard (over 10000 yen per person) but rest assured Chef Ishikura served the same high quality food for both, so to me it really didn't matter. You can choose between two different omakase sets with one offered an additional shrimp and a fish item, which was the one I picked.

I started off with a small bowl of hirame sashimi and cucumber marinated with vinegar. After that, condiments for the tempura were brought in and placed in front of me. The set of condiments is simple - grated daikon, dipping sauce, lemon and salt. During the course of the meal I realized just a light dip of the salt and maybe a little squeeze of lemon juice was all that's needed most of the time.

Just when we - there were 3 other customers on the day of my visit - were enjoying our appetizers, Ishikura-san started firing up the deep-frying pot slowly and began preparing our tempura dishes. The meal began with ebi (shrimp) - four of them served in sequence. I wish I took a picture of every one of them so you could see they were almost identical - talk about consistency! They were cooked with just the right golden color outside, and the batter was so light that it's almost translucent. The shrimp head was also served and it's crispy and tasty.

Top Left: Haze; Top Right: Kisu; Bottom: Anago (I forgot to take a picture of the ika tempura)
I went on to have some of the most amazing tempura ever in my life. Gingko was deep-fried without batter and then served on a skewer. Four kinds of seafood was served throughout the meal - Haze (Goby), Kisu (Whiting), Ika (Squid) and Anago (Sea Eel). Haze and kisu looked similar in appearance but haze was creamier and more delicate while kisu, with more batter coated, was firmer and had more flavor. Ika was such a simple dish that was hard to stand out in appearance and taste, but Ishikura-san did it so beautifully.

But my favorite of the day - if I must rate it - went to the anago (sea eel) served towards the end. It's bubbling hot when it's served and the crispiness (with extra thick batter and more time in the pot) and flavor were remarkable. I would have come all the way just for this. It's a pleasure to see the chef prepared the dish right in front of you from deboning, filleting, mixing the batter, deep-frying and cutting the cooked eel in half just with the use of his chopsticks, and he did it in such free-flowing skills that I felt like he could have done it all with a blindfold. Ishikura-san might have been well into his 80's but there's absolutely no sign of age, with him pacing well, working the wok, giving instruction to his apprentice, and making all the food in such consistent fashion. 

From Left to Right: Chestnut, Lotus Root (I ate one piece already), Young Ginger
Three different kinds of seasonal vegetables were served - lotus root, young ginger and chestnut. Chef Ishikura worked with a single deep-frying pan for both seafood and vegetables - unlike some who uses separate pans with oil in different temperatures, which probably required even more techniques to control, and they all came out perfectly. While I think the lotus root was excellent, I found the other two more interesting as I have never had them as tempura before. The chestnut must have been a special type - the chef even brought out the original one to show me what it looks like. It seems to be bigger than the one I usually see in the market.

Ten-cha - Tempura Scallops served with Rice soaked with Roasted Tea
At the end of the meal was small scallops deep-fried in batter, which was served either with a bowl of rice (ten-don), or with tea-soaked rice (ten-cha). I opted for ten-cha and it's unbelievably good. The strong aroma of Hojicha (roasted tea) rushed through as the lid of the rice bowl was open. It's really beyond description with such combination of delicate flavors from that of the tea, the scallops, the batter, the rice and with a small dab of wasabi on top. It's served with a small plate of assorted pickled vegetables. What a simple pleasure.

If there's such a thing as a flawless meal, this might be it. There were a few other top tempura restaurants in town that I have yet to try, but Rakutei is hands down the best I have had so far.

More pictures on flickr:

Where? Rakutei, Akasaka 6-8-1, Tokyo, Japan
楽亭, 東京都港区赤坂6-8-1 ミュージックイン赤坂
Menu highlights? All of them turned out great, but Anago and Ten-cha were the ones making the most lasting impression.

P.S. In January 2015, Chef Shuji Ishikura passed away at the age of 79. His restaurant has since been closed and no words on when or whether it will be re-opened.

6 comments : said...

I read you review and went, the last tempura, the scalops with tea was the best meal I ever had.

thanks a lot for the data and for share the experience.

gary s said...

Thanks Diego. Glad u like the place as much as I do!

hosikah said...

I was going to try Rakutei until I found out that the owner died recently. I really loved Fukamachi and I'm unsure if I should go back or try others. Would you have any recommendations?

gary s said...

Some people like Mikawa Zezankyu - I tried once last year and thought it was okay.

Thitipong Navalertporn said...

Better than Fukamachi?

gary s said...

Yes I thought that was by far the best I have tried in Tokyo. I like Fukamachi a lot too but I probably will still give Rakutei a slight edge.
Unfortunately the owner/chef passed away recently so the shop has closed.


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