Sunday, April 20, 2014

More Tokyo - Back in history at Nihonbashi's Tenmo

I felt like going back in time when I arrived at Tenmo, a tempura restaurant in Nihonbashi district in Tokyo, in a rainy evening in late March. The small and humble wooden 2-story house - which is both the restaurant (downstairs) and the family residence (upstairs) - was built in 1947 and stood as stark contrast to the surrounding skyscrapers which came well after it. Same retro theme continued with the decor inside, which seems to have left unchanged all these years, with a simple open kitchen setup that resembles more of a family kitchen than a professional one, and a fan-shape counter with high chairs that can sit up to 6 right in front. As I saw the framed newspaper hung on the wall that read "February 1955", I subconsciously took a peek at my iPhone to check the clock and make sure I didn't literally go back in time.

And the restaurant operation remained a pure family affair, just like when it's started in 1885 as a stand-only street stall, as I could only imagine. Nowadays, at the helm behind the deep-frying pan is Chef Hidesuke Okuda, the fourth generation owner, as his father, from whom he took over the job from, now taking more a back seat position as part of the father-son team, handling some of the food preparation work. The cooking skills were probably passed generation to generation in this similar manner, and Okuda-san probably held true to how the cooking's done back in the old days. Likewise, at the back of the kitchen, all the other chores were handled by the mother-wife team, working together to prepare tea and other drinks, getting the rice and soup ready, doing some light washing, etc.

The restaurant was unusually quiet the night I was there, with me and just another local customer - also a lone diner like myself - who joined later on, adding to my feeling like I was eating at someone's home rather than at a restaurant. As I settled in my seat with a glass of chilled beer served, Chef Okuda-san - wearing a shirt and smart bow tie beneath his chef jacket - began to get ready to cook while his wife set up the table with condiments for my meal - a bowl of dipping sauce, a dollop of regular grated radish, another one with fresh yuzu infused in it, and a small bowl of finely-grinded salt. Then for the next hour, I devoted myself to a series of various tempura dishes Okuda-san put on my table, in this venue full of characters and nostalgia feel.

Overall I did like the experience of eating at this quiet ambiance, observing the chef carefully mixing the batter, dipping the food in, and deep-frying in the work of sesame oil, although strictly speaking, food-wise it's a bit hit and miss. This is not the delicate, fine-dining style one might expect from other top-end tempura restaurants in town - at least compared to those few I have tried before (think Rakutei or Kondo). While it's probably true to the spirit of how this restaurant, or tempura in general, started as street food, but then here I was not paying the same price as I would at a yatai. In general I thought the dish came out a bit too oily - I must have frowned a few times looking at the oil-soaked paper on my plate as a result.

Yama Udo (独活)
That aside, there were some high points during the meal. I had quite a number of very interesting vegetable items, which was based on the seasonal selection, and some I have not even heard of. Both fukinoto (butterbur bulb) and yama udo (spikenard or mountain asparagus) were local vegetables for late spring, with fukinoto has a crunchy texture like water chestnut and has a unique, slightly bitter after-taste, while yama udo was similar to asparagus but a little tougher and richer. They were both memorable as I tried for the first time with the chef trying hard to explain what they were with limited English. I wasn't a big fan of eggplant, but the one that was made has a fancy fan-shape and I quite enjoyed the soft texture with the slightly crispy batter coated outside. The other vegetables I had included paseri (parsley), shitake (black mushroom), kinusaya (snap peas) and shishito (small green peppers).

Kisu (キス)
A few seafood item came to the plate in between the vegetables, including 3 pieces of kuruma ebi (shrimps - two at the beginning and one towards the end), sumi-ika (baby squid), shirasu (whitebait), ayu (sweetfish) and kisu (whiting), of which I liked both the ayu and kisu most. Ayu is a very flavorful fish with a slightly bitter after-taste (near the liver part) and many tiny bones, but it's great for tempura with its delicate meat. The one I had was not particularly big but just the right size, and it was delicious - plus it's right in season. Kisu is a common tempura course but I got to say this was one of the best I have tried - it's big with soft and moist meat inside and well-cooked with crispy batter. Overall I found it while the batter was thicker than what I have tried elsewhere, it has rich flavor and came out with an enticing golden color, probably because of the darker, more flavorful type of sesame oil being used. And the batter did come out with the right crispness.

At the end it was the kakiage piece - a deep-fried patty with shrimps and scallops - and here radish sprout was added which gave it an interesting refreshing taste with a slight kick. A bowl of rice was served with homemade pickles and soup, which was a comforting end to the meal.

Well, I probably gave higher points for the retro ambiance and the homey feel in this unique setting, and for the opportunity to try out some new dishes than the food and cooking itself, but on the whole I enjoyed the experience and sometimes that's what counts. After all, there must be something that people like this place for, as it stood for over 100 years and passed on through generations.

Where? Tenmo 4-1-3 Nihonbashi-Honchou, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
てん茂 東京都中央区日本橋本町4-1-3
Menu highlights? Yama Udo, Ayu and Kisu

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