Saturday, April 18, 2015

Tempura Uchitsu - Counting the stars

After spending the first evening at a wonderful sushi-ya in Aoyama, on the second (and last) night in Tokyo we came to the neighborhood of Hiro-o near Roppongi for a dinner of tempura. This time during our short stint in Tokyo, I intended to try out places that we have never been before, and while I was doing my research of where to go, one place in particular caught my attention.

According to the latest Michelin Guide Tokyo (2015), Tempura Uchitsu shared the honor of being the top tempura restaurants with the legendary Kondo. However, the place didn't fare quite as well on Tabelog, a local online restaurant directory which  to many (including myself), a more authoritative source in reviews. Its Tabelog rating of 3.5 (out of 5.0) was respectable but definitely nothing to write home about, unlike the 2 stars they got for a couple years in a row from the Michelin inspectors. With such discrepancy I was curious to find out who's right and more reflective of the quality of their food and dining experience.

The restaurant is located a few steps up from street level inside a small building about 15 minutes away from the metro station through the quiet streets (even though their web site said 5 minutes on foot). The place is small and intimate, with only 8 seats spanned across the wooden counter through the sliding door entrance. Behind the counter was a window with trees being planted outside to reflect the seasonal mood. At the time of our visit, of course it's the branches of cherry blossom with lovely pink and white flowers serving as our backdrop - so we had our hanami moment inside! At the helm of the restaurant is Chef Takahisa Uchitsu who opened this restaurant a few years ago with his new-style approach to tempura cuisine. Only one omakase menu was served and must be booked in advance as he prepared the ingredients fresh daily based on different season.

We started with 3 pieces served at the same time on a lacquer plate - first two were tempura courses - the uni wrapped in shiso leaf and a prawn head, then behind them was steamed clams in a ceramic bowl. I was most impressed with the prawn head, which was deep-fried with the lightest dip in the batter, giving it a crunchy, delicate texture in every bite. I would have ordered an additional serving of the prawn at the end just for the head if we didn't get completely stuffed at the end.

We then began with a series of tempura items served individually - the kuruma ebi (prawn), soramame (broad beans), taranome (Angelica buds), takenoko (bamboo shoot) and shirauo (ice fish). The prawn came in good size but I thought the batter was done a little too thick - same with the few pieces of tiny ice fish. On the other hand, the spring vegetables were delicious, especially the bamboo shoot, with the crispy batter coupled with the crunchy, sweet taste of the vegetable. Here the tempura was served with only salt as condiment, as opposed to the usual sauce with grated daikon. Two types of salt were available - one the rock salt and the other sea salt with bits of seaweed. To be honest I couldn't tell much of the difference between the two so I just use them alternatively on the food. And overall I thought the food was lightly seasoned so I found myself reaching out for the salts quite often to bring up the flavors.

While tempura was the main theme, Chef Uchitsu would also introduce other dishes in between the deep-fried items. After shirauo, a plate of sashimi was served with 2 types of fish. Both were alright (Hirame and Maguro), but nothing mind-blowing, to be honest. After this "intermission", we continued with more tempura dishes. Both the hamaguri (giant clam) and hotate (scallop) were of excellent quality and super-fresh. The scallop was gigantic meaning it could afford a longer cooking time in the oil to get the crunchy batter outside yet the middle remained raw and plump, retaining much of the fresh flavor.

Coming in between the two shellfish were two vegetables which was the aspargaus and another piece introduced to us as Koshi Abura. All the ingredients were placed in the tray and chilled cabinet right in front of us so we could see what they looked like before they were cooked. The Koshi Abura looked like a bunch of feathery buds in its original form, which I assume to be one of those seasonal mountain vegetables found only in Japan. I have never tried that before and found it interesting with a nutty flavor and slightly bitter after-taste. Then it's Megochi (flathead fish), the type common for tempura. It's firm and delicious.

Since the beginning of the meal we kept wondering what the little gas stove in front of us was for. And we knew the answer towards the end when the stove was lit and a metal bowl filled with soup was placed on top while the chef began slicing more shellfish pieces for us. Chef told us this is a shabu-shabu with 3 types of shellfish - torigai (cockles), mirugai (geoduck clam) and aoyagi (surf clam) - with a broth made with hamaguri (giant clam) trimmings, green seaweed, dashi and yuzu kosho. We were right at the start of the prime clam season and all three were tasty, with good crunchy texture. All that was needed to cook them was just a quick slide into the boiling broth using the chopsticks. The best bit came at the end when we finished every bit of the broth poured into a bowl with all the essence of the seafood flavors in it plus the seaweed and yuzu. Talk about umami overload.

Two more tempura pieces were served towards the end - the kisu (whiting) and anago (saltwater eel). The anago was paired with finely-diced spring onions sprinkled on top with drizzles of soy sauce, which I thought was quite interesting, even though the eel itself wasn't as crunchy and meaty as ones I had elsewhere before, and each of us only got half an eel this time. We ended the meal with kobashira kakiage served with a choice of rice (ten-don), rice soaked with tea (ten-cha) or noodles (ten-nyumen). We were quite full by then so both of us opted for the lighter bowl of nyumen in hot soup in a lacquer bowl with the piece of freshly fried bay scallops tempura "cake" placed on top and a dab of yuzu kosho served by the side. I thought that's a good combination given the heavy meal we had. And dessert was a piece of sakura mochi wrapped in sakura leaf - very tasty as well.

Well, overall my verdict was a bit mixed. The meal was no doubt sumptuous - with 12 courses of tempura plus the additional dishes - and the ingredients were top-notch. We were so full at the end that we didn't have to order any additional stuff when the chef asked. The scallop was my clear favorite of the evening, and I also found the few seasonal mountain vegetables interesting as we came at the right season for them. But as the meal came as the most expensive tempura meal I have ever had in Tokyo or elsewhere, naturally i have higher expectation which I felt it came a bit short. I found the tempura batter slightly too thick and often came not as crispy as I would like - more closer to Kansei-style tempura which wasn't exactly my cup of tea. He also cooked at a higher temperature than what I usually saw elsewhere - while that worked well for some vegetables, I thought the fish and seafood were somewhat overcooked. The flavor was also lighter which I suspect has to do with the fact that he uses cottonseed oil as opposed to sesame oil. Chef worked with one pot only throughout the entire evening without change of oil at all, which surprised me as well. At most places new batches of oil were put in frequently so the tempura pieces remained consistently delicate after deep-frying.

And most of the time while we were there Chef Uchitsu seems to be very hurried. True, the place was full on that night with all 8 seats occupied but still, I would imagine he would be better with the timing instead of seemingly keep chasing from behind with the serving order and handling multiple things at the same time. I guess I am more a tempura "purist", so I thought the non-tempura dishes, while they were delicious and elegantly presented, seem to cause distraction to the flow of the meal too. For example, I could easily live without the sashimi courses in the middle of the meal - just give me an extra piece of prawn instead!!

But all being said, if you have tried the likes of Mikawa Zezankyo or Rakutei (which sadly has closed after the recent death of its owner/chef) and would want to check out something different, or if you prefer more than just tempura in a tempura restaurant, I would say Uchitsu is worth a try. To me our dinner was a good dining experience but I am not too sure about the 2 stars though - maybe the Michelin inspectors saw something that I failed to observe this time.

More pictures on Flickr:

When? March 27 2015
Where? Tempura Uchitsu, 1/F Hiroo 5-25-4, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo, Japan
天てんぷら うち津 東京都渋谷区広尾5-25-4 宝ビル1階
Menu Highlights? Scallop Tempura

(Part of the Japan Rail Trip 2015 Series - a journey through the Tohoku region by rail in Spring 2015)

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