Friday, April 12, 2013

Quest for Tempura - Kondo

Tempura is my second favorite type of Japanese food, just behind sushi. If you think tempura's nothing more than just some shrimps or fish or vegetables dipped in batter and deep-fried in oil, try come to Tokyo and go to one of the many good tempura restaurants. I randomly walked into the legendary Tenichi Honten at Ginza by myself 10 years ago and had the best tempura of my life, and that forever changed my view on this adopted Japanese cuisine ever since.

There's no shortage of great tempura restaurants in Tokyo - a few of which made it to the Michelin Guide, including one with 3 stars. Anyway, having tried Fukamachi at Kyobashi (you can read my previous blog about the restaurant in Chinese) - one of them mentioned in the guide - twice last year during my visits to Tokyo and loved the experience in both occasions, I decided to visit another notable tempura restaurant, Kondo. Chef from Fukamachi and Kondo came from the same school, having trained at the Yamanoue restaurant at Kanda's Hilltop Hotel, so it's interesting to see how their food match up.

Kondo's located on the 9th floor of a non-descript building in Ginza - just like many great restaurants in the area. We were seated right in front of tempura master/owner Fumio Kondo so we can observe the actions up close. There is a choice of menus - the basic one with only tempura (shrimps, fish and vegetables, ending with rice), then two more which offers additional dishes of appetizers. In addition, you can also order from the a la carte menu which changes from day to day based on the seasonal ingredients they have in stock. All the vegetables were placed in a basket behind the counter so you know what are available at any given time. My recommendation has always been order from the most basic menu, and add to it anything you want to try at the end - you are here for the tempura so there's no point wasting space on other food.

My favorite of the night were the whitebait wrapped in shiso, and two that were not on the set menu - sweet potato and sea urchin. Whitebaits were at their prime during spring time when they prepare to lay eggs, and they were wrapped in a bunch with the aromatic shiso leaf and deep-fried. The aromatic shiso leaf works very well with the delicate fish. Sweet potato is the signature item of the restaurant. It's dipped in batter and deep-fried for more than 30 minutes - hence you must order before the meal and that's what everyone have - an indication of how good that was. The slow cooking process made it crunchy on the outside and sweet and soft inside. The sea urchin was again wrapped in shiso and deep-fried so you got a combination of crunchy and creamy texture all within one bite. They were all exceptional.

No doubt Kondo is up there among the very best I have tried before, but minor but overlooked details made me tipped the scale the other way from saying this is the top. A few times he "conveniently" omit the step of replacing the serving paper before putting in the next course even when the oily spots were evident, and I would expect he replaced the deep-frying sesame oil more often than he did. Nonetheless, he excelled in handling vegetables and the sweet potato is something you must order if you have someone to share that with you, as the serving size is HUGE. Other than that, while food-wise they might be neck by neck, overall I actually preferred Fukamachi (read my blog in Chinese) with its cozier setting, better service and the feeling of dining in a family-run restaurant, more than an institution where people just came and paid homage.

The rest of the pictures on my flickr page:

When? March 27 2013
Where? Tempura Kondo 9/F Sakaguchi Building, 5-5-13 Ginza, Chuo-ku, Tokyo
てんぷら 近藤 東京都中央区銀座5-5-13 坂口ビル 9F
Menu Highlights? Sweet Potatoes (Satsuma Imo)

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