Thursday, June 5, 2014

Pilgrimage to the Tempura Temple

The Tokyo trip was put together at very short notice but at the end I got the job done (after all it's primarily a business trip), and as a bonus I was blessed with awesome weather and wonderful meals outside of work. How about that for killing two birds in one stone? I always try to fit in a tempura meal as I did in my previous stays, and this time I could finally make time for "Mikawa Zezankyo", one of the places often mentioned when people talked about top tempura restaurants in Tokyo.

It's a long commute in the evening to come to the restaurant on the often-crowded metro train - the primary reason stopping me from coming here in my previous trips - and another good 20 minutes after I got out from Monzen Nakacho (門前仲町) Station on the eastern edge of Tokyo to find the restaurant - thanks to the ever-confusing address numbering system.

Both the facade and the interior of the restaurant was beautifully designed - the restaurant was surrounded by floral arrangement on the outside, and inside it's decorated with paintings and art pieces in the ground floor dining area, with over 10 seats in front of the long counter, where Chef Tetsuya Saotome and his assistant - a Chinese chef who I can communicate with Mandarin - work.

There's no menu per se at the restaurant. Everyone's served the same set of food and those were listed in a little card along with nice drawing of the food by Chef Saotome himself. As I settled down in one of the empty seats in the middle, I was served a little dish of appetizer while the chefs started preparing the rest of the food and brought them one by one as they were cooked. Without a doubt this was the best, at least among the very best, I have had, as far as tempura is concerned, and it's consistent from start to finish.

Kuruma Ebi
I began with two pieces of kuruma ebi (giant shrimp) served sequentially, than both of their heads. The batter was evenly applied and deep-fried into a bright golden color, with just the right, even crispiness. That's in addition to the shrimp being sweet and firm, almost like it's fresh out of the water. That was followed by kisu (whiting) - not as big as the one I had at Tenmo last month - but definitely more delicately cooked. The ika (squid) looked a bit ordinary but it's anything but - it's sweet and creamy and soft and almost effortless to chew on.

While I was enjoying a refreshing bowl of clear soup with shrimp dumpling and grated daikon, chef began to prepare for the uni tempura, with plentiful of sea urchin tongues carefully stuffed between 2 pieces of oba leaf pressed together to form a pocket. It was then dipped into batter and deep-fried. I was very impressed with both the presentation and the taste. I also liked the young ginger root that followed - it's cooked with a light coat of batter and served in the long stalk (and only the top bit was meant to be eaten). It's crunchy and with an unique spicy kick.

From my memory, this is the first time I had ginpo (tidepool gunnel), which was prime in early summer time and said to be a classic edomae tempura ingredient. It looks like eel but it didn't taste like one. There's a hint of mudiness in the fish but I guess that's typical of it and I like the flaky texture. I also saw how detail oriented Chef Saotome was - he would slightly twist the tail end of the piece just before he put it into the pan, so when it came out in a nicer shape - same for the eel piece he made later. The megochi (flathead) looked kinda disgusting before it's cooked but when it landed on my plate after spending time in oil with batter, it's such a beautiful and enjoyable little creature - crispy on the outside, and soft inside.

I think Chef Saotome intended to make the presentation of anago (eel) with some theatric effect as the highlight of the meal experience. He would put it on the plate immediately after it's cooked, then break that in half with his long chopstick with the steam breaking free from the fish and rises, along with the exclamations from customers at the table that followed. I just wish I had time to capture that in a video or something. I absolutely loved the thick, crunchy batter of the eel, and the meat itself which was soft and tasty.

Both the kitchen and table set up was quite simple really - behind the counter there's only one deep frying pan handled by Chef Saotome and his sous chef was responsible for taking orders and preparing the ingredients. It's not a particularly crowded night and I belonged to the last group of the customer, so he only changed sesame oil once in the middle of the meal, which was more than adequate. He just subtly adjusted the temperature of the stove for different pieces, to perfection. On the table there's only a bowl with grated radish which was used for vegetable items, and then a little salt jar for anything else.

Satsuma Imo
To finish, I was given a choice of 2 types of vegetables from the tray behind containing all the seasonal selection. Having difficulties to make up my mind, I picked three instead. Of those three I liked the asparagus most. I have my eye set on that bunch of fresh-looking green asparagus stalks the moment I walked into the dining room. The top layer of the stalk was peeled off leaving behind only the core, and then it's cut into half before cooked. It's sweet, juicy and crunchy. The satsuma imo (sweet potato) was sliced into 1-inch thick piece and scored before dipping into the batter and deep-fried with the skin on. It's decent but probably not as impressive as the one at Kondo where the whole half of sweet potato was cooked for a good 15 minutes in bubbling oil. The third piece was shitake mushroom which I thought was okay. Then the last course was a ten-don with hashira kakiage - a deep-fried patty made with small scallops - served with rice and tsukamono (pickled vegetables) in a layered lacquer box. It's small but delicious with the patty cooked a little longer than usual giving it a deeper color and richer taste.

Well my only complaint for the evening is the service seemed to be a bit off - nothing major mishap happened, except the chef forgot my last order (and one other customer's) and passed our sweet potato pieces to a couple of regular customers (he quickly realized that and re-did them for us) But other than that, I just felt like he's somewhat distracted and the atmosphere was a bit cold, to the extent as I got up and left the place after the meal, no one walked me out at the door - I couldn't recall that ever happen to me at anywhere in Japan and that was a bit rude, I reckon.

Nonetheless I am glad to have finally been able to pay my pilgrimage to this tempura "temple" that everyone's been talking and raving about. Well, no doubt the food here is top notch, but with its distant location and well, somewhat distant service, it didn't win my heart this time - it's such a pity. If I happen to stay nearby next time maybe I will probably give it a second chance, but then there's enough top-end tempura restaurants elsewhere in town that would keep me entertained for a while. 

More photos on my flickr page:

Where? Mikawa Zezankyo, 1-3-1 Fukuzumi, Koto-ku, Tokyo
みかわ是山居 東京都江東区福住1丁目3−1
Menu Highlights? Kuruma Ebi, Uni and Anago

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