Saturday, July 11, 2015

A Popular Choice for Tempura

We were caught into a bit of an awkward situation with the heavy rain pouring down as we got out of the taxi just outside Tempura Yasaka Endo (天ぷら八坂圓堂) in Kyoto on a Sunday evening. We slowly regained our composure as we were led through a narrow stone path into the tempura bar area housed in a traditional building, where two seats have already been reserved for us at the corner of the L-shaped counter.

I have always wanted to give this restaurant a try as it's frequently mentioned as one of the better tempura places in town. It sure seemed popular as the tempura bar was fully-occupied on the night of our visit, with a good proportion of them foreigners. They have a well-designed English website along with online reservation system and English menu so I can see why it attracted non-Japanese customers like us.

For dinner, there's a choice of three different sets served omakase style, differed by the number of dishes served and all based on seasonal ingredients at different time of the year. We picked the "Yasaka" set, the middle of the three, as 13 pieces of tempura sounded right. I figured if we have room at the end we could always order a few more items a la carte, which were listed on the board right in front of us and on display at the far end of the counter.

We began with a simple appetizer of tofu skin topped with salmon roes and mashed green onion, followed by a sashimi platter of tai (sea bream) and hamo (pike conger eel). Soon the condiments for the termpura, a bowl of sauce with grated daikon, matcha and regular sea salt and a wedge of lemon, were brought to us and chef began to prepare our food.

Overall there were a few of them I like and thought were quite special. We started with a piece of corn tempura which was one of their signature dishes. It's a thick, long slice of corn cut from off the cob, coated with batter and deep-fried, and I think the combination of the corn taste and the deep batter was done well and delicious.

There were also a mix of traditional items and some more unusual ones - for example, one that was introduced to us as "usui mamenokorokke" was mashed pea paste stuffed back into its original pod before deep-fried, giving it very intense pea flavor and an interesting, almost creamy texture. That was my favorite of the evening.

The other items I like included eggplant, the in-season vegetable served with grated daikon and ginger plus drizzles of soy sauce on top, the baby ayu served with a rice vinegar dip on the side, and also the anago (sea eel) served on top of a bowl of ponzu sauce (except I thought the portion was a bit small - I was more used to having the whole piece of eel at the end of a tempura meal).

The pair of shrimps were served at the same time along with their heads, done in the traditional kansai-style with thicker batter. I still prefer the ones with more delicate coating as those served edomae style more common in the north, so I thought that was only alright. And I wasn't a big fan of the shiitake mushroom stuffed with mashed shrimp paste - I thought the strong flavor of the mushroom totally shielded the shrimp. I guess the other pieces just fell somewhere in between - there's nothing wrong with them but then nothing much to write home about either. Still, they were better than anything we had back home.

At the end of the meal was a house salad, topped with tiny threads of deep-fried sweet potatoes (good) and a choice of rice. I thought the tendon - a mixed tempura fritter on top of a bowl of rice - was a bit small and interestingly dominated with the taste of pumpkin among other vegetables (as opposed to shrimps or scallops which were the ingredients I am more used to seeing). But overall we were quite stuffed at the end so we didn't order anything additional so the portion was adequate.

The place offered a lively atmosphere in a traditional setting and definitely tourist-friendly, though I thought the service was a bit slow at times because the place was so crowded even late into the evening. I could understand why this is a popular choice especially for those who wanted a decent, authentic tempura experience in a less uptight environment. I definitely would recommend sitting in the bar area to see the chefs' action up close instead of the private rooms in the other building across the street from where we sat. While it would be a lie to say this is the best I have had, I certainly don't mind coming back, especially in other part of the year to try some different seasonal items.

You can also check out the more complete set of photos on my flickr page:

When? June 21 2015
Where? Tempura Yakasa Endo, 566 Komatsu-cho, Higashiyama-ku, Kyoto Japan
Menu Highlights? うすい豆のコロッケ - mashed pea paste stuffed in its pod
Drinks? Kamoshibito Kuheiji Junmai Daiginjo Kanochi BY 26 (2014)
醸し人九平次純米大吟醸彼の地 BY 26 (2014)

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