TOKYO – Last year at a counter in a small restaurant here, I ate tempura that seemed elevated to an art form, like the finest sushi.
For more than two hours, piece by delicious piece it came, an omakase, or chef’s-choice menu. A skewer of ginkgo nuts, shiso leaves sandwiching a shrimp purée, a white-fleshed fish called flat head, some anchovies, asparagus, lotus root, abalone, oysters, mushrooms with tiny shrimp tucked inside.
It was expensive – $125 a person – but oh so memorable. And it made me wonder: Why are tempura bars in the United States a rarity?
The chef Nobu Matsuhisa sighed when I put the question to him and said that when he first opened his restaurant Matsuhisa in Los Angeles, he had a tempura bar with eight seats. “It was not a success,” he said. “People didn’t want to eat fried food the whole meal.”
Perhaps not in Los Angeles, but what about New York, where $100 fried-chicken dinners sell out in advance? Or elsewhere in the land of KFC? Matsuhisa said that it was difficult to get the proper low-gluten flour here and that the kind of sesame oil in the blend used for tempura in Japan was very expensive.
Fine tempura is not a dish for the home cook. At its best, it sizzles in oil that is monitored constantly for temperature. Each piece is served as soon as it’s fried, making it impossible for the cook to join the party.
But entrepreneurial chefs could take a page from Shinei Kunugiyama, the chef and owner of Ten-Shin in central Tokyo, where I had that memorable meal. As in other tempura restaurants, there was a counter with no more than six to eight seats. The chef stood behind the counter with a big pot of oil bubbling in front of him, shielded by a hood, usually copper. A bowl of simple flour, water and egg batter sat on one side, and a cornucopia of ingredients, cut and trimmed, was on the other.
Kunugiyama used long, thin metal chopsticks to dip each bite-size piece of seafood or vegetable in batter, then let the excess drip off and dropped the ingredient into the oil. In less than a minute, when it turned golden, he posed it briefly on a stone slab with a paper liner, and then transferred it to your dish, perhaps an oblong of slate, porcelain or handmade pottery. An assistant changed the oil every 30 minutes or so, and the chef constantly skimmed it for stray bits of batter.
Nothing was greasy. The textures and flavors ranged widely. In front of you were several dipping sauces, salt, a dish of shredded daikon and a little lime juice. The chef told you which to use with the piece he had just presented. Like the best sushi chefs, he bantered affably with his guests, who eagerly waited, like baby birds, for the next tidbit.