March 21, 2014

Tokyo 2014: Art museum dining

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If there is one meal I especially look forward to on every trip to Japan, it is actually not the sushi or kaiseki, but the tempura.  There are lots of sushi lovers everywhere, and it's reasonably easy to find decent or even good sushi in many cities as plenty of people are willing to pay for it.  It is also becoming easier to find decent kaiseki in certain cities, and I definitely cherish the fact that RyuGin (龍吟) has an outlet in Hong Kong.

But the one thing that I simply cannot find outside of Japan is decent tempura.  My last attempt was at Tenmasa (天政) in Macau, which turned out to be hugely disappointing.  So it seems I can only get decent tempura on my trips back to Japan... and I made sure to check that box on this trip.

There was never any question about which place I would pick... Mikawa Zezankyo (みかわ 是山居) is about as unique as they come.  Saotome Tetsuya (早乙女哲哉) has been doing this for 30 years, and this newest outlet is not merely a restaurant, but a museum of art.

Every inch of the space was meticulously decorated, starting from the exterior of the building.  Every little seemingly innocuous item inside the restaurant is, in fact, a collectible work of art - down to the serving vessels.  The detail and care taken in arranging the little bonsais on the counter reflected perfectly the tastes of the owner.

We were placed at the three seats closest to the door, which is apparently where they usually put foreign customers.  These days Saotome-san is assisted by Zhang-san from China, and he ended up speaking to us in Mandarin whenever our Japanese fell a little short.  I asked for permission to take photos, and was advised that I should keep it to only the food in front of me.  They also gave me a pretty piece of furoshiki (風呂敷) to rest my camera on, since they certainly didn't want me to scratch the beautifully lacquered counter!

We started with a little bit of Japanese yam (山芋) with miso, greens with shaved bonito, and some dried fish.  Then the procession of tempura began...

Tiger prawn (車海老), first piece

Tiger prawn (車海老), second piece

Prawn heads - always delicious.

Japanese sillago (鱚)

Steamed radish, prawn paste and ginkgo nuts - very interesting that this should be made with a pile of grated radish (大根おろし).

Squid (烏賊), first piece - one of my favorite tempura items, if the ingredient is good.  This was reasonably thick, and the texture was soft enough but there was still a good amount of bite.

As with most of the items tonight, it's much better to dab a little salt on it instead of soaking it in grated radish.

Squid (烏賊), second piece

Sea urchin (雲丹) - sandwiched between two pieces of perilla (紫蘇) leaves.

I've never really liked it when Japanese chefs deep-fried sea urchin, as I always thought it was such a waste of this fine ingredient.  Tonight I changed my mind... this was actually pretty good.

Ginkgo nuts (銀杏)

Icefish (白魚) - one of my favorite things to eat...  Is it any surprise that Saotome-san put each fish into the oil individually, and they are also individually picked out instead of scooped up as a batch.  He knows the order in which the fish went in, and keeping it to FIFO is important here...

Big-eyed flathead (女鯒)

Conger eel (穴子) - the climax of a tempura meal.  The batter was crisp and light brown, and Saotome-san would use his chopsticks to split the eel into two in one swift motion.  It's a pity that I didn't set up properly to take a video of this - like the Wommer did - because the sound effect was definitely something!

We were asked to choose two types of vegetables, and I actually ended up ordering a third option...

Shiitake mushroom (椎茸) - very plump and delicious.

Asparagus (アスパラ) - with asparagus this size during the Spring, it's hard to pass this up... Zhang-san scored the asparagus spears numerous times before peeling part of it.

Sweet potato (薩摩芋) - I suddenly remembered that sweet potato tempura is supposed to be a specialty at some tempura restaurants, so I felt compelled to add this item.  Pretty good, but not exactly mind-blowing like I had expected from the hype others had made about sweet potato tempura.  Zhang-san cut a slit on each side before battering.

Tencha (天茶) - this was my pick out of three different ways of having my kakiage (かき揚げ)... the other two being having it straight with a bowl of white rice on the side, and having it as ten-don (天丼).  Made with diced scallops (はし羅).  Yum...

We were all very full, but I wasn't gonna pass up having a little dessert!  These marinated scarlet runner beans (花豆) from Karuizawa (軽井沢) were HUGE!  And delish, too!

When I looked up the restaurant's details on Tabelog, I was surprised to find that they allowed BYO.  After getting the hotel concierge to call and verify that BYO was indeed permissible - for a corkage of JPY 3,000 per bottle - the Wommer and I picked out a bottle for tonight while sake-shopping this afternoon...

Kikuhime Gin (菊姫 吟), 10BY - it's not often that one sees aged sake (古酒) in the shops, and this 15-year old was just not something that I was gonna pass up.  Alas, we quickly realized that a tempura restaurant wasn't the right place to be drinking nice sake or wine... so we stopped after half a bottle.  This had a long finish.  At first it was a little warm, so it was a little dry and bitter on the finish.  Definitely full-bodied, or as the Japanese would say, コクがある.

The illustrations on the menu were done by Saotome-san himself, and any out of season items are crossed out by hand.  At the end of the evening, we asked Saotome-san to complete our menus by drawing more prawns on them.  A true artist!

This was a very good evening.  While the food itself wasn't as mind-blowing as I had hoped, it was certainly top-notch - and better than Tempura Kondo (天ぷら 近藤) or anything I could hope to get outside Japan.  But most of all, I wanted to come and watch Saotome-san at work under his famous Borsalino...

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