The chef plucked a perky, squirming Kuruma Ebi (Japanese Imperial Prawn) from a large fish tank and held it in my direction. After a quick nod by yours truly, he tore off the head, and with the flick of a wrist, stripped the crustacean of its shell and dunked it in a batter mix. Less than a minute in the oil and I was presented with the best piece of tempura I ever had in my life, where the delicate, crisp batter gave way to the sweetest prawn meat I have had the pleasure of tasting. It was only five hours since I landed in Tokyo, and I was beginning to think I was falling in love with the city; if not, I was in love with Tempura Tsunahachi, the restaurant I am currently having lunch in.
Like all the best restaurants in Tokyo, Tempura Tsunahachi is tucked away nicely in a small alleyway behind the bustling streets of Shinjuku. The decor is minimalistic, just large amounts of dark, lacquered wood and not much else, and the only decoration on the walls were wooden boards that displayed the menu items for the day. With it’s zen-like vibe, traditional minimalist Japanese interiors, and stern looking chefs with a head of white hair, Tempura Tsunahachi is more like a gastronomical temple than a restaurant, but then again, this is what you would expect to find in a 93 year old establishment. You make your way up to one of the counter seats, select a tempura set of your fancy, and watch in awe as the chef prepares your meal entirely from scratch. I am no expert on tempura, but while I was researching for my Tokyo trip, I came across an article on two Michelin starred tempura chef Kondo Fumio. In the interview, Kondo said that tempura is actually more steaming rather than a deep fried menu item, where the batter actually acts as a protective coating for the ingredients inside, allowing it to cook perfectly and to enhance each individual ingredient’s natural flavour. So in essence, the perfect piece of tempura should be light and delicate, with a crisp, greaseless exterior and a perfectly cooked ingredient inside the batter. While Tempura Tsunahachi is not in the same league as the Kondo and the three Michelin starred 7-Chome Kyoboshi, it still served me the best tempura meal I ever had.
First to arrive was the tempura egg yolk (150 yen) off the a la carte menu. How they batter and deep fry a egg yolk is beyond me, but what I can say is that this is food pornography in the most literal sense. Break the paper-thin batter and watch as the molten egg yolk oozes over your rice. It is sultry, erotic, and proof that simple food, when done right, can be absolutely sexy. Add a dash of the restaurant’s custom soy sauce and you have yourself a little bowl of happiness and sunshine. If you do not order this, we will never see eye to eye on anything else, and you and I will never be friends.
The meal was a quiet affair. The expressionless chef would hand you spotless pieces of tempura, and your only job is to eat it instantly and purr in satisfaction. Battered snap peas were fragrant and sweet, while the eggplant was succulent and light, something that demonstrates considerable skill, as anyone who has ever cooked eggplant before knows that the vegetable laps up oil like a thirsty puppy. A single piece of onion was tender and soft, cooked just enough so that the natural sweetness of the vegetable shone through.
But it is with seafood that the restaurant truly leaves an impact. An entire whiting, bisected and then butterflied, is deep fried to absolute perfection. Curls of squid were delicately cooked so that they remain buttery and tender. Two other species of prawn were included in the set menu, but they paled in comparison to the fantastic Kuruma Ebi, which was the most intense piece of crustacean I have eaten – at least, until I visited Sushi Kanesaka the following day. After the meat is devoured, you are presented with the head of the shrimp, coated in the same delicate batter. Pop these in one go and crunch on the umami-rich brains. These are the finest prawn crackers ever known to man.
Incredibly, the prawns were not the best thing in the meal. It takes a lot to upstage a perfectly cooked crustacean, where the proteins have just set and the sweetness of the meat shines through, but I must say that anago (seawater eel) was the highlight of the entire meal. Anago are at their best during late spring and early summer, when the eels are sweetest and are so delicate that they practically melt in the mouth. Despite being cooked in hot sesame oil, the anago tempura retained it’s lovely delicate flavour, and the meat itself fell apart at the slightest touch. It was a stunning piece of cookery, and I bemoan the fact that you simply cannot find tempura and fish of this quality in Hong Kong.
The meal concluded with a dark red miso soup, jam packed with tiny shellfish, giving it an intense, briny flavour. For a meal of this quality, you would expect a hefty bill. But prices here are tremendously generous – set menus begin at less than 2000 Yen (HK$140) and the particular set I had, with a live prawn and perfectly cooked anago, costed only 2700 Yen (HK$190). Dinner does get a touch more expensive, but then again, it is all worth it. This is miles better than any tempura you would find in Hong Kong, and I would happily come back here again.
Tempura Tsunahachi (Shinjuku Main Branch), 3-31-8 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo 160-0022