>> Tuesday, December 18, 2012
Rick Bayless called his meal here "one of the most impressive, most intimate meals of my life."
Michelin deemed it worthy to receive one Michelin star.
Chef Tetsuya Saotome has been called a "living treasure", a "maverick", and even "idiosyncratic."
Opened only since 2010, Mikawa Zezankyo has quickly become recognized as being one of the top tempura places in Tokyo. It's not that surprising, actually. After all, Chef Saotome spent over thirty years making tempura at his original Mikawa restaurant in Kayabacho. It became so popular he eventually opened up a second, larger location in Roppongi. Chef Saotome estimates he's made over half a million pieces of tempura in his lifetime.
Mikawa Zezankyo is Chef Saotome's newest project. After handing off his other two successful restaurants to his apprentices, he opened Mikawa Zezankyo in 2010. Hidden in a small residential street east of the Sumida River, this tiny restaurant is not that easy to find.
There are only nine seats, so reservations are very difficult to get. Furthermore, Chef Saotome works alone to create the actual tempura. The assistants will help with everything else, but only Chef Saotome does the actual frying. If he's on vacation, the restaurant closes.
According to Chef Saotome, "I am able to see the scales on the fish that other people cannot see and then just coat each piece in the appropriate amount of batter. After that the trick is simply to count the seconds the fish should be cooked for." [source]
It's an art that takes extreme precision and skill. Come here, and you know you'll have the master himself cooking for you.
I had originally tried to book this place through my hotel concierge, but had no luck. Thankfully, my friend and fellow blogger Shirley from Lovely Lanvin (who happens to be a local!) called them and was able to reserve a table in the private room upstairs.
I couldn't wait to see what kind of magic would arise from Chef Saotome's expert hands.
I love places that already have something for you to taste at the table as soon as you arrive. Here, the table was set with these lovely seabeans with sesame and bonito, a small cube of jelly with fish egg and scallions, and octopus. On the right, we tasted a simple broth with a seafood cake of sorts inside. It was as great mini-appetizer.
Traditionally, you can dip your tempura into a sauce made of ground up daikon and soy sauce. Oftentimes, however, I preferred to just enjoy my tempura with a bit of sea salt. It's really up to you.
Chef Saotome cooks in the edomae tradition. This means he only serves seafood and produce that was available during the edo period when Tokyo was a shogun capital, about a hundred fifty years ago. Most of the seafood would come out of Tokyo Bay.
We started with ebi, or shrimp. Lightly fried to perfection, there was not a hint of oiliness in this shrimp. The shrimp was fresh, sweet, and very good.
As is traditional in Japanese tempura places (as I've learned from past experience), they always follow up a shrimp "tail" with the deep fried head. Though I'd typically be a bit squeamish, I actually thought the head here was fantastic. It had a stronger, deeper shrimp flavor than the tail. It was light yet very crispy.
Next we tried kisu (whiting), which was also sweet, tender, and (again) flawlessly fried. I enjoyed it with just a touch of salt, which brought out the natural flavors of the fish without overpowering any flavors.
The ika, or squid, was beautifully soft and tender. I am impressed at the sheer delicate nature of the batter, which almost seems paper-thin at some points. I preferred enjoying this just with a touch of salt as well.
Because it was autumn, we had the opportunity to sample some seasonal ingredients. On the left is shiso wrapped uni (sea urchin), while on the right is a skewer of ginko nuts.
I must say that the gingko nut was my favorite discovery of this trip. This classic Japanese fall ingredient looks like an olive, tastes starchy like boiled peanuts, and has a lovely, complex flavor that's sort of sweet and earthy. I had tried them boiled earlier for the first time at Kikunoi and I had fallen in love. It was equally fantastic fried.
Shiso and uni are really a match made in heaven, and this was no exception. I think I am still more impressed with the version at Tempura Kondo, but this one was still excellent.
Next we had meguchi (3 little fish), which was soft and flavorful. At this point I realized I was hardly using the daikon soy mixture as a dipping sauce. I guess I really like to savor each piece with just a touch of salt. I find it's easier to really taste all the nuanced flavors of each piece.
I am a huge fan of anago (conger eel). The meat of the eel is naturally really tender and sweet. It tasted excellent fried, although this was the only piece where I thought the tail portion was just a tad greasier than I would have liked.
I decided to cough up the extra yen and add matsutake mushrooms to the tasting. Matsutake mushrooms are very seasonal. You see them pop up all over the place in restaurants during autumn. I had tried these lovely, earthy mushrooms in many forms at Kikunoi earlier that week. They were absolutely fantastic fried - though I still wonder whether matsutake mushrooms are really worth their extremely high costs.
I love vegetables, and these fresh asparagus and shitake mushrooms were delicious - fresh and flavorful, I could really taste the essence of the asparagus and the mushrooms. It was also a nice, lighter way to wind down the meal.
Finally, going along with tradition, we ended the meal by enjoying kaibashira, deep fried clams over rice with pickles and miso soup.
The pickles were fantastic. Fresh, super crispy, and not too sour or salty. The flavoring just right and did not overpower at all.
I was quite stuffed at this point, but I still managed to eat a few bites of this lovely ending part of the meal. You can also opt to have a tea-based soup poured into the rice, which results in a lovely congee of sorts that's extremely flavorful. Shirley preferred this style because the clams stay crispy. If you're here to enjoy this chef's incredible frying technique, why not enjoy it as much as you can? We did try the tea soup version at Kondo, so you can see pictures over there if you're curious.
Finally for dessert, a few huge, sweetened beans. I enjoyed these - they reminded me of sweetened bean desserts I used to eat as a kid. It was a nice ending to an excellent meal.
There's no question about it, the tempura here is excellent. I did find it interesting the number of similarities between my two tempura experiences in Japan. There must be all these traditional steps that make up the authentic tempura meal in Japan. It's something I've yet to see in the States.
It's worth making the trek to come try this place. The decor alone is unique and whimsical, and the intimate experience is hard to beat. On the flip side, the restaurant is not easy to find. Definitely use a GPS and/or write down detailed instructions. We used the instructions under the "How to Get There" section of this article, which worked out well.
If you're short on time, I think the tempura at Tempura Kondo in Ginza is just as good, if not better in some cases.Tempura Kondo is also more centrally located in the bustling area of Ginza, which is nice.
All in all, you can't go wrong if you pick either of these places. Along with Rakutei, these three restaurants are often hailed as the top tempura places in the entire city.
Nick Lander (Financial Times writer)