26 September 2010

Tsunahachi, Tokyo - Restaurant Review

It's been three months since I was in Tokyo, yet I still find myself reminiscing about this glorious, utterly bonkers city. Japan has so much to delight a food-lover; it is a truly extraordinary place. Now that I'm back in Europe, it feels like the week I spent in Tokyo was just part of some wonderful dream. So when Dinner in Brooklyn made a comment about tempura on my blog, it got me thinking about my first ever meal in Tokyo.

As this was a work trip I was lucky enough to have flown in to Tokyo cosseted away in business class, enjoying the free-flowing claret like some gout-ridden Regency viscount. The downside of this was that I slept right through the in-flight meal (which was no bad thing) and arrived in Tokyo bleary-eyed and ready to eat my own weight in, well, anything remotely edible.

Fresh off the Narita Express train, I alighted at Shinjuku station - a man on a mission with a singular purpose: food, and plenty of it at that. A guidebook recommended a tempura restaurant that was not too far from the station. Tempura is good, I thought, tempura is safe - I know tempura. I wasn't quite ready to dive into the culinary unknown just yet, there would be plenty of time for that later, and the thought of deep fried stuff sounded like the perfect salve for my aching hunger.

The restaurant in question was Tsunahachi - a relatively inexpensive Tempura chain with eight restaurants in Japan. By the time I arrived, a queue had already started to form and I took my place in line with other hungry diners. Eventually, I was ushered in to a fairly spartan, but busy, dining room and was seated at a bar counter with a perfect view of the two neatly dressed itamae's, who were busy manning two deep-fat fryers.

The great thing about Japanese restaurants, at least from a foreigner's point of view, is that many of them have this bizarre display of plastic doppelgangers of their food offerings. The detailing of these is really something to behold and they are quite a work of art. They also have the very handy feature of allowing the hapless gaijin to just smile and point at what they'd like to eat.

After smiling and pointing, it transpired that I ordered the tendon (Japanese rice bowl) set menu. First, a delightfully fresh salad of shredded daikon and ginko nuts. Then, those moreish Japanese pickles. I love the way they are soft, at the same time as being, quite possibly, the crunchiest things on Earth. Then came the main event, which was a bowl of rice topped with freshly cooked tempura. Everything is cooked to order here and I watched as the itamae meticulously prepared each ingredient, gave them a quick dredge in the batter, dipped them into the hot oil with some long chopsticks, and fried them to perfection. Prawns in particular were deftly handled; their heads whipped off and their bodies worked between the chef's fingers to elongate them. I also had tempura of delicate fish fillets, sliced renkon (lotus root), and tiny shira-ebi (sweet baby prawns) that had been formed into a fat rounds of tempura. The tempura was sensational - totally greaseless and so ethereal and crisp. Accompanying them was a dipping sauce and different types of flavoured salt. To finish, some miso soup that contained tiny clams no bigger than a pea. And suddenly I understood that eating in Japan would be an experience unlike any I had ever encountered. The sheer simplicity and attention to detail is nothing short of miraculous.

This piece of culinary theatre cost me the princely sum of JPY 2,100 (€19/$23) - a shocking bargain. I gather that this sort of tempura restaurant is fairly standard in Japan, and I can only imagine what a place like 7-Chome Kyoboshi, a tempura restaurant with a brace of Michelin stars, must be like. For me though, it served as a wonderful introduction to the radical philosophy on food the Japanese have.

Food:            8 / 10
Service:         8 / 10
Ambiance:     7 / 10

Takashimaya Times Square, 13F
5-24-2 Sendagaya
Tel: +81 3-5361-1860

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