This is part 3 of my latest travel series: Post Quake Japan. Other posts in this series: Kago, Daisan Harumi
For real? 2-star Michelin tempura place?
Bryan couldn’t believe it when I told him there were dedicated tempura restaurants in Japan that had garnered two Michelin stars. Tempura is essentially anything that’s been battered and fried in a particular Japanese manner. It’s typically associated with casual, inexpensive dining (think Korean fried chicken or KFC). It’s not something you would necessarily immediately associate with fine dining.
I made a reservation at Tempura Kondo because I was curious too.
“I can’t imagine what 2-star Michelin tempura would be like. Maybe they fry up ordinary things with caviar or truffles or something . . . “ surmised Bryan.
There was not a truffle in sight nor any caviar. Instead, we ate an assortment of fresh, organic vegetables from Hokkaido. We had insanely fresh fried anago, uni, and shrimp. We sampled slightly more unusual Asian vegetables, like lotus root and kabocha squash.
The ingredients were mind-blowingly simple, yet the meal was incredible.
The decor is clean, simple, and reasonably casual. There are two rooms with counter-style seating. Not unlike a sushi bar, you sit facing the tempura frymasters as you watch them execute their perfected art. The fume hood overhead is the largest one I've ever seen (I guess it makes sense, considering how much frying goes on in there!)
We started the meal with a bit of a surprise – a deep fried shrimp’s head. After getting over the psychological aspects of this first course, I actually quite enjoyed this very crunchy yet flavorful starter.
The rest of the juicy shrimp came out, perfectly fried with the delicate crust for which they are so well known.
It is very, very difficult to execute such perfectly fried pieces. Most tempura you have at restaurants are too heavily breaded, greasy, and not very enjoyable to eat. In contrast, each piece at Tempura Kondo had a paper-thin crust that was delicately crispy and not a bit greasy. Even though everything was fried, you actually felt like you were eating a pretty healthy meal.
They also use extremely high quality ingredients. Chef Fumio Kondo is fanatical about the source of his ingredients and seeks out the best produce possible. Asparagus and corn come from Hokkaido while shitake mushrooms comes from Iwate. The vegetable tempura, in general, is fantastic. Even Bryan, who doesn't like asparagus, loved the perfect, crisp texture of these fried shoots.
Similarly, a simple green pepper was also piping hot, just slightly soft, yet delicately crunchy on the outside.
The chefs also use very high quality sesame oil, and they change it constantly.
The pace of the meal is just right. Pieces come out one at a time and alternate between seafood and vegetables (so you don't get too bored!). Anago (freshwater eel) was in season when we went, so we saw it all over the place, both at sushi restaurants and also at tempura places such as Kondo.
Shitake mushroom, lotus root, pearl onion, fish
The set menu includes quite a few things. Nevertheless, you would be missing out if you did not try at least some of the additional a la carte items since some of the best pieces are not included. We ended up ordering several extra pieces, including the lotus root, which was quite good.
Speaking of the set menu, you have a choice between two different "Lunch Course Menus". The cheaper one (the "Sumire"), includes 4 vegetable pieces, 3 fish, and 2 shrimp plus miso and rice for 6300 yen (about $82 with today's woeful exchange rates). The more expensive one (the "Tsubaki"), includes an extra lotus root plus a nicer soup and more tempura for 8400 yen ($109 USD). We tried one of each.
We were told that the sweet potato was amazing, so we decided to order it a la carte. It's funny, the menu is very clear about the fact that the potato is not included as part of the set menu. Unfortunately for us, sweet potatoes were not in season at the time, so they asked us whether kabocha was OK. It turned out to be quite good, but I'm still curious about the sweet potato!
Another extra item that we ordered a la carte was the fried uni. I was sort of trying to figure out how they would fry such a soft and "liquidy" item. They somehow managed to wrap it in a shiso leaf and fry it absolutely perfectly. It was soooo good - imagine the heavenly combination of uni and shiso fried together in a delicate shell. It was definitely one of my favorites.
The meal ended with a soup. The more expensive version (Bryan's), came with a bowl of mini fried scallop tempura over a bed of rice. You're supposed to pour the tea flavored broth over the scallop tempura and rice. The resultant soup is hearty, warm, and full of rich umami.
The cheaper set came with such a simple miso soup with clams, which you eat with rice. It was alright, but far from my favorite part of the meal. In my mind, I couldn't help but think it was filler. At least it came at the end of the meal!
Dessert was nice and simple. Sliced mangos for Bryan's more expensive tasting and sliced pears for my more simple tasting.
Overall, we had a fun time at Tempura Kondo. The restaurant sits on the 9th floor of a non-descript high rise in Ginza. We actually had a really hard time finding it because there are no signs outside with the names on them. We were woefully late for our reservation, but thankfully they had kept the seat for us.
It's hard for me to really comment on this place compared to others, since this is the first time I've ever tried "high-end" tempura. The flavors were fantastic, and the incredible delicate crispiness of the coating is something that's challenging to achieve. If I came again, I would definitely get the asparagus, lotus root, the uni, and the elusive sweet potato!
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