There are tempuras, and then they are tempuras. The former are the soggy, greasy, tasteless, rubbery, silicone implants they serve in Vancouver all you can eat places. The latter are ultra fresh, Michelin stars worthy affairs cooked by chefs that had dedicated their entire career to just tempuras. My last meal in Japan turned out to be one of the most surprising and sensational meals I’ve ever had.
I was taking the first train out of Osaka to catch my flight back to Vancouver in a raining Tokyo and I had a few hours to burn before I head over to the airport. I noticed there were quite a few Michelin stars restaurants specializing in tempura and I was intrigued. My hotel concierge suggested Rakutei, a two Michelin stars tempura restaurant in Akasaka that was also open on Sundays.
Once again, like many Michelin stars restaurants I’ve been to in Japan, it had an unassuming exterior. This one looked like storage room of an apartment building.
Do you really want to go to a music inn (whatever that is) or taste the most refined tempura that you can have?
The restaurant had been in its location since 1970 – a testament that they were doing something right. Behind the 12 seating, wooden bar was the master tempura chef himself, Shuji Ishikura, probably in his 80s. He had somewhat of a hunchback – probably due to his dedication of his craft. Also behind the bar was a younger looking apprentice. For some reason, he looked a little bit annoyed (maybe because he was still working on a Sunday?). The ambiance of the restaurant was serene and zen like. The whole setup as well as the level of dedication I sensed from the chef very much reminded me of Sukiyabashi Jiro.
Sashimi Salad Appetizer. The course started with, ironically, a fresh tuna sashimi salad.
An assortment of condiments were then presented, adding drama to what was to come. There were dashi broth, grated radish, lemon, salt, and soy sauce.
Prawn. Freshness redefined. A live (and unlucky) prawn was plucked from a styrofoam box behind the chef. It was then promptly and skillfully sliced, you can still see the legs moving even after it was sliced in half. It was then battered up and dipped in the hot oil. The finished product was then placed on a piece of parchment paper on the counter and served. The batter was light and just a hint of being crispy. The real star here was the prawn itself. It was so, so fresh, unparalleled to anything I’ve tasted in Vancouver. Fresh in this restaurant meant anything that was still alive a minute ago!
Ayu (Sweetfish). The freshness of this river fish was accentuated by the light batter.
Prawn Head. I’ve heard quite a bit about deep fried prawn head but I wasn’t expecting this in this course so I was pleasantly surprised. It had an incredibly crunchy texture and the threatening looking mandibles just got grind into bits in my mouth. The salty flavor was amazing and had a lot of depth. Simply mind blowing.
Seasonal Vegetables. I don’t remember what this was, I think it was asparagus. The light batter enhanced the essence of the high quality vegetable and I could taste every single molecule of it.
Kisu (Sand Borer).
Mushroom. I think this was shiitake.
Megochi (White Fish or Flathead).
Tencha (Tempura and hot green tea over rice). I really liked the mixture of different flavors and texture here. The delicately fried bits of scallops were crispy and the texture gradually change as it was covered by the bitter tea. What a great finale to end the tempura course.
Sitting at the wooden counter, I simply couldn’t take my eyes off the master tempura chef doing his work in military-like precision. The batter was freshly made from scratch and I noticed he made small little adjustments (more egg, more flour, etc.) to fit each individual ingredient. Oil was regularly switched out, temperature were adjusted for each ingredient, and he gauged the consistency by looking at how they drip off his chopsticks. Ingredients are freshly prepared and even the wasabi was freshly grated. Perhaps all these things, plus the 50+ years of experience coming from Ishikura, helped elevate this restaurant to two Michelin stars status. I was simply mind blown to what I saw and what I tasted. How can something so simple tasted so good? It really opened my eyes and taste buds to how good tempura can be. I never thought it would be possible, but it is only appropriate that I give this little tempura bar a 5/5 rating.
A few hours later, as I headed to the washroom shortly before the plane takes off, an Air Canada Drill Sergeant (or as they call it, “flight attendant”) barked: “WHAT SEAT WERE YOU IN?!?” The was the rudest person I’ve met in Japan. Ahh, I’m almost home…
JAPAN™ Ratings: The average food and service quality in Japan far surpass the same we have in Vancouver, it is only appropriate that they should be rated on a different scale.