Saturday, March 28, 2009

Mikawa, Kayabacho

The cause of much trepidation, my friends, this tempura expedition. The staff at EOITwJ has been thinking for ages that there's probably more to tempura than lunch teishoku or the very occasional tendon from Tenya (although their conveyor-belt frying system is pretty sweet). Last night we put it to the test, with very good results! I took a ton of pictures, so you should be able to get an idea just how much brown, fried food comes with the omakase course (I won't be vulgar, but if you have to ask the price...). Some single pieces are left out, because you generally get one at a time.

Mikawa came to our attention while walking around Kayabacho one night. Not that we found it at random - it's too effectively hidden in the middle of a mostly-unlit alley for one to stumble on it without serious luck. Actually we consulted the trusty Blackberry for 'kayabacho restaurants', and Mikawa was the place that came up. Of course, it was full on that occasion. I have a feeling it's full for both seatings every night. And it's not because the food sucks and the atmosphere is bad.

We arrived in Kayabacho around 7 for our 8 PM reservation (if you don't reserve, you won't eat. In this case, when I called on Tuesday, the counter was full until 8, roughly the 'second seating'. There are also two small Japanese-style washitsu tatami rooms with low tables and woven-mat flooring and no chairs, if you'll pardon the redundancy.) I guess I was a little taken aback to see it so packed and swinging, so the staff reassured me that it would be OK as long as we came back at 8. At that point I also enquired as politely as possible whether I could bring in my own wine, and I could, for a fair Y2000. Thus, off to Maru for a standing drink, pre-dinner conversation, and a bottle of champagne (what goes better with tempura? What DOESN'T go with champagne?).

Back at the ranch, all 8 seats at the counter were still packed at 8. Not to worry, we squeezed into the tiny waiting area, a small bench in front of the pottery storage closet; it's big enough to fit two waiting customers as long as they're pretty friendly. We were eventually seated in what I imagine to be the best seats in the house - directly in front of the cutting board, with an unimpeded view of the oil! (Although I find that I'm sometimes excited about things other people find to be the opposite.) Things kicked off with a big bowl of oroshi daikon, and a healthy helping of mozuku (small concession to health before the fried onslaught). And of course this bottle of Gonet Blanc de Blancs, which I found to be tasty and good value, if you're looking for recommendations. I was really impressed with how the young guy handled the speecial wine situation - it can't be very usual, but he was diligent to the extreme in finding a way to open and ice the champagne.

After that it was strictly fried foods right through to the soup (in fact there's an option to put the last fried course in the soup rather than miso). For some reason my sensibilities don't align with tempura fashion - I expect shrimp to be a bit of a luxury at the end, not the first thing up. But there they were, a pair of lovely peony shrimp and their heads (served one at a time for maximum freshness). Yep, completely different from any other tempura shrimp in living memory. Maybe the intention is to start with a bang? It succeeds.

This is Edomae tempura, meaning that the ingredients are all from half a day's walk of Tokyo (i.e., could be caught and carried unrefrigerated for consumption in Edo). In practice, that means you get some odd fish that are native to the area, which are interesting if sorta unrefined.

Squid. The merest hint of chewiness, Andy.

Whitebait. Around this time I was moved to say 'I love Japan'. It was something about the way the master precisely hoisted, double-dipped and dropped each fish into the oil...or the positively poetic way he stirred the oil with a screen to remove the leftover floating bits of fry.

Kisu. My, how we love kisu. Seemed to be battered extra-thick, which I guess improves the texture.

Ginpo. Semi-exotic, which I've come to decide means 'muddy' in Edomae terms. It's uncommon in Japan to eat catfish or carp - people say it tastes like mud. Well, maybe. But it's certainly a unique and interesting category of flavor, so what the hey?

Megochi. Again, like catfish. Only different. This was a good excuse to get into conversation with the master; until this point he seemed quite forbidding. I guess making the same thing every night for 30 years tends to produce a certain kind of serenity that's hard to penetrate. Once we got him started, he had a lot to say; par for the course, I think.

The token vegetables. Opinions vary, but I found these disappointing. And I wished there were more vegetables to break things up. It's spring - no harm in some taranome, fukinotou, etc.

Eel. Big slices to finish off the piece-by-piece tempura. Since we were ringside, the master treated us to a lengthy discourse on the merits of his eel - the freshness, the springiness of the flesh, etc. When he served and cut it with his chopsticks, there was a charming puff of steam. Ahhh, the freshosity. Since everyone on the same seating got the eel at the same time, I knew that steam was coming. Still failed to capture it in the picture. I liked the thicker coating on the fishes, not that I think about it.

Final courses - a bay scallop (kaibashira) kakiage, either as tendon or chazuke. The tendon was the best tendon I can remember having. Great sauce, great scallops, great cooking. Great. Great.

The level of coordination among the 4 staff squeezed into that tiny place was extraordinary. Many times, the master would finish something, and with no apparent announcement, someone was at his elbow to take it for serving. Likewise, piles of food kept appearing just in time for cooking.

Interior shots: the glasses must be a significant draw if you're into that sort of thing. Even to me, there was a tremendous variety of beautiful pottery available for use. They had brochures for their new venture as well, which seems to be a pottery gallery and tea salon in...Monzennakacho. Ii toko ne?

Yeah, if you have to ask about the price, it's probably for the best to aim lower (same as other expensive tempura places though). I can't decide if it was worth the money or not, but I'm almost tempted to go again, or try another high-end place!

Geez, I even forgot to mention how it must be great because their second store is in Roppongi Hillz! You don't get the original master there though.

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