When I mention the concept of a fine dining tempura experience to friends, I seem to keep getting the same skeptic response, something along the lines of- How good can tempura be, really? I feel inclined to defend Tempura and everything it stands for- the batter makes a difference, the quality of produce makes a great difference, the temperature and kind of oil used makes a difference; but I couldn’t, at least not until I had tried it, and besides, asking how good tempura can taste is not that far off from asking, how good can raw fish on rice taste?
The fact is, sushi, and tempura both involve very minimal amounts of cooking(at least in comparison to a french degustation menu), and therefore the quality of ingredients is absolutely paramount to the final dish, whatever minute mistakes are not masked by heavy sauces or side condiments, it is raw cooking at its rawest form.
With that, just 4 hours before my only 3-star mealduring the entire leg of my Tokyo trip, I found myself getting ready to have lunch at Kondo, a 2 starred tempura restaurant. I had spent a good 15 minutes looking for the restaurant in the hot sun, and already started to doubt if this meal was a good idea at all. After taking a tiny elevator up a nondescript building, it seemed as though everyone that stepped into the building was having lunch at the restaurant, in fact, there was a small waiting area cramped with about 8-10 people waiting to be seated, at least the place was showing promise…
Two shattering-ly crisp prawn heads exploding with the intense taste of prawn head juice/brains, the tempura batter helped to balance out and tone down the offal taste of the head, even people squeamish about eating prawn heads could get down with this. Perfect way to start the meal. Very good
The first real foray into traditional tempura items, what struck me immediately was that the batter was nowhere near as crisp as the ones I’m used to, it was crisp, but without the crunch that some restaurants achieve when cooking their tempura ebi; on the other hand, the batter was not as dense as my previous tempura experiences, this light batter allowed the natural sweetness of the prawn to shine. The prawn was nicely cooked, retained a nice bounciness to the bite, which contrasted the batter well. Okay-good
This was eye opening, the asparagus was very thick, and it was cooked to the point where it took on a meat-like texture, and released a lot of natural juices when you bit into it. The batter was very light, you get the immediate crunch when you first bite into it, then the natural earthy flavors of the asparagus take over, best asparagus I’ve eaten. Very good
This once again had a meaty, almost stewed eggplant kind of texture, but it was sliced thin enough so that it wouldn’t get too heavy and cloying on the palate. I also realised at this point that the batter used was quite fluid, it didn’t stick as much as a traditional batter, and a lot of it actually drips off before it is fried. Okay-Good
The fish was unbelievably well cooked, moist and full of flavor. The soft texture of the fish meant that it was one of the few tempura dishes that actually had a textural contrast to the not-so-crisp batter, I actually hoped as I was eating this that the batter was slightly crisper, although this was still a great dish. Good-Very good
Very crunchy, really nice bite, flavors were subtle, and it wasn’t stringy or sticky like some of the lotus roots I’ve eaten in Singapore. Okay
Kind of tired of saying this, but this once again had a meaty texture, my notes say ‘smooth’ as well, pretty sure I was talking about the texture, it was not sponge-y at all. Very deep earthiness, surprising amount of flavor in a small bite, bursting with juices. Very good
Minced fish wrapped in shiso leaf, the fish was again, perfectly cooked. Strong flavor from the fish, and shiso provided some freshness that helped to cut the oil a little bit. I’m not sure if it was because the fish was minced, which gave it the perception of being ‘softer’, but I felt that the batter was a little more crisp, and gave the dish a perfect contrast in texture, best protein of the meal. Very good
The final of the meat tempuras, this was perfectly cooked, as always, the best cooked fish course I had. Unfortunately, it was quite lacking in flavor compared to the two previous dishes. There was a little bit of a residual stickiness on the tongue from the fish, which was quite unpleasant, but it was balanced out by the fried batter. Okay
This had a nice caramelized smell to it, but it tasted surprisingly raw(but without the biting sensation on the tongue) when you ate a big chunk of it. The onion was very sweet, but I’m not particularly crazy about the taste of onion in general. The batter did not stick to the onion at all. Okay
Supposedly Kondo’s speciality, this was an extra order that was not included in the set menu. I clearly did not realise how gigantic this was, let’s just say that I was literally struggling to finish one piece of this sweet potato. Im actually not sure if this was done tempura style, it actually seemed baked to me. The crust was the crispest of all the dishes I had, and the potato was sweet, but not mind-blowingly so, it was very very dry. Was this really their speciality? I honestly don’t get the hype. I had to leave the 2nd piece behind. Okay
Aoyagi(Round Clam) pancake on rice
Right when I thought I had hit my eating capacity, this was placed in front of me. I had forgotten that there would be a rice component in the lunch. My intention was to just nibble a little to get a taste, but this didn’t pan out as I had planned. The taste of this pancake was complex, there were a lot of different flavors, all residing at different parts of the pancake, every bite gave you a different sort of flavor, and it was delicious whichever way they melded together. Some parts were sweet, others savory, I even got some citrus/sour notes as well(ponzu?), the pancake wasn’t crisp, but it didn’t need to be. I ended up having to finish this. Very good
The miso soup smelled a lot stronger than it tasted, plus I was close to bursting at this point so I think the soup was a little lost on me. Okay
Although I did not put in much time researching my meal at Kondo, it actually turned out to be one of the best meals I had in Tokyo. When you talk about some of the 3 star french masters like L’Arpege, where the focus is primarily about bringing out the natural taste of ingredients in their raw state, and then cooking it minimally to elevate it(especially vegetables); cooking ingredients tempura style is not that different from this vision that restaurants like L’Arpege has set for its food.
Japan has some of the best produce in the world, and tempura is an incredible vessel to carry those strong flavors to the diner without imposing or drastically altering those flavors. All the food was perfectly cooked to the right doneness, my only criticism would be that some of the tougher, or foods with more ‘bite’, overpowered the batter slightly and you couldn’t get the crisp sensation when you bit into the fried batter, the contrast was a little lost here. On a more positive note, the fried batter didn’t seem that oily, but I did start to feel myself slowing down quite a bit towards the end.
The set lunch menu is incredible value, and you will leave the restaurant feeling stuffed, I’d highly recommend making a trip to Kondo, and I’d also recommend skipping the sweet potato