Dinner @ Tempura Niitome にい留 (Nagoya, Japan)

October 3, 2019 in Japanese

I had been fortunate to eat my way through Japan the past few years. Visiting some very famous and reputable restaurants. A quick recap… For tempura, I gone to Mikawa Zezankyo and Tempura Fukamachi in 2016, Tempura Motoyoshi in 2017, and Takiya and Nihombashi Sonoji in 2018. And for my trips in 2019, I was extremely fortunate and blessed to secure reservations at Tempura Niitome, Tempura Kondo and Kusunoki.

When I was planning my 2019 trips, I realised the restaurants I dined in my earlier trips was just a scratch of the surface. There were so many other good tempura restaurants. Names which unfortunately didn’t come up on the first few pages of Google’s search results. So yes, I created a new list of tempura-restaurants-to-try. Keke:
  - Kusunoki: Also known as the most expensive tempura restaurant
  - Mikasa
  - Tempura Kondo
  - Tempura Naruse
  - Tempura Niitome: Best tempura restaurant in Japan. Yes, it held the no. 1 spot on Tabelog’s tempura restaurant ratings.

Being the typically paranoid me (since 2019 also marked the year I finally ventured out of Tokyo), I decided to use Tableall’s service instead of trying to make the call on my own since I had a specific date for my meal in Nagoya (before I proceeded on to Kyoto); I didn’t want to risk not securing a seat at Tempura Niitome cause I also read it’s super hard to get through once the line opens for reservation. So I sent my reservation request in December 2018, but was informed by Tableall that Tempura Niitome take reservation for April on 1 February 2019. And so, the wait began. It was nerve-wrecking cause I read that it’s really hard to get through their line. But thankfully on 1 February, I got my confirmation from Tableall. Yeah!

Confirmed for 6pm, I was informed that dinner would last for 3 hours minimum. I was asked if I had to catch the last bullet train (shinkansen) at 10.12pm. Cause if I had to, chef-owner Shuji Niitome would then (try to) quicken the pace of dinner. But thankfully, I didn’t have to.

  

So one could say I only traveled to Nagoya because of Tempura Niitome. And it was honestly with much excitement as I counted down to dinner. And for my 6pm dinner, I entered the restaurant at 5.55pm. I actually reached earlier but chose to linger outside the building. Till I saw a couple making their way up to Level 2 where Tempura Niitome was located at.

And once everyone settled down, I commenced my ¥‎28,000 omakase dinner with:-

1) Dish #1 (above) – An English-speaking staff came round and helped to translate head chef Niitome san’s introduction of the dish. But I wasn’t sure if I heard her right. Pine nut? Scallop? Bamboo shoot? But this was seriously good. The (green) sauce was superb.

2) Dish #2 (above) – 3 slices of snapper (tai) sashimi.

3) Dish #3 (above) – Marinated bonito.

While we were waiting for our fourth dish, the English-speaking staff came up to me and asked if I was fine with dinner lasting till 10pm. Since I was not rushing for the last bullet train, I confirmed with her that I was good.

4) Dish #4 (above) – Squid stuffed with roe. This was my first time having it so huge, and it was a bit too much for me. I didn’t quite enjoy the roe which was of a mushy texture. But I finished it nonetheless.


5) Dish #5 (above) – Clam soup.

6) Dish #6 (above) – Tomato served with vinegar jelly.


7) Dish #7 (above) – Prawn heads tempura. It’s interesting and really unique that head chef Niitome san removed the shell head before deep frying. And these were crispy and flavourful, especially with all the high cholesterol (prawn head) insides still intact. Yum!

8) Dish #8 (above) – For the prawn tempura, I noticed head chef Niitome san would flex the prawn tail before frying it. And before my first prawn was served, I noticed him calling his staff over. And although he was whispering to her, I overheard a “Tan san”. Haha. So I figured it had to be something for/about me. And true enough, she came round to me and said I should have the prawn tempura without any sauce.


9) Dish #9 (above) – And with my second prawn tempura, I realised it was intentional for the batter to be consistently gathered at where the (prawn) legs were.

10) Dish #10 (above) – Cuttlefish (ika) tempura.

11) Dish #11 (above) – Broad beans tempura.

12) Dish #12 (above) – Baby white anchovy (shirauo) tempura.

13) Dish #13 (above) – Mountain herb tempura.

14) Dish #14 (above) – Sillago (kisu) tempura.

15) Dish #15 (above) – Dandelion flower tempura. And with this piece, I really noticed even though the batter was just a teeny weeny oily, the batter was really light and airy. In fact, the batter wrapping the various ingredients was like cloud; Biting into a light mass of tempura batter. Really crispy. Really nice.

16) Dish #16 (above) – Bamboo shoot tempura. And I really enjoyed watching how the various ingredients were prepared differently. For the bamboo shoot, head chef Niitome san had an additional step of dusting (dry) flour with a sieve onto the bamboo the ingredient with dry flour with a sieve, before proceeding with his next few steps of deep frying.


17) Dish #17 (above) – Sweet fish (ayu) from Nagano prefecture. Before head chef Niitome san started working on this dish, he went round the table for us to snap pictures. Although I had my turn, I decided I wanted more (photographs) while watching others take picture and raised my mobile. And it was really nice of head chef Niitome san that he noticed and brought the pot towards me (again). And after our photo-taking session, I watched him pour some of the water out, put ice in and shake the pot (with the plastic lid over the pot mouth) really, really hard. He must have seen the question marks on my face, because he used body language to explain that the shaking was to put the fishes to sleep. Ohhh… The ‘sleeping’ fishes were then transferred to a straw tray where head chef Niitome san dried every one of them with a cloth before coating them in a wet batter for frying.

18) Dish #18 (above) – Clam tempura.

19) Dish #19 (above) – Asparagus (middle portion) tempura.

20) Dish #20 (above) – Asparagus (bottom portion) tempura.

21) Dish #21 (above) – Scampi prawn tempura.

22) Dish #22 (above) – Asparagus (top portion) tempura.

  

23) Dish #23 (above) – Sea urchin tempura. And I was told April (the month which I was dining at Tempura Niitome) was the best month for sea urchin. The female customer sitting beside me shared that the one box of sea urchin cost ¥50,000. Gasp!

24) Dish #24 (above) – Shiitake mushroom tempura.

25) Dish #25 (above) – Sea eel (anago) tempura.

  

26) Dish #26 (above)

27) Dish #27 (above) – Pickled vegetables.

28) Dish #28 (above) – And there was 3 options for the rice bowl; Tendon, tenbara and tencha. I asked head chef Niitome san for recommendation and he said “Tendon”. So I went with that. But it was only later that I realised some customers actually ordered all three. Sad! Greedy me want all 3 too. But then again, I was glad I went with just tendon because my stomach was seriously bursting by then. And the portion for the rice bowls (don) were regular portion. Though if I knew I could order all, I probably would request for smaller portion. Ha! But one should definitely order the tendon and tencha. The tencha looked so good. After putting a scoop of rice into the bowl, he added a spoonful of thick green paste (think it may be the same tasty sauce used in Dish #1) which he diluted with tea. And the tencha was complete after he topped it with his sakura-shrimp-cake tempura.

29) Dish #29 (above) – Clam soup.

By the time I was served green tea (after the clam soup), it was midnight! Yes. I was shocked to realise it was that late when I checked the time. So it’s a must to spend the night at Nagoya in order to fully enjoy the meal at Tempura Niitome. I honestly couldn’t imagine how madly rushed dinner would be had anyone needed to catch the last bullet train out.

  

It was an ‘one man show’ at Tempura Niitome. He did everything with no sous chef to assist him. The other staff were present but to assist with the logistics like removing our plates, topping up our beverages, etc. And head chef Niitome san was really, really friendly. It helped that I got acquainted with the (Japanese) couple seated beside me; The lady acted as our translator. But head chef Niitome san was really friendly and smile-ly. It was amazingly coincidental that I mentioned I was at Hatsunezushi earlier in the week and head chef Niitome san said he was at Hatsunezushi just yesterday. And 10 minutes later, chef-owner Katsu Nakaji of Hatsunezushi posted the group picture of him and head chef Niitome san on instagram. It cracked us up so badly.

And as we made our way out of the restaurant after the meal, he presented us with a bag of tempura bits. A real treat because what set Tempura Niitome apart from the rest had to be his tempura batter and the way he fried the ingredients. The batter was light and airy. I would even use the word ‘fluffy’ to describe. His unique way of frying was very evident with his prawn tempura where one could see the fluff of batter gathered at the prawns’ legs. Really good. It was also after my dinner that I read his batter was made with flour that had been chilled to around -10 degree. Thus, the melt-in-your-mouth texture.

Would I recommend Tempura Niitome. FOR SURE! It’s a pity he’s in Nagoya. But hey! I guess it’s a good thing that he’s not located in Tokyo. It’s already so difficult to make reservation when he’s in Nagoya. I couldn’t imagine how worst the reservation would be if he shift to Tokyo. And because I made reservation through Tableall, I pre-paid ¥35,000 (including tax, etc) for my ¥28,000 (excluding 8% VAT). Which I felt was reasonable. Do the mathematics please!

Certainly hope I would get to return to Nagoya for Tempura Niitome. =)

Now… At the point of my dinner in April 2019, there was no Michelin Guide for Nagoya. I actually thought to myself then that if there’s one published, Tempura Niitome was worthy of at least 2 Michelin stars. And! In the first edition published in May 2019 (just 1 month after my meal at Tempura Niitome), Tempura Niitome was awarded 2 Michelin stars. Woohoo!

NIITOME にい留
Cast Building Izumi, 2-19-11 Izumi, Higashi, Nagoya, Aichi Prefecture, Japan (愛知県 名古屋市東区 泉 2-19-11 キャストビル泉 2F)
+81 52 936 2077, Website, Tablelog
Overall: 9
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 10
Irregular : 18:00 – 00:00
Ambience: 8
Value: 9
Service: 9

Dinner @ Takiya たきや (Tokyo, Japan)

January 13, 2019 in Japanese

There’s a big handful of reputable tempura restaurants in Tokyo. But when I did my research (back in 2016), 3 particular names jumped out at me; Mikawa Zezankyo, Tempura Fukamachi and Tempura Motoyoshi. And just when I thought I tried them all 3, Takiya suddenly took over Instagram by storm in mid 2017. I was drawn to the pork-cheese tempura; It was creative and bold. But more importantly, it contained my favourite ingredients. Keke.

Reservation was made by my hotel concierge with 3 months’ advanced notice. Ie, booked in October ’17 for February ’18. And I was given the first seating at 6pm.

And on the day of my dinner, I reached the area at 5.55pm. However, I hesitated as I wasn’t sure if the restaurant was really located on the second storey of the building. So by the time I went in, it was 6.05pm. I was struggling with the door too. I kept pulling at it when I should be pushing. *Shakes head at myself* And I was surprised to see that the other patrons were already seated. They even looked like they had started. Hmm… After placing order for my drink, I commenced my omakase dinner with:-


  

1) Dish #1 (above) – A feast of i) blow fish with monkfish liver, ii) mullet roe, iii) spotted prawn topped with caviar, asparagus and sea urchin, and iv) grated yam and sea urchin.

2) Dish #2 (above) – Prawn tempura. And for the first piece, I was told to have it with salt.

3) Dish #3 (above) – Prawn head (2 pieces) and ginkgo nuts tempura.

  

4) Dish #4 (above) – Japanese whiting (kisu) fish tempura. And for this, I was told to eat it freely in any manner I enjoyed.

5) Dish #5 (above) – Dandelion flower tempura. And I was cautioned by head chef Kasamoto san that it was going to be slightly bitter. And yes, it was. ‘Slightly’ was actually an understatement. I really thought it was bitter. And with his recommendation, I had it with salt which reduced the bitterness.

6) Dish #6 (above) – Tempura of miso-marinated crab wrapped with tofu skin. I was told to eat this without any seasoning, and this was really good.

7) Dish #7 (above) – Black throat sea perch (nodoguro) with sea urchin.

  

8) Dish #8 (above) – Salad; Shredded cabbage, grilled medium fatty tuna (chutoro) with onsen egg and dressing.

9) Dish #9 (above) – Blow fish (fugu) tempura with grated mullet roe.


10) Dish #10 (above) – Blow fish milt (fugu shirako) in sauce prepared cooked by sous chef Ryohei Kobayashi with grated radish and lime. And I was amazed at head chef Kasamoto san’s multi-tasking skill. Although he was really busy with the frying, he was in control of what’s happening in every part of his restaurant. He regularly checked on the sauce preparation to ensure the final product was good for serving.

11) Dish #11 (above) – Supposed to be Takiya’s iconic beef tenderloin filet wrapped with shiso leaf tempura, head chef Kasamoto san replaced it with an equally iconic Gruyère cheese wrapped with pork since I don’t take beef. And he topped it with an insanely generous amount of truffle. And this dish was so awesome! Wished I could have seconds. And the thing was… Prior to my visit, I read that the pork-cheese tempura was a ‘special request’ item. So I was really glad to be served this as an replacement to my beef tempura cause I really wanted to try it too.

12) Dish #12 (above) – Sweet potato tempura. Super good. And I enjoyed it on its own and with salt.

13) Dish #13 (above) – Sea urchin wrapped with seaweed tempura. One piece to be enjoyed as it is, and another with soy sauce and wasabi.

14) Dish #14 (above) – And nearing the end of dinner, my second piece of prawn tempura appeared!



  

15) Dish #15 (above) – Before preparing the sea eel rice bowl (anago don), head chef Kasamoto san asked for my rice portion. And I replied, “small.” And shortly after he informed the kitchen, a kitchen staff came over with my bowl to get my confirmation. And it was literally 1 spoonful. Super cute and exactly what I needed cause I was already feeling full. And I watched head chef Kasamoto san dip the sea eel tempura into the sauce before placing it on top of my rice. And it’s served with pickles, miso soup fish broth soup, and roasted tea (not pictured).

16) Dish #16 (above) – Strawberry jelly.

17) Dish #17 (above) – Waramochi and Japanese tea.

Dinner was awesome! I highly recommend Takiya. If I have to choose my favourite from the 4 tempura restaurants I tried, it’s a tie between Takiya and Motoyoshi. But having said that, the 2 are very different. The tempura at Takiya was more… Modern? Adventurous? Creative!

And unlike Motoyoshi’s chef-owner who bopped left-right-up-down, head chef Kasamoto san swayed left-right. Sometimes suavely placing his left hand on his lower back while frying with the chopsticks in his right. And his multi-tasking skills included checking on every customers. So yes, our eyes met many a times. And I liked how friendly he was. Always smiling very brightly too.

The batter of head chef Kasamoto san’s tempura was very light and not oily. And I read it’s because he used pressed safflower oil instead of the traditional sesame oil. His intention was for customers to better enjoy the ingredients’ aroma since safflower oil is less aromatic compared to sesame oil.

The only con was that my cup of green tea (¥500) was non-refillable. Sob! So with 2 cups of green tea, my dinner came up to ¥33,264 (including tax and service charge).

TAKIYA たきや
Azabu Maison 201, 2-5-11 Azabujuban, Minato, Tokyo, Japan (東京都 港区 麻布十番 2-5-11 AZABU MAISON 201 2F)
+81 3 6804 1732, Tablelog
Overall: 8
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 9
Mon – Sun : 17:30 – 22:00
Ambience: 8
Value: 8
Service: 8

Lunch @ Mikawa Zezankyo みかわ 是山居 (Tokyo, Japan)

August 24, 2017 in Japanese

Now that I booked my next trip to Tokyo, I figured I had better finish the backlog of my Tokyo restaurants’ reviews. And yes! Tokyo again. Woohoo.

So when I was doing the planning for (my past trips to) Tokyo, Tempura Fukamachi, Tempura Motoyoshi and Mikawa Zezankyo topped my tempura-places-to-try list. I was really keen in dining at Mikawa Zezankyo where chef-owner Tetsuya Saotome was said to be the equivalent of sushi master Jiro Ono.

And it was in my November 2016 trip that I successfully lunched at Mikawa Zezankyo. What I really liked about Mikawa Zezankyo was how straight-forward reservation was. Something that’s particularly crucial for us tourists. I made mine on OpenTable, a free online restaurant-reservation service provider.

I read that head chef Saotome san’s talent extend beyond tempura making. He’s also skillful in artworks which is demonstrated by the hand paintings and calligraphy of the menu that’s drawn and written by him. Artistic aesthetics combined with culinary skills? I was confident lunch was going to be an unforgettable dining experience.

It was fortunate I reached (5 minutes) early to be seated on the shorter end of the L-shaped counter where I had a non-obstructed view of the stove. Yes, one is seated in accordance to one’s arrival. So be the first 3 customers to arrive in order to personally enjoy watching head chef Saotome san in action!

And between the lunch (‎¥11,340) and omakase (‎¥18,360) courses, I decided to go with the latter. And with that, I commenced my lunch with:-

1) Dish #1 (above) – Appetiser.


2) Dish #2 (above) – I was served with 2 (and not 1) prawns. I didn’t think of taking picture of my second prawn because it looked the same. In fact, prior to my visit, I was at Yuzu Japanese Restaurant. And when I shared about my (then upcoming) lunch reservation at Mikawa Zezankyo, head chef Takahashi Tadashi piqued my interest when he gushed about how every prawn was consistently fried with a raw centre. And indeed, my prawns were.

3) Dish #3 (above) – 2 number of prawns heads. The heads were noticeably bigger, and generously coated with batter. And because of that, these were crunchy (rather than crispy).


4) Dish #4 (above) – Japanese whiting (kisu).

5) Dish #5 (above) – Squid (ika). For me, the dining experience become more meaningful when I get to watch the process; I watched head chef Saotome san dredge the squid (in dry flour) and dip into a wet batter before deep frying the squid strips.

6) Dish #6 (above) – Soup with shrimp ball.


7) Dish #7 (above) – Again, I watched (with much curiosity) as head chef Saotome san dipped the sea urchin that’s wrapped with shiso leaf into a wet flour-mixture before frying it. And for this, I was told to enjoy it with salt.

8) Dish #8 (above) – Gingko nut.


9) Dish #9 (above) – Milt (kikuko). Be careful when eating this cause it’s very hot. But this was so enjoyable. Oh so creamy!

At this point, head chef Saotome san replaced his stove with new oil while the staff went round asking us for our 2 choices for the vegetables. We were offered 5 options; Asparagus, sweet potato, shiitake mushroom, green pepper and egg plant.

10) Dish #10 (above) – Flathead (megochi).


11) Dish #11 (above) – Saltwater eel (anago). After the long piece of eel tempura was placed onto my plate, head chef Saotome san continued to use the same pair of long chopsticks to cut it into 2. With an amazing loud crackling sound. Yum!

12) Dish #12 (above) – Asparagus.

13) Dish #13 (above) – Sweet potato.


  

14) Dish #14 (above) – For main, I went with tencha instead of tendon as recommended by the staff. And to prepare the kakiage tempura, surf clams (kobashira) adductor muscles were mixed into the wet batter with egg. Although head chef Saotome san added flour to adjust the consistency before frying these. And I enjoyed my tencha. The kakiage tempura still had a slight crunch despite soaking up the dashi.

15) Dish #15 (above) – Beans.

Compared to other tempura restaurants, head chef Saotome san practised a more old-school edomae tempura style. Instead of light and crisp tempura batter, the ones at Mikawa Zezankyo was heavier and harder. Yes, hard and crunchy. But not to be confused as being thick.

And to wrap up my wonderful dining experience at Mikawa Zezankyo, head chef Saotome san surprised us by autographing our menus. Starting from one end, he asked the first female customer for her menu to draw a prawn (calligraphy style) and to autograph it with his stamp seal. And he had a good sense of humour; As he was moving down the counter, a male customer tried handing his menu which head chef Saotome san humorously replied “Ladies only.” Haha. Too cute. And for the record, the guy got his autograph after head chef Saotome san finished signing all the female customers’ menus. Keke.

Would I recommend Mikawa Zezankyo? I would. I mean… Although his style was not what I preferred for my tempura, one should at least try the tempura prepared and fried with the hands of legendary master chef Tetsuya Saotome once in one’s life. I know, I sound kinda shallow there. But it’s a real plus that it’s a breeze to make reservation at Mikawa Zezankyo too.

MIKAWA ZEZANKYO みかわ 是山居
1-3-1 Fukuzumi Koto, Tokyo, Japan (東京都 江東区 福住 1-3-1)
+81 03 3643 8383, Website, Tablelog
Overall: 7
Opening hours:-
Food/Beverage: 7
Thu – Tues : 11:30 – 13:30 (Lunch)
Ambience: 7
Thu – Tues : 17:00 – 21:30 (Dinner)
Value: 7
Service: 7
* Closed on Wed