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Mikawa: the golden temple of tempura

by Robbie Swinnerton

Probably our greatest complaint about Roppongi Hills (apart from its very size) is its bland uniformity. The entire complex looks and feels as devoid of character as an upscale shopping mall. Everywhere, that is, except Mikawa.

You can’t miss it. Just look for the wall that resembles a giant byobu folding screen. Mikawa’s whole facade gleams gold, not in a solid block of metallic color but in squares that evoke overlapping layers of delicate gold leaf. A row of tiles decorated with irises in full bloom runs along the bottom; a flock of sparrows flutters around the doorway. It’s not high art — in fact it flirts perilously with kitsch — but you can’t say it doesn’t catch the eye. We think it’s great.

What impresses us more, though, is what’s inside. This is an offshoot of one of the finest tempura restaurants in the city. Mikawa’s master, Tetsuya Saotome, is rated in the highest possible terms by all who have tasted his cooking. Other places may be sleeker, more refined and certainly more expensive, but it is to Saotome’s unpretentious premises in the back streets of Nihonbashi that cognoscenti head when they really want to eat well (and cheaply — the basic dinner course there is a mere 5,800 yen).

His new Roppongi branch boasts vastly more impressive decor both inside and out, and a rather pricier menu, but in every other respect it follows the pattern of the original. It has the same intimate scale, attentive staff, and is virtually identical in its layout. There is a small tatami room to one side, with three low-slung tables (and leg wells for greater comfort), but the place to be is at the L-shape counter. That way you not only receive your food piping hot, placed directly in front of you as soon as it is cooked, you also get a ringside position from which to observe a master class in the art of tempura.

The man behind the cast-iron deep-frying kettle is not Saotome-san himself (he remains at the Nihonbashi shop) but his most trusted lieutenant, Takashi Nakagawa. After a dozen years working side by side with the master, Nakagawa has assimilated all his technique, and knows how to impart that same ineffable flavor.

The motif, as always, is Edomae tempura — which means using only fish and vegetables that were available in the shogun’s capital a century and a half ago. (OK, there’s one exception — asparagus). Thus the prawns (kuruma ebi or shiba ebi) are of the small, local varieties, never those jumbo prawns imported from the tropics. The other seafood items on the menu are all varieties found in Tokyo Bay or the nearby ocean. Everything tastes so fresh it must have been landed that morning.

Although the menu is written entirely in cursive Japanese script, ordering is easy. At lunch you choose from two set courses (5,600 yen and 7,200 yen); in the evening there is only one (10,000 yen). If you prefer to go without the final serving of rice and soup, then the prices are adjusted downward to 4,800 yen, 6,300 yen and 8,500 yen respectively). Likewise with the drinks, your choices are limited to beer; sake (warm Kikusui or chilled Mado-no-ume); wine (half-bottles of either Chablis or Medoc red); and the standard soft drinks.

Our dinner started with small kuruma ebi, one each placed before us, fresh and sizzling from the wok. These you dab sparingly in salt before popping them into your mouth, tail and all. It is such a brilliant way to start the meal that you wish it could be repeated. Fortunately, it is — and they taste just as good second time around.

The next course is even simpler — the heads of the prawns you have just devoured, lightly enrobed in a crisp, golden batter (they call it kitsune-iro, the color of a fox’s fur). They are crunchy but soft, cooked to perfection so they dissolve against your tongue.

And so the meal continues, one piece at a time, each nary more than a bite and a half and with just sufficient intervals between them that your appetite remains in constant anticipation. The rich flavor of sesame oil permeates every morsel, and yet there is virtually no sense of oiliness. This is the hallmark of superb tempura.

Kisu (whiting), a simple but delicate fish, is followed by wonderfully tender strips of aori-ika squid, almost rare at the core, but requiring only the slightest mastication. Then comes a single shi-ayu, the young of the sweetfish that anglers seek so keenly from the rivers of central Japan at this time of year. This is served whole, the bitter, dark flavor of the innards balanced with tadesu, a vinegar dip with finely chopped green herbs.

Next up is megochi (flathead), an ugly fish that tastes beautiful when split down the middle, opened up into a fan shape and cooked as tempura. The piece de resistance is tender anago (conger eel), everyone’s favorite. Crisp and golden on the outside, sublimely light, fluffy and succulent underneath, this is as close as you’ll ever get to tempura perfection.

After a small platter of vegetables — eggplant, a spear of asparagus, and half a large shiitake — all that remains will be the closing kaki-age, the fritter of kaibashira (scallop holdfasts) that is served with rice to close the meal. Here you are asked to make a choice: either with rice and rich akadashi miso soup on the side; as a tendon rice bowl; or as tencha (much like chazuke, but instead of tea, hot dashi soup stock is poured over the rice).

In terms of size, gourmands may not find this a belly-busting banquet. But it is immensely satisfying all the same. Likewise, a meal at this new, upmarket branch of Mikawa is not cheap (premium tempura never is), but that is no deterrent to those in the know. And that is why you will need to reserve your place well in advance if you want to find out for yourself what lies behind that remarkable facade.