It would be absolutely inaccurate to call Tetsuya Saotome a maverick. But within the traditional, buttoned-down world of tempura chefs, he certainly stands out as an individualist.
Over the course of 30 years at Mikawa, his cozy little restaurant in Kayabacho, he carved out a citywide reputation for quality and outstanding value. While other places added frills and frivolous ingredients — ice-cream tempura was a favorite party trick at many — Saotome was happy to hew to the centuries-old traditional values.
Even as his reputation spread among local cognoscenti, he resolutely kept Mikawa’s simple, hands-on, homespun ambience (see side box). Seven years ago, he did seize the chance to expand, opening a sleeker (though little larger) branch in Roppongi Hills. However, he sent his chief lieutenant to run it, rather than sever his own connection with his shitamachi (low city) base.
And when the time came for him to hand over the reins and retire from his wok there, he didn’t just fade into the night. Quite the opposite, in fact: He set up a plush new restaurant in his own four-story building on the far side of the Sumida River, not far from Monzen-Nakacho. Called Zezankyo, it opened in April of last year and it is, like its master, one of a kind.
The layout of the main dining room, with its spacious nine-seat L-shaped counter, may be conventional, but the decor certainly isn’t. Saotome called in a score of local designers and artisans to decorate the space — and the results are, to put it politely, idiosyncratic.
Just about every surface has been lacquered, from the spacious timber counter to the smallest storage closet in the open kitchen. The walls are an attractive jade green that doesn’t quite match the Art Nouveau stained-glass window placed along one side. On the ceiling, kimono fabric stencils have been pasted over glinting gold leaf. And hanging from the ceiling is a huge copper extractor hood in the shape of Saotome’s favorite Borsalino hat.
There was plenty to occupy our gaze as we settled in. But soon enough our focus was solely on the food placed in front of us. Saotome still prepares some of the finest tempura in the city — even better than we remember from past visits to Mikawa and already deemed worthy of a Michelin star.
The presentation, too, is considerably more sophisticated. Our lunch course started with a tray of appetizers, simple but exquisite, to accompany our first beer and prime our appetites for the arrival of the tempura.
He follows the tried and true repertoire of ingredients. To start, a couple of kuruma-ebi prawns, the meat plump and sweet, followed by their heads lightly battered and deep-fried crunchy, needing only the barest sprinkle of salt. Then kisu (whiting) with its tender white meat fanned out, a single megochi (flathead) and a chunky finger-sized cut of wonderfully tender squid.
Saotome was a “locavore” long before the word was ever coined. His guiding principle has always been to serve Edomae tempura — using the kinds of seafood and vegetables that were available in the shogun’s capital a century and a half ago. Everything he puts in front of you is from a species that could have been (and in many cases still are) hauled out of Tokyo Bay.
One of the highlights of the meal is his trademark anago (conger eel). It is crisp and golden on the outside, sublimely rich, soft and succulent beneath the thin layer of batter — as close as you will ever need to get to tempura heaven.
The taste of deep-frying oil is barely discernible. But even so, halfway through — between the squid and the megochi — a couple of kuchi-naoshi palate cleansers are served. The first is a stick of young green ginger, deep-fried in an almost transparent layer of tempura batter. The second is a suimono clear soup of fragrant dashi, containing a single ebi-shinjo (shrimp dumpling).
They do the trick perfectly, restoring the appetite for the final rounds of tempura. These include a selection of vegetables and mushrooms. Matsutake is among them, but inevitably you pay an extra supplement for the pleasure of its pricey, woodsy aroma.
Our meal closed in the traditional way: with a patty of deep-fried kaibashira (clam holdfasts) served with rice and a warming soup of dark, savory hatcho miso, followed by tea and a light dessert of syrup-soaked hana-mame beans.
If he is not too busy, Saotome may demonstrate his calligraphy skills with an illustration for you. He may also show you around upstairs. The second floor has tatami rooms with horigotatsu seating for private parties. Above that is a tea room, decorated as lavishly and unconventionally as downstairs, which you reach through a small gallery of ancient bronzes and other artifacts (Saotome is also a history buff).
If ostentation of this kind is not your cup of tea, then you’d do better to steer your feet to one of the other branches of Mikawa. And there is no cut-rate admission to this remarkable display: The lunch course starts at ¥10,500 and dinner is a minimum of ¥15,750 a head. But for sheer in-your-face originality — and tempura of the highest order — Zezankyo is certainly worth that outlay.