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Tempura Endo Yasaka: Deep-fried morsels in a downtown teahouse

by

Special To The Japan Times

After reading the recent review by Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic Jonathan Gold of Tempura Endo’s Beverly Hills restaurant I thought it was high time I went to the original. Tempura Endo Yasaka in Kyoto is housed in an ornate wooden teahouse south of Gion; waiting staff in delicate light blue kimonos wait outside for guests at their appointed time of arrival. If it all feels a little elite, it’s probably because more than a few of the elite have dined at Endo during its 100-plus years of frying food.

The main dining area seats around 16 people. The best seats in the house are those nearest the fryer, which is covered with a beautiful copper hood. Unlike Endo’s California outpost, there was no Kenny G playing on repeat. Instead, the sound of happy chatter filled the air, which is rather unusual at high-end restaurants in Japan.

Endo’s take on tempura is tied to kaiseki ryōri (traditional multicourse cuisine): the meal moves through a series of carefully considered courses, with a focus on seasonal ingredients.

It’s exquisite, expensive and extensive — lunch takes the best part of two hours. Both lunch and dinner have three omakase (chef’s selection) courses; my advice is to go with the mid-priced option.

Unsurprisingly, what you get is mostly tempura. Endo’s take on the tempura canon includes a few standouts, particularly the tai (seabream), which was wrapped inside a perilla leaf and encrusted in fried batter. The shiitake mushroom comes wrapped in minced prawn and a thin coat of batter. (A quick word about Endo’s batter: It’s light enough that it might take off and ascend into heaven, except the team of chefs endow it with gravitas and crunchiness.) But, there are also brief forays beyond tempura, as with the opening dish of yuba, delicate layers of tofu skin. This is a well-considered primer, because the best tempura is also an exercise in delicacy. Endo does this well, even with his other non-tempura dishes: The salad of sweet potato — diced thin-as-a-thread, flash fried and served with daikon in a lime dressing — was glorious.

These all win on sensation. Your mouth grapples to deal with the layers of different textures and flavors. You could say the mission statement of tempura is to empower seafood and vegetables. Its sounds trite, but at Endo you’ll eat your reservations.

The opening serving of corn tempura is Endo’s signature dish, but the kamonasu, a Kyoto heirloom aubergine, should be. When it arrives, it looks like a wedge of sweet potato. The hard crust allows you to almost scoop it up before it melts away blissfully.

All tempura dishes are paired with salt, matcha powder and tentsuyu (tempura dipping sauce) and the chefs explain how to pair each condiment with each dish.

Gold was right about the tendon, a bowl of rice softened with soy sauce, which comes after the tempura courses. It’s superb, despite its simplicity. One reason you might choose Kyoto’s Endo over LA’s is price. Dinner for two in Beverly Hills with drinks can set you back $600, which is roughly twice the price of dinner in Kyoto.