Iseya is a diamond in the rough-and-ready neighborhood that lies to the north of Asakusa. Set between the sleazy, winking red lights of the Senzoku soaplands and the grim and grimy flophouses of San’ya, this is far from tourist territory. And Iseya is no tourist restaurant. But without doubt it’s a shitamachi classic.
Dote-no-Iseya they call it, since it was built on the dyke that marked the farthest limits of the city’s largest, most infamous pleasure district. Just spitting distance from where the great gate of Yoshiwara used to stand, it has provided sustenance to the denizens of the nightless city since 1873.
These days the evenings are quieter, and Iseya keeps more regular hours. But the building itself, constructed entirely of timber 75 years ago, has somehow, miraculously, survived intact. Its handsome frontage, with its gables and tiles, looks impressive enough. Slide back the slatted door, duck under the noren and you will find the interior even more atmospheric.
The floor is made of stone, packed hard with the black amalgam of the years. The half-dozen tables and their chunky, low benches gleam with the patina of countless customers. The walls are covered with lacquered signboards and ancient advertising posters. A Taisho Era clock ticks slowly in the corner. To one side, a steep staircase disappears into the living quarters on the second floor.
Everything is kept in beautiful condition, with obvious care and affection. And yet, Iseya feels nothing like a museum. It has the homely clutter of a place that is lived in. Your order will be taken by a middle-aged matron in a pink apron, or perhaps by the young waiter, who wears baggy shorts and a couple of rings in each ear. The customers are invariably locals, and they treat the place with the same familiarity as their own kitchens.
Most tempura restaurants boast a counter where you can sit and watch your food being cooked, but there is no such entertainment here. The kitchen is partitioned off from the main dining area, out of sight but not out of earshot: The wok’s constant sizzle primes your appetite well before your meal arrives.
Do not expect the kind of refined fare served at the uptown tempura shops of Nihonbashi and Ginza. Iseeya’s tempura is hearty and substantial. The batter is applied in a thick layer; the oil is dark and strongly imbued with the rich aroma of sesame. This is how tempura was prepared in Edo times, when it was cooked and sold from street stalls. This is not subtle food; it is tempura for trenchermen.
The 2,500 yen top-of-the-line mixed tempura — ask for jo (superior) — is a heaping platter big enough to dent all but the largest appetites. This consists of three large tiger prawns, of the variety most often encountered on top of soba noodles; a whole ama-ebi, a plump shrimp that can be popped into your mouth, crunchy head and all; and a kisu sweetfish, opened up (as it always is) into a fan shape.
You are also likely to be given a spear of green asparagus; wedges of pumpkin and starchy sweet potato; a large wheel of lotus root, crunchy and white inside; one long, green shishito pepper, sharply bitter and refreshing; and a small finger of root ginger, which helps to clear the palate and revive the stomach with its penetrating, pungent flavor.
Buried at the bottom of this generous pile, you will find a substantial portion of anago eel, thicker than your belt and so long it bulges over the edge of the plate. Anago has always been the prize delicacy of Edo-style tempura, and this is certainly the case at Iseya. And as a garnish on top and a counterpoint to the soft, sensuous texture of the smooth, white eel, they place a small hone-senbei, the spine of the same fish, looped and deep-fried until it is crisp and crunchy.
The dark, savory dipping sauce is enlivened by a good mound of oroshi (grated daikon), although you can ask for salt to sprinkle on your tempura. Extra servings of oroshi are available to aid the digestion, and the plates of oshinko (bran-pickled vegetables) also help to keep the taste buds from clogging up. The thick, pungent miso soup (200 yen) is ordered separately. So is the rice (also 200 yen), and because servings are small, many people ask for a serving and a half, or even two.
A rather less deluxe (and less massive) mixed tempura plate is offered for 1,900 yen (ask for chu), in which the main feature is ika cuttlefish rather than eel. Alternatively, there are a variety of tendon rice bowls, again graded by size (from a gourmand 2,300 yen down to a still substantial 1,400 yen).