Where would a journalist be without his or her contacts? Most likely not in Mantenya, a pocket-sized tempura restaurant near Tenma in Osaka. I am based in Kyoto, so Osaka is a bit of a known unknown. Luckily I have two contacts who have yet to set me wrong.
Mantenya might possibly be the weirdest — and it could turn out to be the most memorable — restaurant I’ve ever set foot in. When I say pocket-sized, I’m not exaggerating by much. There are three tables, two of which practically spill out the door. The other one is hidden behind a fridge. It’s hard to get a sense of how small and claustrophobic Mantenya is because a) it’s kitted out in gothic black, and b) it’s so stuffed full of kitsch and crap that you can hardly see your plate, never mind your companions. Imagine the boudoir of a bat-crazy fortune-teller and you might get some idea of where I was.
It being autumn, the master had stuffed a beautiful arrangement of fake maple leaves into an ornate plastic vase that was propping up a web of beads floating down from the ceiling. Despite the eccentricity of his lair, he was as friendly and hospitable as they come. I was so busy drinking in the details — plastic chairs, CDs that were actually menus, a crown-shaped chandelier — that I more or less missed the ordering process.
We started with prawn cocktail salad, followed by prawn tempura, which was in turn followed by more prawn — this time it was set one fire in front of us. We finished with more fish — a welcome respite from prawn — but it turns out that it finished us. I am guessing we ordered the fish course.
Back to the prawn. Each course aims to fill you, and the cumulative effect is that you fill up quickly. Don’t let the master’s eccentricities lull you into thinking the food will be weird and gimmicky: OK, it sometimes is, but it’s nearly always delicious and arranged with an appreciation for aesthetics.
The prawn cocktail was adorned with a “strawberry tomato,” a yellowish petite tomato that had a lovely acidy-sweet kick to it. The dressing came with a clot of cream, prawns and two springs of white asparagus, and flowers that we presumed were edible; well, they were with cream. Next up were whole tenshi ebi — angel prawns — deep-fried tempura-style. They were, the master informed us, to be eaten with salt and skimmed milk, and alarmingly, this combination worked.
The final serving of prawn was an ode to Osaka: a bed of the little guys under a layer of mayonnaise and spicy okonomiyaki sauce. At the table, the master blow-torched the dish for half a minute.
We could have stopped here, but we had a trio of fish, including tempura salmon smothered in butter. And there we stopped. Did I mention there is foie gras tempura on the menu? If you want to follow Alice down the rabbit hole, step inside Mantenya.
3-22 Kurosaki-cho, Kita-ku,Osaka; 090-4271-0604; mantenya.iinaa.net; open 6-11 p.m. (closed Mon.); nearest stations Nakazakicho, Tenma; smoking OK; ¥3,000-4,000 per head; no English menu; no English spoken.