The recipe for tempura is widely credited to Portugese and Spanish missionaries who lived in western Japan during the late 16th century. In “Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art,” author and chef Shizuo Tsuji, writes that, as this new dish caught on in Japan, it was slowly adapted for local tastes, eventually being paired with a delicately seasoned dipping sauce with grated daikon mixed into it.
If only the missionaries had also introduced another Iberian custom — the siesta — because, after a big lunch of tempura at Shintaro, the best postprandial advice I could offer is to take an hour off and flop down on a park bench (there are several nearby along the bank of the Dojima River).
Shintaro, unlike other tempura restaurants, makes an important and ascetic choice in the way it serve its fried goods: it foregoes that rich daikon-based dipping sauce, presenting you, instead, with a little mound of salt for seasoning. I suspect it’s because they don’t want any of the flavors diluted or diminished — it’s salt or nothing.
The restaurant is compact, with a fry station in the middle of a single, curved counter, behind which the two chefs (the owner and his disciple) perform a continuous and fluent tempura shuffle — the result of working together for many years.
The owner is responsible for applying the exact amount of batter, and his apprentice, using long chopsticks, waves the food back and forth in a vat containing a combination of three types of oil.
A quick shake signifies the dance is done and the food is momentarily on your plate. From wherever you are perched in this kappo-style (where the chef faces customers at a counter) restaurant you’ll be able to see the duo at work.
I opted for the kiku lunch set (¥5,500), which opened with green tea and a simple serving of tsukemono (pickled vegetables) presented as a sculpted mound and dressed in a light soy sauce. Shintaro’s speciality is ebi (shrimp) — especially Kuruma ebi (Japanese tiger shrimp), a relatively small shrimp. Only a minimal layer of batter is applied at Shintaro: the intention is always to enhance, not overwhelm, and even though a layer of batter can change the appearance of an ingredient, with most dishes you should be able to tell what you are eating — if you can’t, the chefs can help out. But the ayu, a delicate freshwater trout, is instantly recognizable as the layer of tempura gives it a fossilized appearance, a pretty, petrified fish. (If you’re wondering whether to eat the head: ayu is hardly a meaty fish, so it’s not worth messing with.) Compared with the ebi that accompanies it, ayu tastes slightly acrid, and sharp compared to the sweetness of the shrimp.
At lunch there is one serving of vegetables, for dinner the courses are longer with more vegetables interjected between the seafood.
The akadashi (red miso soup) was intense and wonderful, but the bright green nama-fu (soft wheat gluten) sponge was the penultimate tempura dish, designed to clear the palate before the ebi no kara-age (fried shrimp), which I struggled to finish.
It’s not often that I complain of getting too much, especially at lunch. Even in small portions, this is luxurious food.
2-5-5 Nishitenma, Kita-ku, Osaka; 06-6361-5293; nearest stations, Oebashi, Yodoyobashi; lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m., dinner 5 p.m.-9 p.m.; closed Sunday; lunch from ¥3,500; no smoking; Japanese menu, Japanese spoken.
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