Tempura Matsui, NYC
August 11, 2015
New York has top quality Japanese restaurants in many categories: sushi, yakitori, ramen, soba, kaiseki etc, but it has never had a top quality tempura restaurant such as we have enjoyed in Japan. To fill this gap, in mid-July Tempura Matsui was opened by Ootoyo, a chain with hundreds of comfort food restaurants in Japan, much of East Asia and four in New York. They brought Masao Matsui, 65, out of retirement with the lure of a New York restaurant. He has been a tempura chef since he was 18.
Linda and I went for dinner at Tempura Matsui on July 29, 2015, two weeks after it opened. The restaurant hides discreetly behind a curtain on East 39th Street.
We were given a choice seat in the middle of the ten-seat counter with a direct view of the preparations and cooking. There are also two four-place tables and a two-place table behind. There is also a private dining room with a five-seat counter.
A soundtrack of Beatles classics, a favorite of the chef, was playing at moderate volume.
Linda started with a glass of Sapporo draft beer to quench her thirst, as did our neighbors at the counter.
Each of the ten place settings at the counter had a printed menu, chopsticks and a little black lacquer spoon. There was sea salt in the little green box.
Sous-chef Kentaro Yagai came out, turned on the heat under the large metal bowl of oil and began to prepare the light batter for the tempura in a large, cool, glazed clay bowl..
He was slowly adding a special flour to the egg yolk and cold mineral water, whisking it in.
A sakizuke 先附 is the traditional starter for a kaiseki meal, similar to a French amuse-bouche. This one featured sea urchin and junsai, or watershield, a gelatinous leaf of an aquatic plant. I thought that there was a mild overdose of rice vinegar but Linda did not.
Then we were served our Zensai 前菜, which is Japanese for hors d’œuvres.
Homemade Sesame Tofu topped with Wasabi and Dashi
Komatsuna and Mushroom Ohitashi
Simmered Octopus Sakura-ni
The tofu had a silky texture and a lovely sesame flavor.
Ohitashi is a method of infusing lightly cooked vegetables with seasoned dashi. Komatsuna is a leafy vegetable, more substantial than spinach. This combination in the glass was fairly complex and nice.
The octopus was tender and good. I did not get the reference to sakura, or cherry blossoms; it may just be the color.
Chawan-mushi is an egg custard steamed in its serving bowl. This was really delicious as the flavors of the red sea bream and sea urchin were allowed to shine.
Assorted Sashimi with Tuna, Tai and Sake-Steeped Abalone
The red sea bream was elegant. The tuna was more substantial and the sake-marinated abalone a good culinary novelty, at least to me.
Then the preparations for the tempura were put in place. In front of us were a bowl with a light tentsuyu dipping sauce made with soy sauce and mirin, into which one could put the grated daikon, or Japanese radish. The checkered dish was for lemon juice and the smaller white one for salt. Just after it came out of the oil, each piece of tempura was put on paper on the raised ledge in front of us and the chef sometimes indicated if he thought that salt or lemon should be used.
Up until this point the two sous-chefs had done all of the setting up. Then Chef Matsui came out. He tested the batter by putting small drops in the hot oil with huge chopsticks. When the sizzle was right, he knew that the batter was right. Then he supervised and did some of the cooking.
We were asked if we would like to order any supplemental tempura. We chose anago, or sea eel.
The tempura was followed by
Hamo with Cucumber and Plum Sauce
The seasonal conger pike eel had been boiled and topped with a vibrant red plum sauce. The cucumber and seaweed were lightly vinegared and helped to clear the palate.
The kakiage shrimp ball was crisp and good, bringing interest to the rice as did the sliced pickles. The red miso soup had tiny clams on the bottom.
We had a very good time. The cuisine was beautifully prepared with top quality ingedients. The service was always friendly and efficient and the pace just right. The Beatles soundtrack was not too loud. Chef Matsui was always smiling and gracious, making us feel welcome.
To see our blogposts on three tempura restaurants in Japan click on the names below.