August 3, 2015 | BITE: My Journal

O Tempura. O Matsui

The master has mixed and tested the batter. Now his second takes over. We’re on the sashimi course.
The master has mixed and tested the batter. Now his second takes over. We’re on the sashimi course.

          Dinner at Tempura Matsui is mysterious and discreet. It’s not easy to find, hidden behind a greige cloth in a cul de sac, recessed from the sidewalk on a street that leads to a bridge and a tunnel. 

Tempura Master Maseo Matsui has a sweet smile and a greeting for everyone.

          I persist, neophiliac that I am, drawn to a privileged new indulgence, tempura omakase punctuated by exquisite little kaiseki bites. I commit to the whole $200 package as designed by a designated master, new import from Tokyo, Chef Masao Matsui. His claim to prodigy is the delicacy of his batter.  It seems that tempura batter can never be too rich or too thin.

Junsai with sea urchin launches the kaiseki tasting before tempura.

          Do I kind of like a clunky batter, fried chicken hound that I am?  It’s no longer cool to admit it now that America Ootoya Inc. has lured Chef Matsui out of retirement at this  perfect New York City moment, when no tasting, certainly no Japanese tasting, is too long or too expensive to add luster to a gourmand resume.

          The stepped-back entrance is deliberate, to make it seem we are entering a small country home, the press release says. The A-frame sukiya-style villa ceiling, with bamboo lapped panels brought together by Fuji vines, is traditional in Japan’s wooden houses, it seems.

An egg yolk, mineral ice water and flour – Matsui wouldn’t tell Martha Stewart which one.

          The slatted interior door slides open.  My friend and I are the last to arrive for the early seating. We settle at the counter -- our preference, needless to say. Anonymous. There are only nine seats facing the maestro, with a few more at booths along the wall and a five-seat bar made from a black walnut tree. The master smiles welcome, dips his head. I dip mine.

A duo of sous chefs take over the service and are ready to repeat for the 8:30 crowd.

          I’m excited, of course. Committing $200 plus for dinner always sets my pulse racing. On my only visit to Tokyo in 2007, a friend treated us to a tempura spectacular at her favorite place, Kondo, where after a few amuses, Fumio Kondo unfolded like a Ninja warrior and sent the white powder flying. Fat-splotched parchments disappeared as he delivered sea creatures, then vegetables – a flattened bulb of winter butterbur, favas dragged through the fat to make a gorgeous brooch. It was dazzling.

A waitress seems to be coaching a trainee. It was a tiny space filled with staff.

          I’d like a drink, but sake is the only choice on Matsui's menu. We ask for something with a little flavor, something modest. The waiter, leaning in from behind us, suggests a $25 carafe of Matsu-no-Midori in a plump ceramic roly poly.

          Are you thinking, why bother saving fifty bucks on booze when you’re spending $550 anyway? Not to mention the $40 to get here by the FDR Drive the cab driver suggested as the only way to avoid the tunnel gridlock? Sometimes, it’s a challenge to think like a grownup.

An esoteric trio in the “Zensai” course. I like the slimy mustard spinach and mushrooms in dashi broth.

          The evening begins very well. Sleek burgundy chopsticks propped on a crystal rest. A gorgeous faceted flacon set in a royal blue bowl. It could be a perfume decanter. Sea urchin with junsai – buds of a water plant, slimy.  The Beatles are singing “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”

Inside this pottery cup is a luscious chawan-mushi with red rice, tai fish and uni in a red glaze.

          Center-stage, the master smiling, measures the flour, mixes the batter. A second course arrives for us from the kitchen in a trio: A glass goblet with leafy mustard spinach and tiny mushrooms in a silken dashi-shoyu broth. Homemade sesame tofu topped with wasabi and dashi, in a fluted ceramic dish. And simmered octopus in a small pottery square. This could have been what the Beatles sang about in “Octopus Garden.”

Here’s what I saw when I lifted the top – uni in a heavy red sauce – might be dashi, mirin and soy.

          The master has tested the batter and now earlier birds ahead of us are getting tempura deliveries. We are still on kaiseki preludes.  I lift the cover of a pottery cup to find uni in a red glaze atop luscious custardy chawanmushi with red rice and tai fish (sea bream) buried.  Matsui sets some parchment on platters in front of us and delivers the classic tempura concert opening, a crispy fried shrimp head with a crunch of antennae, one for each of us.

From our angle, we couldn’t see exactly what the chef was doing to create his mythic tempura batter.

          Then he disappears into the kitchen and a thin, serious-faced cook takes over the big tempura chopsticks and simmering fat, tense, rat-a-tat, frying. Behind me, invisible in the kitchen, I hear what sounds like mayhem – a crab or a lobster biting the dust, I imagine.

The sashimi course is a bouquet of tuna, sea bream and sake-steeped abalone with an inedible flower.

          And then, our waiter serves us a bouquet of sashimi on ice – tuna, tai and sensuous sake-steeped abalone. He warns us the purple flower is not edible. The sashimi strikes me as perfunctory. But then it’s gone, cleared away, and the waiter swabs our lacquerware trays.

The fragile batter has more sex appeal than kisu, a soggy Japanese whiting.

          The full force of tempura is about to begin for the two of us. A bowl of tempura sauce with dashi arrives and alongside it is set a covered dish of ground daikon radish to stir in. We each have an aluminum lemon squeezer. “Look,” cries my companion, “a kitchen gadget we don’t have.” We have been instructed to spoon salt into one saucer and squeeze lemon into the other.  And the seafood tempura parade begins.

I never met a scallop I didn’t like, including this battered nori-wrapped critter.

          The shrimp. Yes, the batter is thin, transparent at times. A dip in salt or lemon or both adds verve. A triangular wedge of kisu, soft Japanese whiting, is unremarkable but the homely little ginger sprout alongside packs a kick. There is scallop wrapped in nori.  What finally gets me excited is a bright orange king crab leg, meaty and nutty in a tissue of batter. At one point, Matsui joins his stand-in at the sizzle and nods. Then he notices my soiled parchment and replaces it.

Firm, flavorful king crab legs takes the tempura prize tonight.

          Inch cuts of asparagus strike me as meager.  My pal burns her mouth on the cherry tomato and warns me to let my mine sit a bit. Nice explosion.There is an excellent layered clump of maitake mushroom. But why not more vegetables?

The gossamer wrap is especially impressive on these meager cuts of asparagus.

          I especially feel like I’ve seen the emperor in his new clothes when I hear raves for the Hamo, pike eel covered with plum sauce, served with vinegar’d cucumber and seaweed that follows.

The layered maitake mushroom is cruncy, hot and full of flavor.

          In Tokyo, the tempura general had gathered seafood and vegetables into a battered blob called kakiage  -- an amorphouse fried cake of sea and veggie scraps for each eater. It has haunted me ever since. Here the finale is typically more delicate but equally memorable: shrimp fritters (called ten-don) over luscious rice with some sweetness. Served on the platter alongside is a red miso soup with three small clams lurking at the bottom, and a pretty little dish of Japanese pickles – mildly soused thins of radish and cucumber.

One last treat from the fryer are shrimp fritters on rice served with clam-miso soup and pickles.

          Dessert is stewed white peach and it emerges almost grey, though delicious. I’m not a tea drinker so I just taste the first tea, hojicha, with its predictable tang of straw. Sencha green tea comes at the end.

It may not be the best stewed peach I ever ate but commendably, it’s fruit -- fresh, seasonal and simple.

          The toilet flushes and sanitizes itself, but so does Red Farm’s for those who care about those niceties. More impressively, the chef stands at the front door – smiling broadly -- to shake hands goodbye. I feel sad that his opus has not thrilled me. I worry that I need to be moved to swoons and tears at a tasting these days. My companion, decades less spoiled than I, is excited. She definitely plans to be back for lunch.

222 East 39th Street between Tunnel Exit Street and Third Avenue. 212 986 8885. Monday through Saturday 6 to 11pm.



Photos may not be used without permission of Gael Greene. Copyright 2015. All rights reserved.

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