When Chef Matsui came out of retirement and announce he will be opening an outpost in New York, we were excited. The man dedicated his life (40+ years) in making one thing, and one thing only- tempura.
The city’s only tempura omakase restaurant is backed by the Ootoya group. Yes, the affordable and highly successful chained Ootoya in midtown; Tempura Matsui is their first attemp at “fine” dining establishment in NY, and they have been planning for a high end sushi place in mid-town, Sushi Ginza Onodera which just opened last week on 5th Ave (which, by the way is currently the second most expensive sushi place in the city at $400, just behind Masa).
We have the upmost admiration for Chef Matsui, he had been perfecting his craft since he was 17. We longed for the restaurant’s opening, until we took a peak at the price tag. A whopping $200 for the tasting menu. So after drinks, taxes and tips for two, it would be lucky if the bill come less than $500. As much as I love food…. I was not about to drop $500 for deep fried vegetables. So We waited. wait for the review to come out, wait for other people to report back. Then we learned that Chef Matsuri only stayed for a brief period of time and returned to Japan. Then we heard he got cancer. Then sadly, we heard the master had passed away. He was only 65. So a year in, a master chef less, the Michelin starred tempura stable is left manned by Chef Matsuri’s right hand man, Chef Kato. The place is still named after the celebrated Chef, but I am under the impression that it has always been the intention that the tempura counter would be run by Chef Kato.
On a “lucky break”, we scored a deal to sample the fare at half price, and we arrived at the zen quiet establishment one evening in May.
The place is hidden in a residential building, even with google map, it took me a second look to notice the little square plate embedded on the side wall of what looks like a resident patio- Tempura Matsui.
So through the green drapes, the wooden door and the glass door, we settled ourselves in front of the cooking counter. Very much like a sushi bar setting, except that it is an oil well instead of a butcher block behind the counter. The place is extremely quiet. On the night we were there, I believed there were more staff than customers. The “tempura” counter can sit 10, with a handful of booth on the side. Well trained staff were extremely polite, and soft spoken, as if they were afraid to wake a baby in the upstairs apartment.
Our dinner was pre-paid but the staff still left a copy of the menu for us to follow along, and here it is, the Tempura Kaiseki Course… …
Sakizuke– Scallop Tartar and peas mousse served with uni sauce
I am missing the point of uni sauce. As good as this delicate bite is, I couldn’t tell if there were any uni favor in it. It certainly looks good on the menu.
Miso salt / Rock salt/ lemon with squeezer/ daikon mush and mentsuyu
The lemon squeezer is a total genius. Squeezed the lemon out of it’s full potiental while kept my hands and fingers clean, and not have to worry the acid spilling anywhere. Where can I get one of these?
The sweetness of the daikon came from it’s freshness. Not a bit a bitter. And the mentsuyu is the best I have yet sampled. Not over salted, it’s almost sweet. Take a spoonful of daikon and gently soak it in the mentsuyu, I could have eat it just like that.
We started the tempura course with a pair of tiger prawn. First the heads. They are lightly battered, almost nonexistent. And fried to perfection. Not a moment over, but as crunchy as it could ever be. Crispier than any potato chip there is. I could glady eat them as popcorn. But shrimp population would take a big hit.
Then came the torso. Same (less than) paper thin batter, we were instructed to pair one with lemon juice and rock salt and the second with mentsuyu. Shrimp is the spokeperson of tempura. Just look at emoji. And at Tempura Matsui, these tiger prawns are excellent.
Squid was thick cut and was so soft, almost like I’m having a firmer piece of cotton candy. While the squid is perfect texture, there was no taste at all, it rely heavily on the sauce. But as good as the sauce it, it cannot hid the fact that the squid is plain.
When we first sat down, the oil well was clear as if it was just clean green tea, but as the courses goes on, the oil had became slightly murky. So you understand how this piece of anago tasted oily. I could say that it was a waste. As dry as that piece of paper is (supposely soaking the excessive oil), the anago already absorb all the oil it could. And the after taste in mouth was just oily. On a side note, unlike most Japanese restaurants, we were provide ice water instead of tea. By not serveing tea, our palate was coated with oil. Yes, I could have order the $8 green tea… I guess…
Tendon– Shrimp tempura over rice served with Akadashi Miso soup
The shrimp in this dish is somewhat smaller than the prawn we had in the beginning. And a little fishy too.
The whole dinner lasted about an hour and half. While we were impress with the appertizer and dessert, the tempura didn’t exactly meet our expectation. Yes, the mentsuyu and the tiget prawn was excellent. All the vegetables were very fresh, and all the pieces were consistent with batter and tempeature, but oil had became turbid at the end, leaving a bad aftertaste. Since it is the only cooking method, we certainly hope they would add/change the oil for the second round of customers, but by the time we got up, that had not happen. Also we didn’t feel we had any solid food other than a couple pieces of shimp and sashimi. If the regular price charge for $200 per person, that is barely even $50 of ingredient. I’m not sure the fame of a much celebrated chef can justify the price.
Tempura Matsui | 222 E 39th St | May 2016