April 10, 2015
Of all the cooking methods, deep frying is my least preferred. The dishes are more often than not oily, fat, dry and devoid of nutritional value. Needless to say of all the dishes the great food nation Japan has to offer tempura is one I tend to avoid. When I think of tempura, it is a soggy piece of deep fried shrimp acting as stomach filler on top of a bowl of soba or in a bento.
But tempura, when prepared by chefs with decades of experience, is one of Japanese cuisine’s most cherished dishes. In Osaka the most famous place to have a meal of high-end tempura is the Michelin Two-Starred Yotaro Honten (与太呂本店) in Chuo Ward. That’s where I went with for my only proper meal in Osaka on this trip.
I had my hotel reserved a table at 18:00; we arrived 15 minutes late due to difficulty of hailing a cab in the rain. The main floor, with four tables and the cooking station in the corner, was completely empty when we arrived. Two middle aged ladies led us to a corner table and showed us the menu. As we were studying the Japanese menu, the silver-haired, forth-generation owner-chef came over to greet us and recommended the ¥2,500 combo for each of us in addition to a pot of sea bream rice (¥4,600). This was tremendous value for a Michelin-starred restaurant.
Two other tables were filled when the chef returned to show us the raw vegetable and seafood he was about to deep fry. After our approval he returned to the cooking station and began to dip the lightly-battered ingredients into the 170 degree oil one by one with a pair of long metal chopsticks. The quiet dining room was soon filled with a gentle buzzing sound of boiling oil. Each piece was left in the oil over various length depending on its size to ensure the moisture on the surface was properly evaporated while leaving the core ever-slightly undercooked.
Soon the tempura appeared on our table on three separate plates; the highlights were prawns, sea eel, Japanese whiting and shrimp paste toast. The batter was soft, like a firmer version of sponge cake, which kept the seafood and vegetable moist and retained the freshness of the ingredients. The shrimp paste taste surprisingly didn’t taste like an oil-soaked piece of bread; it almost felt like it could have come out from an oven. Salt, instead of tempura sauce, was provided as seasoning to avoid dampening the batter.
Following our ten-piece sets was the sea bream rice, the entrée on this night. The whole pot was shown to us first, then it was taken back to the kitchen where the flesh was picked out and the bones discarded.
The rice was cooked in broth and emitted a fine aroma, but the taste was much subtler. The fish was slightly dry but fresh. While I was finishing my bowl I found a piece of bone in the rice – this caught the eye of a waitress, who came over and profusely apologized because it wasn’t supposed to happen.
I gained a deeper appreciation for the craft of tempura – the act of deep frying is not to change the ingredient but to enhance its essence. For this price it was a fair deal, but this meal turned out to be slightly underwhelming with less than stellar ingredients.
Address: 2-3-14 Koraibashi, Chuo Ward, Osaka
Opening hours: 11:30 – 14:00, 17:00 – 20:00; closed on weekend