Sunday, 6 July 2014

Tempura Kondo, Tokyo - 24 June 2014


You many have heard the story of US President Barack Obama dining with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Sukiyabashi Jiro (of the critically acclaimed documentary, Jiro Dreams of Sushi), but have you heard the story of the restaurant that turned down the US president? 

Apparently, Sukiyabashi Jiro was not Abe's first choice. He wanted to take Obama to Tempura Kondo, a 2-Michelin star tempura restaurant in Ginza. But as the restaurant was already fully-booked on the night, they turned down the reservation request. In doing so, Kondo probably extinguished a lot of extra publicity and fame that could have come their way, but you have to respect a restaurant that doesn't want to disappoint their customers that already have a booking. 

President Obama may have missed out on an incredible tempura experience, but my wife and I were lucky enough to be customers at Kondo during our recent trip to Japan.

Chef and owner Fumio Kondo
Tempura Kondo is run by Fumio Kondo, a name that is synonymous with tempura in Japan. Much like sushi chefs, Fumio Kondo has dedicated his life to doing one thing: cooking tempura. With decades of experience under his belt, he has turned tempura, something that is often thought of as a side dish, into a refined cuisine, capable of holding up an entire restaurant. Tempura Kondo has been open since 1991.

Like other traditional Japanese restaurants, you sit at the counter, which seated around 12 people at Kondo, and watch the chefs prepare the ingredients for chef Kondo to cook in two large vats of sesame oil. We were lucky enough to be given the prime vantage point and were seated directly in front of Kondo-san.

We dined at Kondo during the lunch session. You can choose between 2 set menus or order items from the a la carte menu. The smaller set menu (sumire) costs 6,000 yen (excluding tax) and the larger menu (tsukabi) costs 8,000 yen (also excluding tax). This is incredible value considering Kondo is a 2-Michelin star restaurant and that there are much more expensive tempura experiences in Tokyo at other high-end establishments (a set menu at 3-Michelin  star 7-chome Kyoboshi is over 30,000 yen!). I had an insatiable appetite for tempura so I opted for the tsukabi and my wife went for the smaller sumire menu with vegetarian items.

My tsukabi menu consisted of various tempura (2 prawns, 4 vegetables, 3 fish), kakiage (which is a mixture of bits of small prawns fried in batter) served on rice with miso soup and pickles, and fruits. My wife's sumire menu had the fish and prawns substituted for vegetables and she somehow ended up with 13 vegetarian tempura items (compared to just ten in my larger menu)! Perhaps the chef was taking pity on the vegetarian diner for having such a diet...

Tempura can be enjoyed with lemon juice, sea salt or tempura sauce with grated daikon. I preferred the simplicity of just salt to enjoy the supreme quality of the ingredients.
It was clear from the very first bite that the tempura here is not just about chucking things into a deep fryer. Every piece was exquisite. And I mean every piece! It was obvious that the chef Kondo has an intimate understanding of each ingredient and how to cook each one to perfection. And each ingredient was coated in a thin, crunchy, raggedy batter that was virtually greaseless and unbelievably light. The tempura did not taste like fried food at all.
 
So how does chef Kondo do it? I looked over to the batter mixture; there were lumps of flour everywhere and dry flour was forming a cliff up the side of the bowl. The batter was barely mixed through by the chef, with just a few cursory strokes with his chopsticks. It turns out that lumps are the key to light, thin crispy batter; a smooth mixture creates thick, soggy and chewy coating.

Beer and fried food is a match made in heaven
Chef Kondo's demeanour in the kitchen made him look like he was bored out of his mind! But this is probably more a reflection of him being so familiar with each step having done it a million times before. He would pick up each ingredient, coat it lightly with dry flour, dunk it into the lumpy tempura mixture, chuck the item into one of 2 baths of hot oil, and would know exactly when to take each item out of the hot bath and let the item stand to let the residual heat finish off the cooking process. Somehow the result was crispy perfection!           

Also, don't forget to order the sweet potato (1,200 yen). This is a signature of Tempura Kondo and isn't included in the set menu (this fact is even stated specifically on the menu).  It needs to be ordered separately at the outset as it takes 40 minutes to prepare.   

Even the fruit was outstanding! As we found out in our travels through Hokkaido, fruit in Japan is exceptional (and expensive). We were served mango and watermelon. Both were in season and just delicious.

Fresh seasonal ingredients is the name of the game at Kondo
The quality of the produce at Kondo was some of the best I have seen in any restaurant in the world. The vegetables, which chef Kondo takes great pride in sourcing from farms all over Japan, brought me back to L'Arpege, where Alain Passard, one of the great French chefs, focuses on using only the best ingredients and bringing out its natural flavours with minimal intervention. This is exactly what Tempura Kondo achieves successfully with its food. 

At the conclusion of the meal, Chef Kondo and I exchanged bows and I thanked him for a wonderful meal in my terrible Japanese. I had just experienced tempura like never before. My eyes had just been opened to the art of tempura, which chef Kondo has dedicated his life to in his quest for perfection. I would recommend Kondo to anyone travelling to Tokyo and is looking for top-class tempura.     

Verdict
Highlight: Having the privilege of sitting directly in front of chef Kondo and  watching a true master cook tempura right in front of our eyes and then serve us.
Lowlight: Tempura will never be the same for me ever again. Most tempura in Australia pales in comparison to this, unfortunately.     
Overall: My meal at Kondo is undoubtedly the best tempura that I have eaten in my life. Each morsel was cooked to perfection, coated with an unbelievably thin, light and crispy batter that doesn't feel at all oily. 9/10 (Outstanding)

Tsukabi (large set)

Prawn heads - the perfect start to the meal, very crispy and complete with the tastiest part of the prawn, its juicy brains!

Prawn - precisely cooked prawn that allowed me to enjoy the beautiful firm texture of the kuruma prawn and its natural sweetness

Another prawn because one is not enough!

Asparagus - one of the best asparagus I have ever eaten, incredibly juicy and intense flavour

Japanese eggplant - soft and creamy flesh perfectly contrasted by thin, crisp batter

Kisu (Japanese whiting) - perfectly cooked white fish: moist and delicate flesh

Shiitake mushroom - just amazing and one of my favourite pieces: juicy and full of flavour!

Green capsicum - I usually prefer red to green but this was still very enjoyable. Fried with seeds and all; very tender.

Megochi (Japanese flathead) - even better than the kisu; stronger in flavour and so moist! 

Onion - my wife found this to be a bit raw but I was okay with it. Cooked long enough to remove the acidity. The onion was slightly crunchy and sweet.  

Conger eel (anagao) - the eel is so soft that it just melts in the mouth! Beautifully contrasted by the crispy batter. 



Sweet potato (extra) - signature for a reason. Somehow tasted like a roast potato. The sweetness and moisture is locked inside the batter, yielding a sweet, soft, fluffy potato. One serving is huge and can easily be shared between a few people.
Ten don sauce dipped kakiage on a bowl of rice, pickles - the batter soaked up the ten don sauce so the batter was not crispy, but so delicious! And the prawns were springy and sweet.

Miso soup - a lip smackingly rich and delicious miso soup served with clams

Fruit at end of meal (mango, watermelon) - fruit is no after thought; top quality, sweet, and flavoursome. Mango was particularly outstanding.


Sumire (small set, vegetarian)

My wife's menu from top to bottom, left to right: 1. Baby green pepper ; 2. Myoga; 3. Okra; 4. Lily bulb; 5. Asparagus; 6. Japanese eggplant; 7. Bamboo shoot; 8. Baby corn; 9. Shiitake mushroom; 10. Green capsicum; 11. Lotus root; 12. Onion; 13. Kyoto eggplant; 14. sweet potato (extra)  


Tempura Kondo
Address: 5-5-13 Ginza | Sakaguchi Building 9F, Chuo, Tokyo, Prefecture 104-0061, Japan
Contact no: +81 3-5568-0923
Opening hours: Monday - Saturday lunch and dinner. Sunday closed.

20 comments:

  1. My mouth was literally watering when I read this post!! Can't imagine the taste as the tempura we had at minus8 was already the best I've had and you said this was even better!!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi delectablydegusting, it is hard to imagine how good the tempura is here. That means you need to go try it when you get the chance to go to Tokyo :)

      Delete
  2. Now that is service. It must have put them in quite a situation having to turn them down but they had customers that had already booked. Great story! :D

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Lorraine, i respect him for doing that. Obama and Abe, yes are world leaders, but are customers just like everyone else.

      Delete
  3. Amazing! I still remember this amazing tempura place I went to in Shinjuku. This definitely reminds me of this place which I've since forgotten

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Hilda, tempura in Japan is such a delicacy isn't it? Would have liked to have known the place you went to in Shinjuku :)

      Delete
  4. I don't like that they rejected a dinner requested from Obama and Shinzo. It is one thing to respect your customers but another thing to disrespect a couple of world leaders. What about the honour of having a dinner request from them?

    I'm sure Jiro is probably even more booked out than them yet they still managed to eat there.

    That being said the food looks amazing. It looks like your wife got the better end of that deal in terms of quantity.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi booger, absolutely get where you are coming from, most chefs probably wouldn't have knocked them back. I am sure he would have felt honored to have received the request. It would have also been a logistical pain to call each customer to explain the situation and then disappoint them. The restaurant would have had to close for the night for them; they are not like the rapid fire sushi experience you get at Jiro where you are out in less than an hour. As difficult as it is to turn down 2 world leaders, they are potential customers just like everyone else; he stood by his decision and I respect him for that.

      Delete
  5. What a great way to end our Japan trip! Vegetables cooked to perfection with a crunchy yet light batter. Yummmm...

    BTW this trip has changed your perception on a lot of food-related things: seafood will never be the same, milk will never be the same, rockmelon will never be the same, asparagus will never be the same, tomato will never be the same...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Qoo01, you don't need to remind me of how good everything was in Hokkaido. I miss Hokkaido already.

      Delete
    2. Cheesecake will never be the same, grape will never be the same, ramen will never be the same, soba will never be the same...

      Delete
    3. Now that you have pretty much summed up the Hokkaido trip, there's no point in writing about our travels then :P

      Delete
  6. Wow, a tempura-only restaurant with two Michelin stars? There's something to be said for restaurants that elevate one specific art so high, it's internationally accorded for. Can't wait to try this place when I visit Japan in 2015, as well as Jiro's.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Michael, Kondo-San has definitely turned tempura frying into an art form. Hope you enjoy Tempura Kondo as much as I did if you do go. You will have a great time eating in Tokyo, in my opinion, the gourmet capital of the world!

      Jiro is a difficult booking to get for gaijin, so I didn't even bother. The Roppongi branch (his son's) is much more foreigner friendly but not as good I hear. I do hope you do get a booking at Jiro in Ginza and if you do I look forward to hearing about it!

      Delete
  7. I love that they turned down Obama's reservation request! First in, best dressed, buddy :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi Helen, I agree, if they wanted the restaurant to themselves the Japanese government probably needed to get into contact with the restaurant months ahead rather than dropping it on them and asking them to cancel other reservations.

      Delete
  8. Nice post! I'm going to Japan soon with my GF who is vegetarian. Is being a vegetarian a problem at a lot of places in Japan?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Hi the hedonist life,

      I love Japan and I know you and your GF are going to love it. What parts of Japan will you be going to?

      There are vegetarian options in Japan but it can be tricky.

      The language barrier can be a challenge (English is more widely spoken in major cities like Tokyo of course). Luckily most menus have pictures, so you can see if something has meat or not! It’s a good idea to carry around a phrase book just in case and point to the phrase for “I’m a vegetarian” if needed. My wife and I have still encountered problems even with a phrase book due to some Japanese people’s understanding of what is meant by the term ‘vegetarian’. They may take this to mean “no meat but seafood is ok”. Hilariously, my wife once ended up with a meal that included a salad with pancetta (obviously meat), a vegetarian pizza with pancetta (again) and a seafood pasta (mind you this was in rural Hokkaido so probably wouldn’t happen in Tokyo)!

      Depending on how strict of a vegetarian your GF is, dashi stock (which has bonito) could be a problem. Dashi is used as a base in a lot of Japanese cooking (e.g. cooking vegetables, in soups etc.), so eliminating it entirely could be a difficult for them and difficult to explain. So udon / soba noodles that look vegetarian might not be. Although my wife is a pretty strict vegetarian, she had to ignore the fact that she may have eaten something that may have fish in it, which she was ok with as long as she didn’t eat actually any meat/fish.

      Tempura restaurants are good options for vegetarians but it’s probably not a good idea to have fried food too often. If you aren’t afraid to pay a bit more, Tempura Kondo is fantastic and I thoroughly recommend it for vegetarians given the chef’s passion for sourcing high quality vegetables. If you haven’t already, Buddhist cuisine (shojin ryori) is delicious and definitely something worth making a booking for. There are a number of them at/near temples in Kyoto (if you are going to Kyoto). Tofu restaurants are another good bet.

      I hope this helps! Let me know if you need any more help.

      Delete
  9. Hello, I made a reseravation at Kondo, but I am a bit worried as I have a flight to catch in the late afternoon.

    How long did your meal take? How long should I expect a lunch meal to last at Kondo?

    Cheers in advance,

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Sorry about the delay in this reply. I didn't see your comment til just now. The meal should take between 90 mins and 2 hrs, but it would be a good idea to let them know you have a flight to catch. Enjoy!

      Delete