Jiro dreams of sushi, but Barack Obama dreams of Tempura. At Tempura Kondo, to be exact.
In 2014, the ex-US President visited Japan and as a special treat, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intended to take him Tempura Kondo. The story goes that Fumio Kondo – the head chef after which the restaurant is eponymously named – refused to cancel existing reservations to make room for Mr POTUS, and so Abe had to resort to Sukiyabashi Jiro. Yes, Japan’s most famous restaurant was plan B. Upon the meal’s completion, Mr Obama purportedly said – in perhaps the most understated sentence of the year – ‘that’s some good sushi right there’.
I wonder what he would have said about Tempura Kondo.
Date Last Visited: 31 July 2017
Address: 5-5-13 Ginza Chuo Tokyo
Highlight Dishes: prawn heads, onion, eel, sweet potato, tencha
Price Guide (approx): ~10,000 JPY ($115 AUD at time of writing)
Tempura has been one of the central pillars of Japanese cuisine for hundreds of years, but it was actually the Spanish & Portuguese that introduced the notion of deep frying during the 16th century. Of course the Japanese, being the exacting perfectionists they are, transformed it into a cooking style that is now truly their own.
Splashing out over a hundred dollars on a meal where the highlight involves immersing comestibles in scalding hot oil tends to raise eyebrows. In a world where deep frying is associated with the words ‘fast’, ‘cheap’ and – quite often – ‘junk’, tempura-ya (ya = Japanese for restaurant) face a tough challenging rising to the occasion of what one would consider a ‘special occasion meal’.
But just like how sushi can span the gamut from pocket change sushi trains to $400+ experiences such as ‘Plan B’ Sukiyabashi Jiro (totally worth it, btw!) in Tokyo or Masa in NYC, so too do tempura restaurants earn their keep and adoration from gourmands all over.
Tempura Kondo, with Fumio Kondo at the helm, proudly boasts two Michelin Stars. This isn’t the Hollywood Walk of Fame, as Michelin’s relevance in Japan is greatly diminished vs in Europe; however, in this case, it’s safe to say that the guide is quite close to the mark. Two stars is a restaurant that demonstrates ‘excellent cooking, worth a detour’. It’s a bar that Kondo easily meets.
My first challenge with Tempura Kondo wasn’t attempting to reserve it (oh hi, Matsukawa), but to merely find it. Located on level 7 of a nondescript, slender office building in the heart of Tokyo’s Ginza district, Kondo sure didn’t make it easy. For those who can’t read Japanese, it’s especially troublesome as there is no English signage. Even the Japanese sign is smaller in size than a car’s licence plate – and the text far smaller still. For those intending to visit, please leave yourself with plenty of time just in case. You don’t want to be that person that shows up embarrassingly late: we all know what the Japanese think of tardiness (even if it’s in the other direction!)
Eventually, I found the right building, and after fifteen stuffy seconds in a claustrophic elevator that felt like forever, arrived to be greeted by Kondo’s noren (doorway curtains). Like most high-end restaurants in Japan, the aesthetic is one of pragmatism and Japanese sensibility. Unembellished woodwork adorns the restaurant, being so ubiquitous I couldn’t even call it trendy.
The plain wooden counters are set low enough such that almost nothing gets in the way between the diner and the chefs at work. There are two rooms, at the front and back. I was seated in the back room which unfortunately meant I couldn’t interact with Kondo-san himself. On the plus side, the extra space means Tempura Kondo actually can seat more than a handful of people – which means easier reservations! That said, it’s still not so big that I didn’t feel slightly self-conscious being the only foreigner amongst Japanese locals.
Whatever, I’m here for the tempura. If this is the first time seeing anything like this, prepare to get out some chalk: it’s time to draw a new baseline.
Where ‘tempura’ differs itself from ‘deep frying’ is in the batter. Most recipes only involve three ingredients: wheat flour, corn or potato starch, and carbonated water. A speciously simple thing – with the reality being anything but. Tempura chefs coat produce with the batter only lightly, and fry to specific temperatures in such a way that the result is always wafer-light & airy yet crunchy, with the produce cooked through to perfection without actually sullying its natural flavours. The frying process is effectively a flash-fry, sealing everything – all the flavour – within. Best of all, good tempura should never be an unctuous experience: eating at a tempura-ya like Kondo left me feeling ready to go onto my next meal, as opposed to turning into a beached whale.
Of course, at Tempura Kondo, all of this was a given. The produce, no matter whether it’s an insanely good tamanegi (onion) from Hokkaido, a perfect satsumaimo (sweet potato) from Aichi or dainty kisu (Japanese whitebait) from Shikoku, all of it was treated with excellence. The batter always played second fiddle, allowing the produce to shine through consistently. Yet, the batter was essential, adding to (but never detracting from) whatever was deep-fried. Despite all my rhetoric on tempura’s fancy-schmancy nature, it’s still a universal truth that deep frying tends to make delicious things even more so.
At Kondo, I was given the choice of two menus. There’s the sumire, for smaller eaters with 9 pieces of vegetables & seafood, plus a special rice dish at the end for 6600JPY ($77 AUD). More voracious appetites ought to opt for the tsubaki, which adds a few more pieces and goes for 8800JPY ($102 AUD). Interestingly, Kondo seems to make a particular point in allowing diners to add (at extra cost of 500JPY) a course of tempura satsumaimo (sweet potato) which is not included in either menu.
Whichever one you opt for, recognise that this is incredible value for a 2 Michelin-starred restaurant. While there has been a recent trend for the red guide to bestow stars on ultra-cheap eateries in South-East Asia, Japan + Michelin = still expensive. For a meal like this to cost the ballpark of a dinner at a mid-range bistro in Sydney is quite the something. No bank to be broken here.
Both menus are served omakase-style, in which the diner makes no choices – ‘leaving it to the chef’. Individual, seasonally-dependent elements are deep-fried, and served one at a time. In its pure form, tempura in Japan is eaten with nothing but a dab of high quality salt. However, most tempura-ya – Kondo included – provision a light dashi and grated daikon, specifically designed to match tempura. I personally find that seafood pieces go well with only salt, as the meat itself is plenty flavourful, while vegetables tend to do well with dashi – the umami of the condiment bringing out the subtler notes of the season’s harvest.
My lunch at Kondo started with prawn heads, deep fried to a golden crispiness, consumed whole. Easily one of the more flavourful pieces, the prawn heads are another example of why the entire prawn can – and should – be eaten. The heads were soon followed by the rest of its body, with supple flesh that responded very well to some salt.
The starters quickly progressed into a series of vegetables and seafood: crisp, juicy asparagus; an eggplant that somehow held together despite it almost melting in my mouth; a kisu (Japanese whitebait) that pretty much did melt; a bittersweet, succulent capsicum; and best of this lot – a simple renkon (lotus root). Each and every piece simply tasted like their best selves, nothing less.
Things really picked up in the second act, with a magochi (bartail flathead) which truly brings credence to the saying ‘the uglier they are, the better they taste’. This fish, hideous in life, was delicious in death: it’s probably up there as one of the best pieces of fried fish I’ve ever had. And all it needed was a little dab of salt.
Then out came a gorgeous, perfectly-cooked onion (look at those layers), a flavour bomb of an anago (conger eel), and then the much-anticipated sweet potato. It was perhaps somewhat overrated; however, I could not deny that this was a damn fine example of the starchy vegetable. Needless to say, it was fine just by itself (please don’t add salt to a sweet potato…please).
At this point, the rice course came out. So I might have lied a little when I said you didn’t have to choose anything other than the menu. My choice was the kakiage ten-cha – literally a mass of prawn meat deep fried with honewort sitting atop a bed of steamed rice. A light miso dashi is poured in and the dish is eaten like a rice soup. The alternative is to have the kakiage served as a tendon, which eschews the soup, with a much stronger dipping sauce on the side in its place.
While I can’t speak for the tendon, my ten-cha was one of the tastiest courses on which to end the meal. I wasn’t bothered at all that soup and deep fried stuff – usually two things you wouldn’t want to mix – were married in this dish. Sure, the prawns did eventually get ‘soggy’, but it was all just so tasty! The rice also serves as a final gut-filler, though they don’t know this blogger: thanks for trying though.
Dessert was a simple affair of fruit: peeled peach wedges, at their peak in summer. No fanficully-plated, multi-element dessert. No complaints.
Like so many other Japanese restaurants, the meal was a performance. Watching the chefs prepare and cook the food directly in front of you is not only satisfying (even if I have to say tempura chefs aren’t as interesting as sushi chefs), but also hides nothing. Any diner can see right there that there is no back-stage magic, no excuse for anything but the best quality.
That said, despite being party to this unadulterated, edible show of pristine produce, it would be unreasonable to expect the world. Yes, Tempura Kondo and other tempura-ya in its likeness present tempura on a whole new level; however, it would be hyperbolic of me to say my experience here was life changing. Temper your tempura expectations, but expect it to be excellent.
But in the end, I suppose I’ll have to paraphrase Mr Obama’s words:
‘That’s some good tempura right there.’
This post is based on an independently-paid visit to Tempura Kondo in Tokyo, Japan.
Hankering for more Japan goodness? Check out some of these posts below!
- One of the best meals I’ve ever had: Matsukawa in Tokyo
- A refined kaiseki experience at Kichisen, Kyoto
- Or for a portal to Japan that’s right here in Sydney, Sasaki
- Tempura that’s literally and figuratively on another level (level 7, to be precise)
- The omakase can get a little samey
- Kondo and restaurants like it will spoil tempura for you!
Would I return: yes!
I have a new scoring system! Read all about it here.
Most important takeaway – three separate scores for food, service and ambience to give the final score. The new system is not compatible with any score given prior to 11/11/2014.
F7.5 | S4 | A2