It wasn't until I visited Japan that I truly liked tempura. Outside of Japan, tempura batter is thick and greasy -- often soggy and wet -- making this deep-fried food taste more like sloppy, oily leftovers. I can't begin to count the number of times I've tasted shrimp tempura and had the plump tempura shell separate from the shellfish, or a piece of broccoli tempura that oozes fat like a sponge wringing out water. Most of the time, especially in the US, tempura is fried food gone very wrong.
At Ten-ichi, tempura is light and fluffy. Each piece of fish or vegetable is individually flash-fried at such a high temperature that the oil barely has little chance to penetrate the food. The batter is thin and weightless, completely integrating with the food: it would be nearly impossible to separate it.
Ten-ichi tempura, in Ginza, is one of my favorite places for tempura. Diners sit around a counter where a highly-skilled chef fully concentrates on each piece -- one at a time -- ensuring perfect temperature and timing while frying. The flash-fried food is then immediately handed to diners before it has a chance to get soggy, which would be impossible if eaten at a table.
The menu has several tasting options, each of which varies in terms of quantity. Ten-ichi is a reminder that deep-fried food has a place in fine dining. This is the first time that I had a glass of white wine with a tempura dinner. Each piece of fish and vegetable is dipped in tentsuyu, or a combination of dashi broth, soy sauce, mirin, and sugar mixed with freshly grated white radish. Alternatively, some fish can be dipped in salt and squeezed with a few drops of fresh lemon, this worked particularly well for the white fish.
Today's menu -Asparagus, Eggplant, Scallions, Ginko Nuts, Lotus Root, Scallops, White Fish, Squid, and Shitake Mushroom.
The chef flash-fries each piece of tempura individually - The temperature of the oil is so hot, and its clarity so pristine, that the fish does not have a chance to absorb much of the oil. The oil forms a paper-thin irregularly shaped coating around the fish and vegetables adding a layer of crunch.
Shrimp tempura - Light and fluffy, this batter is full of air pockets and blisters. The batter is completely bound to the shrimp; it is nearly impossible to separate it. (Keep in mind that the grey spots in the above photo is the shadow of the shrimp -- there is hardly any residue.)
Flash-fried scallop - The flash-frying process leaves the inside warm and translucent. The batter was able to bring out the latent umami making the scallop taste like meat.
Whole white fish - Boneless white fish eaten in its entirety. The frying process renders the tail and its small bones crispy and edible. This was outstanding, not in the least bit salty.
Mango - Dessert is a few bites of a perfectly ripe mango. No ice-cream tempura here.
Diners enjoying counter-style tempura.
Ten-ichi is a reminder that tempura doesn't have to be greasy and disgusting. When done properly, flash frying can bring out the nutty flavors of fish and vegetables that is not possible with other cooking methods. Ten-ichi is a must visit; it is tempura done right.