Tempura Matsu in Kyoto – fine dining without the pretence

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“Otsukaresama desu”, belted out our taxi driver as he pulled to a gentle stop in front of an old double-storey Japanese house. Save for the fluttering Tempura Matsu banner, you would be hard pressed to spot the family-owned restaurant in Kyoto’s Arashimaya area.

Our boisterous party of seven was too big for the counter seats in the main restaurant area, so Matsuno-san, the young son of the proprietor, led us into the adjoining guesthouse. The combination of wooden cabinets, oak dining table and soft ambient light delivered a most homely feel. Looking dapper in a white chef’s tunic, Matsuno-san asked if we had any food allergies or dislikes before making a quick exit to the kitchen. We had no idea what to expect, but with a name like Tempura Matsu, we figured that deep fried morsels of Kyoto’s finest produce was the order of the day.

The first salvo was a wonderfully refreshing shiso leaf sorbet (pictured in montage below), loosely packed into Sagano bamboo. It was late October and unseasonably warm too, so the sorbet went down beautifully. The delicious sashimi starter materialised in the form of three ornate glasses containing hokigai, buri and tai respectively. The next dish, tempura of tai (pictured in montage below), lifted my spirits even further. Fried with the scales intact, it elicited the first audible “ooh” and “ahs” from our party. Each bite started with a crunch and ended with a mist of dashi and fish, permeating our olfactory zone. I was certainly looking forward to the next tempura creation.

Instead of tempura, the young proprietor walked in with a bamboo basket containing the largest awabi (abalone) I have ever seen. It was larger than the size of my fist and I am not a small guy. He explained in Japanese that the awabi and mushroom were the fresh ingredients for our soup, and went on to coax the mollusk into performing a Mexican wave with a prod of his finger (main picture above). The awabi did its best to entertain us with its rhythmic belly dance, and we returned the favour with a flurry of shutter actuations from our cameras. Matsuno-san then blanched some pre-sliced awabi in hot dashi to seal in the flavour. When the soup was served, the delicate fragrance steaming towards us orchestrated a look of satisfaction on our faces.

montage sized

The next item on parade was a big block of honmaguro (the majestic blue tuna). This time, a chef in his thirties appeared and proceeded to slice the fish with an 8-inch long bocho. That blade probably cost as much as the fatty tuna, I mused, as each slice of toro slumped into a shallow dish of shoyu-mirin sauce. Putting his prized bocho aside, he proceeded to place the seasoned tuna into a steam basket of glutinous rice – complete with seaweed and wasabi. I could hardly contain myself as the fatty umami tuna and rice emulsion coated my palate. I didn’t think raw tuna would go so well with cold glutinous rice! The second steam basket had the same fabulous glutinous rice but was topped with karasumi (dried mullet roe), poached fish and ginko nuts. With our ravenous appetites, the contents of the two steam baskets had a combined ‘lifespan’ of about two minutes . A sumptuous lobster tail in saffron soup made its appearance soon after to help wash it all down.

My eyes glowed when the young Matsuno-san waltzed in with a plate of freshly sliced wild anago (conger eel – pictured in montage above), along with its long silvery skin as proof of its veracity. My Japanese friends all went ‘Eh…’ in appreciation of such a large catch. The eel was then rapidly poached, shabu-shabu style, and presented to us in porcelain bowls containing ponzu and mizuna vegetables. A quick swish in the ponzu sauce released the delicate sweetness and helped mask the very slight gamey flavor. By then I had all but forgotten about the wonderful tai tempura as we engaged the waitress in friendly banter.

The ever so attentive Matsuno-san caught wind that a birthday was being celebrated and presented the birthday girl with a huge plate of braised tai (red snapper) head – topped with gold leaves. Why fish head? Well, “congratulations” in Japanese is “omedetai”, so the tai fish head is prized as the harbinger of good luck. Again our cameras went to work before we dug into fish head’s gelatinous content. By then, I was ready to keel over from food-induced coma. But we still had the shokuji (the carbohydrate section) to go. The tempura of prawn and eggplant marked the prelude to our shokuji, but it was the starch in the form of somen with iwashi (anchovy) sauce, that proved to be the bomb. Served on a beautifully carved bed of solid ice, I lustfully attacked the frigid somen. The mix of rich oily grilled iwashi, grated dried mullet roe and flavourful shoyu-based sauce was the perfect dancing partner for the low-key somen.

Staggering back into the waiting taxi, we waved goodbye to Matsuno-san and his staff as they waited for taxi to disappear from view before returning to his work. On the way back to the hotel, my learned friends shared that the restaurant started out serving tempura but the talented chef’s ‘secret menu’ was drawing so much praise that the move to full-fledged kaiseki was inevitable. And at a very reasonable US$120 per head, our kaiseki lunch was actually less costly than our hired taxi for the day. What a great experience!

Tempura Matsu
21-26 Umezu Oonawaba-cho
Ukyo-ku Kyoto-shi Kyoto-fu
Kyoto, Japan

Killer Tomato

About Roger Lim

Roger’s love affair with food started with a bang. Sent to a distant corner of Kent at 16, an Asian-food starved Roger tried to recreate mom’s stir-fry with explosive results. The loss of the left eyebrow was well worth the reprieve from steak and kidney pie. Today Roger runs his own creative agency as a pretext for his food-based escapades. If you are unlucky enough to be seated next to Roger in a restaurant, do be thankful that he is annoying you with his camera, and not attempting to flambé with a wok.