It might not seem this way, but it's very difficult to pull consistently golden, seemingly greaseless things from a vat of hot oil. Masao Matsui, the chef who previously commanded the fryers at the New Otani Hotel in Tokyo, had been at it for over 40 years when he joined the Japanese restaurant group America Ootoya to open a tempura counter in Manhattan.
Ootoya is a chain (with four locations in New York) where you can generally rely on large portions of Japanese comfort food, like fried pork cutlets on rice, for less than $20. But with their new restaurant, Tempura Matsui, the group is setting its sights on fine dining, offering a $200 tempura omakase.
The curtained entrance, set back on 39th Street, leads you into a quiet network of rooms with sliding doors—a little bar area where you can wait if your table isn’t ready, and a small main dining room with the fryer set up behind the counter. You won’t find Matsui manning the fryer, though: The chef has unexpectedly returned to Japan (due to a "personal issue," according to the restaurant's rep). Shin Kato, who opened the restaurant with Matsui over a month ago, is now running the show. He works with an assistant, drawing shrimp through the oil between long chopsticks, just moments before placing them in front you.
But before you get to the fried stuff, there’s a cup of delicate, slippery junsai—the tangy, jelly-enrobed shoots and seed pods of an aquatic plant—along with a few globs of sea urchin. There are cold folds of fresh tofu skin, too, and a tiny bite of braised octopus with the threaded, meaty texture of a slow-cooked short rib. Chawan-mushi, the Japanese-style egg custard served here with a hidden layer of red rice and sea bream, is fantastic, wobbling, warm.
Many of the tempura pieces are masterfully fried, including the cluster of tender fava beans under a crisp see-through veil, and the thick piece of king crab. When I got my first shrimp head—a rose gold carapace with so many delicately crisp, hairy little legs—I thought yes, this is worth the price tag. Later, I wasn't so sure.
The setup for the 10 or so tempura courses, which arrive one by one, involves a steel press for lemon juice, salt and miso salt, and a dashi-based dipping sauce that you can make more interesting with a few spoonfuls of grated radish. The general suggestion is lemon and salt with seafood (crab, shrimp, fish, scallops), and broth and radish with vegetables (shiitake, eggplant, fava beans, asparagus) though you can of course tweak things however you like. When there are two pieces, as there are with the seaweed-wrapped scallop, still raw in the center, and the slender shrimp tails, you're encouraged to taste them both ways.
Service is warm and attentive, with servers in pressed suits leading you through the wooden halls or directing you to the bathroom (where a Toto toilet will yawn open just as you approach it). The Japanese ceramics throughout the restaurant are beautiful, and the compositions of dishes leading up to the tempura can be stunning as well. But on a recent evening, the shell of tempura batter surrounding a shrimp tail was spongy. And while the eggplant tempura was meltingly soft inside, you could see the grease bubbling underneath the surface of the batter, and you could taste it too in an unpleasant gush of hot oil.
Just when you’re properly full and you think the tempura feast is over, it’s time for ten-don, a big bowl of hot rice with shrimp tempura, along with a side of miso soup and clams. The shrimp have been steaming for a while under the lid and parts of the batter have slipped away from the meat, to become soft and chewy. It’s the homiest dish so far, rough and comforting, and it’s followed by peaches in syrup.
The meal at Tempura Matsui isn't perfect. It isn’t the kind of $200 tasting menu where you go home feeling hungry, either.
Tempura Matsui is at 222 East 39th Street (Midtown); +1 (212) 986-8885 or tempuramatsui.com
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(UPDATE: Corrects previous restaurant at which Chef Matsui worked at in Tokyo.)