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High-end Tempura in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka

One of my food mantras is "anything fried is good", so it only follows that I should love tempura. I'm curious about people's experiences with the following high-end tempura places:

In Tokyo:
Tempura Mikawa
Tempura Kondo
Asagi

In Kyoto:
Ten-you
Tempura Yoshikawa
Tempura Ozawa
Tempura Endo (which I think is more mid-range than high-end, but I'll include it, anyway)

In Osaka:
Ippoh

Does anyone have comments or experiences to share about any of the above, or any other high-end places that I could add to my list? I don't go to Tokyo very often, but I'm close enough to Kyoto and Osaka to be able to make the rounds. I've been to Ten-you in Kyoto, but none of the others. I am looking primarly at high-end places, but very good mid-range restaurants are fine, too (I've been to Tsunahachi in Tokyo, for example, I would place it in the good mid-range category).

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  1. I had lunch in Asagi at Ginza. It is a very small tempura place,just 7-9 seats facing the tempura counter. Operated by a very courteous senior couple; they obviously have been in the business for a long time. It is considered high end; paid about 7-8k per person, I think the dinner set would be much more expensive. It is the best tempura meal I had,but quite frankly, I am not such a big fan of tempura and with so many restaurants on my list that I aim to try on short trips (5-7 days) in future, I am not sure if I will be back here again. But I will highly recommend this place if your focus is on high end tempura.

    I have heard great things about Mikawa too but never had the chance to try the place.

    1. Have you been to the "upper class" branches of Tsunahachi - Sui in Shiodome and Tsunohazu-an in Shinjuku? The former is priced at around Y6,000-8,000 for dinner, the latter Y5,000-10,000.

      11 Replies
      1. re: Robb S

        Not yet. The night I went to Tsunahachi, I had intended to go to Tsunahachi Rin (which I think leans toward "higher-end"), but was too hungry to walk the extra few blocks and the main branch was closer to me. I didn't realize Tsunohazu-an was part of the group, or I'd have considered that, as well (I think I passed it by, too!).

        How do the high-end Tsunahachi branches differ from the "regular" ones? Is it mostly setting and quality of ingredients, or is there more to it than that?

        1. re: prasantrin

          I guess the main difference is the quality of ingredients. Tsunohazu-an has great seafood, but the atmosphere is a little too old-fashioned and stodgy for my taste. Rin (which is more mid-level in terms of price) is more lively and fun, and they have a few nice touches like flavored salts, and warm sake served at several different temperatures.

          1. re: Robb S

            Hey Robb,

            Thanks for the info. :) So of the 3 types of Tsunohachi branches, you like Rin the most? (over Sui as well?)

            Do you have the addresses for your favs? Thanks.

            1. re: exilekiss

              I haven't been to Sui yet, but it looks pretty nice. Here's the Tsunahachi website with complete info for all their branches:
              http://www.tsunahachi.com/

              1. re: Robb S

                I wanted to visit one of the Tsunahachi locations in Shinjuku on my first night in Tokyo for dinner (right after I check in). I will be staying in Shinjuku, so they would all be close enough for me to visit. I can't decide if I should go to the original Tsunahachi, Rin or Tsunohazu. Can anyone tell me what the differences between the 3 are? I see that Robb mentioned Tsunohazu has great seafood. I personally love seafood, so I am leaning towards this one, but I do want a more lively atmosphere like Rin. I'm torn! Do any of you guys have a preference amongst the three and why?

                Thanks!

                1. re: nelehelen

                  Tempura is a seafood cuisine, so that doesn't really narrow it down much, it just means that Tsunohazu uses slightly higher quality ingredients (as it should for its higher price level). Some people might find Tsunohazu stuffy and sterile - there's not much atmosphere to speak of, although the tempura is good.

                  I prefer Rin - it's got a fun setting, nice decor, slightly more creative menu, and interesting touches like the warm sake (at different temperature points) and the flavored salts. The original branch is more old-fashioned, but it's certainly lively and crowded.

            2. re: Robb S

              I kind of like old-fashioned and stodgy (I'm old before my time!). :-)

              I'll add it to my list, but it may go to the bottom of the Tokyo bunch, only because I'd really like to find the perfect tempura batter and I assume Tsunohazu-an's batter is the same or very similar to Tsunahachi's. My ideal batter would be kind of like O-men's tempura in Kyoto--crispy and light.

              1. re: prasantrin

                Hey prasantrin,

                Definitely keep us updated with whatever you find in this category. I'd love to know also. :)

                BTW, you mention this O-men place in Kyoto but it wasn't on your Original List above. Is that because O-men isn't "high end" and you only liked their batter?

                1. re: exilekiss

                  O-men isn't a tempura restaurant, so I didn't include it. They offer tempura on their menu, but they're more well-known for udon than anything else (I actually think the other dishes they offer are better than their udon, but I don't really care for udon, so I'm not a fair judge).

                2. re: prasantrin

                  If I may just add a few more words on Asagi, the tempura has a light crispy touch without oily after taste. The amazing thing is it still retain the flavor of the fresh ingredients, unlike most fried stuff that lost that touch. You still can taste the sweetness inside and the firm texture of the prawns and other ingredients he used.

          2. I wonder what people think of the top tempura places in Tokyo according to tabelog?

            In order of ranking (April 2008):
            Iwai
            Rakutei
            Yokota
            Oosaka
            Fujiyoshi
            Fukamachi
            Yamanaka
            Tenmo
            Kondo
            ...

            Here's the ranking for tempura on tabelog:
            http://r.tabelog.com/tokyo/rstlst/0-0...

            3 Replies
            1. re: E Eto

              I tried Rakutei in Akasaka yesterday and I must say the food was excellent. The ika was very tender and the baby green beans were crisp and beautiful. Good-size portions towards the end of the meal.

              The atmosphere is rather somber and reverential - I guess so you can better concentrate on the food. There are only twelve seats, and there's very little interaction with the chef, although the waitress is friendly enough (and speaks some English).

              I get a little suspicious when I see an all-French wine list at a place like this though. As if the only wines in the world that go with tempura are French. It just comes across as out-of-date rather than "high-class." Luckily there were some decent sake, including Kubota Manju and Shinkame.

              Prix-fixe menus are Y10,000 and Y12,000, with an optional sashimi starter for an extra Y4,000. Kubota Manju is Y2,000 for ichigo.

              1. re: Robb S

                Thanks Robb S. Great review and info about Rakutei. :)

                How would you rate Rakutei amongst your favorites in Tokyo? :)

                1. re: exilekiss

                  Well the food was certainly top-notch. It's a nice choice if you're looking for excellent traditional tempura in a very traditional setting - it's tiny and hidden-away and exclusive-looking, and that all makes it feels like a special discovery.

            2. Hi - just got back from two weeks in Japan, and ate an excellent meal at the counter in Yoshikawa. I'd say the counter was mid-range (bit of banter, quite informal atmosphere after a few beers) and the dining room was high-end from the look of it. More expensive too.

              It was my first real tempura diner, so I might be suffering from slight culinary drunkenness, but I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Small counter (eight or ten max) with one chef, immaculately clean, and excellent viewing of a highly skilled man operating a giant pot of very hot oil, cooking eight or ten course set dinners for a full restaurant without spilling a drop, burning anything or even getting any stains on his whites - scarily good.

              The hors d'ouvre was excellent - finely diced chopped broccoli in a lightly-vinegared mayonnaise dressing, with steamed scallop, then bite after bite of perfect tempura that went on for at least 90 minutes - prawn, an incredibly tender slice of squid wrapped in ponzu leaf, baby mackerel, okra, aspragus, scallop- all gently crisped, totally dry and extremely fresh. Most expensive set dinner was about 10,000 yen, we had a slightly cheaper option. It is in Lonely Planet, so expect some nervous tourists like me, but I really loved it.

              1. Tempura Yoshikawa in Kyoto is the first up (sort of...I've been to Ten-you a couple of times, but I haven't been there since beginning my quest for the perfect tempura). It's quite easy to find, especially if you walk up Tominokoji from Shijo, and it has quite a beautiful entrance; you feel like you're walking into a traditional old home (and I suppose you are, in a way, since the restaurant is attached to Yoshikawa Ryokan). The actual restaurant, or at least the counter area where I was seated, is quite small. I think there were only 11 or 12 seats at the counter (at least 11 that I counted, and there may have been a 12th). It, too, resembles a traditional old home where even the ceiling has a thatched look to it. Quaint, but like a traditional old home, it's quite dark inside, making picture-taking difficult and so I have none to show.

                I had done a search on the restaurant before going, so I had a basic idea of what to order. I had decided on the middle set, which the website (not their own) had listed at Y9660. Upon arriving, however, I learned that those sets are only for those seated in the private rooms or at least the non-counter seats. If you're seated at the counter, you're limited to one of two sets--the Y3000 or the Y4000 one. I went with the more expensive one.

                The courses from what I can remember (not necessarily in this order--I think I've mixed up some of the middle courses): two shrimp, eggplant, half a mushroom (shiitake, I think), tai, yomogi namafu, bamboo shoot, baby corn, fiddleheads, hamo (I'm not sure this was hamo, but it sounded like "hamo" when the chef told me what it was. It was more likely anago, since I don't think we're quite at hamo season, yet), kabocha, and one last shrimp to end the meal. All except the tai and hamo were eaten dipped in the typical tempura dipping sauce of warm dashi with daikon oroshi. The tai and hamo were eaten with a squeeze of lemon and some salt. Also served were chirimen jako, pickles, (red) miso soup, and rice.

                The batter was crisp without being greasy, and dare I say it? I prefered Yoshikawa's batter to Ten-you's. That being said, I think the ingredients were somewhat inferior--they were not necessarily inferior ingredients, but they weren't as good as I would have expected. With the exception of the namafu, which was wonderful, none of the ingredients were as flavourful as I would have expected them to be. The kabocha, in particular, was a disappointment; it was dry, grainy, and lacked the sweetness I expect from kabocha.

                But I'd still go back. For Y4000, it was certainly a good value (I'd probably put it somewhere in the mid-range class than high-end, though), and crunchiness makes everything better, at least for me!

                2 Replies
                1. re: prasantrin

                  RE: Tempura Yoshikawa - do you think the counter seating is preferable? We are a group of six hoping to have lunch there in a few months, but counter seating is not available at lunch so we had to book a private room instead.

                  Or maybe we should switch to Tempura Ten-yu if counter seating is available at lunch? They're both well regarded and so close to one another it wouldn't be a problem. Thanks.

                  1. re: hong_kong_foodie

                    Tempura Yoshikawa's counter lunch menu is different from the room lunch menu, I think. I'm not sure, but from other people's descriptions of their private room lunches, the private rooms have more options.. But when I had lunch at the counter, there were only 3 options, and all were cheaper than the lunch sets I had seen on their website. If you're after a tempura experience, counter is definitely better than room, but if you don't really care about watching the chef, then the room will be fine. Tempura served at the counter will be several seconds fresher when you eat it (straight from the pot to your plate), but the room will have a nicer atmosphere.

                    Ten-you (that's how they spell it in their literature and on their sign) only has counter seating, I think. I'm not sure what kind of seating they have on the 3rd floor (their second floor), but the chef is on the 2nd floor (the 1st floor of the restaurant). I still like it better than any other tempura place I've been, including Tempura Kondo in Tokyo. It has a very refined atmosphere--that Kyoto atmosphere I love. A group of 6 will take up half the second floor counter, though, and I don't know how they'd feel about that.

                    BTW, if you decide on Ten-you, scope it out before you go. I read Japanese, but I got lost the first time I went. Their kanji is different from what I expected (I expected something like 天油 but it's 点邑 ), plus their sign is quite small.

                    I still prefer Ten-you.