August 4, 2016

In Praise of a Classic Combo: Tempura and Soba

Tempura Matsui's shrimp and shiso leaf tempura with zarusoba.
While ramen continues to be all the rage in New York, soba--its less macho and more shibui (austere, simple & elegant) cousin--has many pleasures to offer. During summer days of wilting head and humidity one of the great cooling-off dishes is a serving of zarusoba, the chilled noodles served on a bamboo mat and dipped into a bowl of soy sauce-based broth mixed with grated wasabi and sliced scallions.

Though there are a number of places in New York where you can find the classic combination of soba with shrimp tempura, the Michelin-starred East 39th Street specialty restaurant Tempura Matsui takes it to new levels of refinement.  Here, chef Takashi Kiyomiya hand-grinds Japanese-grown buckwheat with a sturdy $500 Mikage granite mortar, or ishiusu (石臼)purchased in Japan. On a recent visit, Kiyomiya-san demonstrated how he places five grains of buckwheat (imported from Hokkaido) at a time into the mortar, turning its wooden handle three times per five grains. No wonder it takes two hours to complete one batch of noodles! Once that's done, the flour is sifted three times and then mixed with wheat flour (80% buckwheat to 20% wheat) and then water (45-46%) to create the dough.

Miniature stone garden and pond, Tempura Matsui

Gifu Prefecture ceramic artist Hideki Hayashi's Mino-style plate.

Sadly, after opening the New York branch of his restaurant, tempura master Masao Matsui, who had been suffering from cancer, passed away in February. The restaurant has forged ahead, though, and is now celebrating its one-year anniversary, headed by Chefs Shin Kato and Kiyoshi Chikano.

Tempura Matsui is not your weekly neighborhood hang-out, exactly--newly unveiled set menus range from $140 to $230. But the level of technique is very high, and diners can sit at the counter to watch Chefs Kato and Chikano (above in video) deftly tempura fry everything from scallops wrapped in nori to shrimp-stuffed shiitake, lobster and okra, using the blunt end of long wooden chopsticks.

The lobster tail extravaganza. 

If you really want to gild the lily this summer, the $230 menu includes Chef Chikano's lobster tail tempura with baby corn and seasonal vegetable tempura, as well as steamed lobster claws and a vinegar-soy dipping sauce. Or, you can add this course as a market-priced supplement to one of other set menus.

Wherever you are, I hope you stay cool this month and can find zarusoba and shrimp tempura someplace near you!