A 2 hour Shinkansen ride later, and we were in Kyoto, the former capital of imperial Japan. Kyoto is a decidedly calmer and quieter place than Tokyo, and you can pretty much walk around town in peace and see everything on one easy map. Of course, there are still plenty of good eats to be had. Our first dinner in town was at Tempura Yoshikawa, a very famous inn and restaurant.
Kyoto is filled with little traditional inns called ryokan, many of which are family-run and hundreds of years old. They generally feature tatami rooms, kaiseki dinners, and elaborate tea ceremony services, and tend to look much like Yoshikawa above. Staying in one is definitely an experience worth trying in Kyoto. Once was enough for me back in the pre-Arthur Hungry days, and I prefer the modern comforts of newer hotels. We stayed at a tiny boutique called the Screen, which was very unique and worth checking out. Yoshikawa does have a bunch of tatami rooms that do full kaiseki, but they are most well known for their tempura.
The front room of Yoshikawa is this tiny tempura counter, with about 12 seats around the frying area. The scene is actually pretty casual, with most people drinking beer and enjoying some laid-back banter. Yoshikawa is quite well-known and mentioned in all the Kyoto guidebooks, so there's no lack of tourists. The night we were there, the crowd consisted of some regular Japanese folks, an Italian with a translator in the corner to our right, and, believe it or not, a couple from Walnut Creek sitting right next to me on our left. It was certainly one of the more diverse groups we ate with.
In real life, I always talk about what I feel is one of the key things that sets Japanese food in Japan so far apart from the US: specialization. In the US, you can find sushi places and some ramen places, but other than that, "Japanese" restaurants cover the entire gamut of Japanese cuisine. In Japan, there are so many places that specialize in a specific type of cuisine, be it sushi, soba, ramen, tonkatsu, or takoyaki. It's no wonder that each item, no matter how humble, has some place where it has been perfected. It's also totally understandable that the US can't support this level of distinction within Japanese cuisine - there just isn't the demand required for such specialized places to survive.
Nothing illustrates this phenomenon better than the Japanese tempura house. In the US, tempura is fried in a kitchen in the back, and served together as an assorted combo plate. In Japan, the entire process happens in front of you at the counter. An esteemed tempura master (like the gentleman pictured above) does everything fresh, from making the batter and cooking up the dipping sauce on the stove, to literally frying each piece and serving it as it comes out. It's served much like sushi. You have a little plate in front of you, Awesome Tempura Chef Guy puts food on it straight out of the fryer, and then you eat it before he serves you the next item. Talk about a foolproof formula.
Yoshikawa offers a few different levels of set menus which increase in price and quantity. We went with the top one available, at ¥10,000.
They started us off with these cold apps. Nothing mindblowing - sushi was definitely not as good as what we'd been eating. The chicken liver thing was pretty good though, and surprisingly similar to a Western preparation of it.
Next came some sashimi. Again, it's a little unfair to compare to what we were eating that week, but the fish quality was certainly respectable.
One of the things that sets various tempura houses apart is their sauce. Each place has their own top secret family recipe that's been handed down for centuries, guarded like Fort Knox, and so on. All I know is that they are generally some combination of dashi, mirin, and soy, and are universally better than the bottled stuff served in most restaurants back home.
I'm not a big "sauce" person compared to some people I know (ahem, Dave, LC), but I'll say without hesitation that tempura dipping sauce is one of my favorite sauces in the world. I could pour this stuff over rice and eat it quite happily. The version at Yoshikawa is simply delicious, with a deep, brothy flavor that manages to remain subtle and never overwhelm the ingredient being dipped. I embarassingly had to ask for a sauce refill about halfway through; I went through it at about 2x the rate of my dining companions.
First up was the tempura staple, shrimp, served with extra crispy legs. The meat of the prawn was tender and searing hot, just the way I like it, while the batter was tremendously light. The crunchy bits are cut and fried so perfectly that you can basically eat them like chips, including the tails. Deeelish. Blake, the guy from Walnut Creek sitting next to me, couldn't handle the tails. I gave him a hard time about it. I'm still convinced he lost street cred with Awesome Tempura Chef Guy when he left his tails uneaten.
Next up were green beans, which were more like haricots verts than anything else. Crisp and refreshing on the inside, and again super-hot on the outside.
I generally don't like shiitakes a whole lot, but I find they work pleasantly in tempura. They had just the right balance of chewy and firm.
Of course, the other cool thing about tempura in Japan is you get a much more diverse set of ingredients. Hamo was moist and hearty. Great fish for frying.
Baby corn was sweet and a little crunchy.
Bell peppers were unspectacular. Admittedly, they're one of my least favorite veggies...
Anago, on the other hand, is probably my favorite tempura ingredient other than shrimp. Yoshikawa's version did not disappoint. The eel was moist, flaky, and just delicious.
For some reason, they interrupted the fried goodness with a salad. Kidding, kidding... It had a decent vinaigrette, and the cold fish was pretty interesting. Kinda tasted like fish you'd find in Japanese breakfast.
Lotus root is another veggie I'm not too crazy about, but that I find pretty good in tempura. I generally don't like the texture, but at Yoshikawa it was hot and cooked but still very crunchy. It also does a great job soaking up tempura sauce.
Asparagus is kind of a tempura no-brainer. These were modest little spears, and tender but not amazing. I'd love to try some of our springtime California delta asparagus cooked here - it'd be yummy for sure.
Sweet potato! The ubiquitous tempura throw-in you find all the time in the US. I never like it because it's always too bland and starchy, but at Yoshikawa they manage to retain a much more solid texture.
Deep-fried scallops, pretty much guaranteed delicious. These were perfect - barely cooked, as you can see in the middle, but still HOT and crispy on the outside. Love it.
Another piece of shrimp, signaling that we were near the end. It was just as good as the first two.
Most tempura houses finish of the meal with some version of kakiage with rice. It's essentially a few different ingredients mixed together in some batter and then fried in a giant chunk or cake. At Yoshikawa, you can get it either as a donburi (over rice) or ochazuke (with rice and hot tea poured over). Their kakiage consisted mainly of small shrimp and green onions. Very tasty, with just the right balance of batter and ingredients. They also give some pickles and miso soup, as usual.
You end up being pretty damn full after tempura, since they hit you with this huge bowl of rice + big chunks of kakiage, after having just consumed all the actual tempura before it. But it's so delicious that I always look forward to the end.
They finished us off with this very light, airy chestnut mousse. It wasn't overly sweet, and tasted a bit like the "almond tofu" desserts that always get served in Vancouver izakayas.
That's it for the long multi-course tempura meal. Yoshikawa is pretty famous, but I'll also have to try some of the top-rated tempura houses in Tokyo the next time I go. The batter and frying at Yoshikawa seem pretty much perfect to me; I would think other places have just stylistic differences. In any case, absolutely go to at least one tempura dinner if you visit Japan - it's such a different experience, and should not be missed.