Notes from Tokyo: Tempura Tenko

November 5, 2013

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This is not the Tokyo of Lost in Translation, with its towering buidings, neon skyline and efficient transportation. This is the Tokyo of your dreams, a tiny restaurant on an alley lined with charming old-fashioned houses.
Inside, the chef sits, surrounded by his guests, an actor on a stage as he performs an ancient food ritual, pulling one pristine piece of crisply fried food out of the bubbling pot in front of him, and then another. Each is perfectly cooked, completely grease-free, and each morsel speaks with its own voice.
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It is a long, langorous, gracious meal. The chef's mother pours sake, brings dipping sauces, an acolyte in service of the dining experience.  Before the performance itself begins, she sets a plate of sashimi before you, perfect buri (large yellowtail), sweet, cold, rich. And then the show begins as chef Hitoshi Arai takes his seat and begins to cook.
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A few highlights, among many:
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Sweet, tiny fried shrimp, which put every other version I've ever tasted to shame.
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Tiny crabs, all crackle and crunch. 
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Cured squid: funky, intense, a flavor that stops you in your tracks and resonates in your mouth.
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Got milt?  Yes indeed.  A substance unlike any other: imagine a custard contained in a cloud, something soft, tender, gentle.  Think of tofu, of an almost melted marshmallow.  The flavor: rather sweetbread like.  Wonderful stuff, this fish sperm.
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Ginko nuts. In season now.  Soft. Subtle. Irresistible.
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Fried fresh ginger.  The perfect palate cleanser.
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This melon has ruined melon for me forever.  I've never tasted any fruit so perfect.
Ice cold. Juicy. Fragrant. Pure. It reminded me of what Durrell said of olives: "A taste as old as cold water."  

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