Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tsunahachi Honten

Founded by Kyuzo Shimura in 1923, Tsunahachi Honten opened its doors ushering in the restaurant's long and illustrious history in the Shinjuku area of Tokyo, Japan. Honten means "original shop" and is housed in a traditional, albeit extended building that was pretty easy to find. "Serving delicious tempura to as many customers as possible," is their motto.

We did not have reservations but after 15 minutes, we were seated at the upstairs counter. There is also a counter downstairs, as well as non-counter dining room areas. Although there was an a la carte menu, like all the customers around us, we both chose a set dinner that came with miso soup, rice, and green vegetable pickle.

Now a little history on tempura, which is one of the core Japanese dishes renowned worldwide... The deep-fried cuisine similar to fritters was introduced to Japan in the 16th-17th centuries by Chinese and Western visitors. Since oil was used for lamps and considered precious at the time, deep-fried dishes were reserved for very special occasions.  Late in the 18th century, tempura stalls began appearing along the streets of Japan. Since then, tempura has been served with tentsuyu sauce and grated Japanese radish. Tempura is also traditionally served with green tea salt. Tsunahachi also provided regular white salt, seaweed salt and shiso salt. Most funny was the instruction sheet that we were handed to explain how to properly make your dipping sauce and/or when to use the salt.

A big part of the pleasure was watching the chefs work, preparing the seafood, vegetables and batter and carefully frying each piece before delivering it to the serving tray in front of each customer. Our menus included tempura prawn, vegetables, white fish, eel, scallops and shrimp stuffed clam.  When we were presented with each item, the chef would usually remark whether the piece was best with sauce or salt.

strips of white fish
The tempura batter was so light and crunchy, but not at all greasy. Each item was perfectly cooked so that both the batter and the item inside were fresh, juicy and full of flavor. Our favorites were the clam and scallop.  Keith was shocked that you could batter and fry a stuffed clam like that and still have it so tender and not terribly chewy.  The scallop was huge and super sweet. The chef cut them in half for us and instructed to simply squeeze a bit of lemon juice on top. It was delicious!

stuffed clam, scallop
Rice and miso soup came with the meal towards the end. At the bottom of the cup of miso soup were lots of tiny clams, which gave it a fresher, rich seafood flavor that was so enticing, I basically licked the bowl clean.

Overall, our impression of Tsunahachi is that they've maintained their high standards while managing to keep prices very reasonable.  Similar to sushi chefs, tempura chefs are skilled and provide an entertaining show to diners seated at the counter.  Call ahead of time to avoid waiting in line.

Total Rating: 4.23
Food: 4.5, Price: 4, Service: 4, Ambience: 3.5, Accessibility: 4

What I ate:
Tempura Set
fresh prawn, white fish, eel, scallops, shrimp stuffed clam, eggplant

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