It has been fourteen years since my last visit to Japan when I was researching Wasanban sugar for an article for Food Arts Magazine. It was my last memorable tempura experience. In Japan, the tempura coating was an impossibly thin crisp veil through which one could see the fish or vegetable and I longed to experience it again. When I read in the New York Times that Masao Matsui, a renowned tempura chef from Tokyo, had been tempted out of retirement to open in New York I was eager to experience his rendition of this fine art. Chef Matsui started in the restaurant business in Japan when he was 18 . Reviews highlight how over the years he has perfected his zen-like tempura mastery to achieve a batter that is as thin as possible--just thick enough to coat the ingredient. Each ingredient glistens through its light and crisp coating, which he refers to as "My Tempura." Over the years he has owned several tempura restaurants in Tokyo. In July, we were in New York City to attend a memorial get together for my dear friend, colleague, and editor Gary Tucker for Food Arts magazine. Everyone who attended was invited to bring an appetizer. Our contribution was Pepperkakors, a spicy cookie from The Baking Bible which makes an appealing appetizer, especially when coated with a soft goat cheese. Some of us also contributed special memories about Gary. After the memorial was over Woody and I went on to dinner at Tempura Matsui. We were given an exceptionally warm welcome from the hostess and then were ushered to our seats at the tempura counter where we could enjoy seeing the master and his sous chefs work their magic. Chef Matsui serves his guests with a prix fix, Omakase experience with several stages for tonight's dinner. Omakase transalates as "I will leave it up to you." Before our eyes, we watched the preparation of the oil, the precise mixing and testing of the batter, and the wooden boxes bearing Chef's choices for us to relish. Every course was served in an exquistely unique vessel. This first course was sea urchin with Japanese yam and wasabi. Over the next two hours was a fascinating dining experience of 9 small courses, with Chef personally placing his "My Tempura" delicacies on our serving platters. Some of our favorites were the scallops wrapped in nori, the maitaki mushrooms, and the seasonal fish kisu.
Other favorites were the Zensai appetizers (tofu, octopus, and egglant): The Conger eel: and the Ten-don (cluster of shrimp tempura over rice) The entire staff worked as a seamless collaboration. When our dessert course of peach compote appeared, we were both inspired to honor Chef Matsui with some of our reserve of Pepperkakors. Suddenly he appeared at our side, politely tried one, and smiled. Woody gave him the bag of 24 cookies to enjoy and share with his staff. As we opened the front door to the busy New York night atmosphere and stars above, Chef Matsui gave us a farewell bow, which we graciously returned. It was like being back in Japan. Tempura Matsui