Tempura Matsui- Best Tempura in New York
Outside of Asia, I rarely go near Tempura, especially in most restaurants in the United States. In general, I rarely eat deep fried foods and on top of this, the off occasion when I decide to indulge, it has to be really great quality ingredients in a restaurant whose “oil practices” I feel comfortable with. Who wants to eat food from oil that hasn’t been changed in weeks or months? It tastes rancid and drips of oil.
There is one glorious exception in America, a restaurant that takes its Japanese heritage with deliberate care, creating an entire menu around the most beautiful, fresh ingredients and age old techniques. If you have not discovered the Michelin starred Tempura Matsui, you must make your way there, to New York, that is.
Two blocks from Lexington (three blocks from Park), Tempura Matsui sits on a relatively quiet side street and its discreet entrance is reminiscent of many restaurants in Japan, simple, clean lines and quietly elegant. Lunch at this cozy restaurant is bar none the greatest value in the tri-state area- $40 provides a gorgeous set lunch that includes a sunomono dish, handmade soba or udon, a parade of the best tempura stateside, Japanese rice and dessert. If I lived in New York I would be at Tempura Matsui at least every week if not more often.
As is the custom in many restaurants across Asia, hot towels are provided to begin the meal on a clean slate. In Asia, especially Japan, meals are a time for nourishment and reconnecting with self and loved ones. It’s much more than just 15 minutes to scarf down whatever crap is nearest. Food is a choice, a ritual and should be treated as such.
Sitting at the bar gives the best experience, especially if it’s your first time there. It’s a beautiful science the chefs have down pat. You can watch them articulately dredging each delicate piece of fish and vegetable through the batter then carefully sliding it into the hot vat of oil. The amazing part? Barely a sound. Years ago when I occasionally deep fried food at home, it would be a huge deal, with a huge mess and lots of splattering. At Tempura Matsui, like everything wondrous about Japanese culture, tempura making is an elevated art, its own music.
One of the most important parts of eating tempura is the sauce. I’ve lost track of the number of Japanese restaurants in America that claim to serve tempura and use bottled sauce with nary a grated daikon in site. That freshly grated daikon in the tempura sauce is critical to helping the sauce adhere to the tempura. Without the daikon, you end up double or triple dipping the tempura, causing it to go soggy. With the daikon in the sauce, that first bite of tempura stays crunchy, hot, savory and sweet, all in one.
A parade of freshly cut and quietly fried vegetables, mushrooms, fish and other seafood arrive on the plate in front of you, two at a time, the chefs inconspicuously gauging your speed of eating to ensure every piece you bite into is beautifully hot and fresh. Every bite of vegetable or fish or mushroom is light, not greasy at all, deliciously piping hot and the perfect balance of salty and sweet from the sauce.
If you’ve been to Japan, you know exactly how different expert handmade udon and soba is from the dry or frozen goods we buy in grocery stores. There’s a firm bite to both noodles, with the udon exhibiting a silky slipperiness and the soba a slightly rougher texture from the buckwheat.
Dessert too embodies all that food lovers adore about Japan- it’s a perfect portion of just an ever so slightly sweet Matcha custard. Velvety smooth, strong green tea flavor and gone too soon.
Service is warmly attentive without being intrusive.
For those of you interested in restaurant bathrooms, Tempura Matui’s does not disappoint. Japanese through and through- it’s super clean with a state of the art Japanese toilet that has so many options, it will make people either very content or confused.
Dinner at Tempura Matsui is a more elaborate version of lunch, with several sets beginning at US $120. Both lunch and dinner here is worth every dollar and perfect for a leisurely lunch with colleagues, dinner with family or date night.