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Friday, Nov. 6, 2009

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A light touch: Chef Shinji Miyazaki at Tempura Uoshin in Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO


A masterclass at the counter

Simplicity and refinement highlight classic, traditional flavors at Tempura Uoshin

Tradition, craftsmanship, and understated refinement. These are attributes expected of any place serving traditional Japanese cuisine of a certain quality. When it comes to tempura, those same values are every bit as important.

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Miyazaki's crisp, golden anago (conger eel) ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTO

Among Tokyo's specialist restaurants, Tempura Uoshin in Nishi-Azabu may not rank in the highest echelons — after just two years in business that might be considered presumptuous. But it certainly has the gravitas and polish you'd expect from the offshoot of Totoya Uoshin, a ryoriya in Akasaka boasting more than 110 years of history, and a Michelin star to go with it.

Like the parent restaurant, Uoshin does not flaunt its presence. Tucked away on the second floor behind the hulking rear wall of Gonpachi (a Japanese gastrodome no-one has ever called modest), the decor is plain and the layout intimate — a single L-shaped scrubbed-wood counter just big enough to seat 10, with a small table at the back for four more. The feel is old-school traditional, with not a hair out of place — and absolutely no aroma of cooking oil.

Chef Shinji Miyazaki is a 27-year veteran of the tempura wok. After working two decades at Uoshin's branch in Roppongi (now long gone), he oversaw the launch of a sister restaurant in Nihonbashi before returning to his former territory to open this branch in Nishi-Azabu.

Dressed in crisp white, he works solo, helped by a single assistant out of sight in the prep kitchen and a kimono-clad waitress. His movements are meticulous, unhurried, almost effortless, making the process of batter-frying morsels of fish or vegetables seem so simple. That is deceptive: getting it absolutely right every time requires considerable expertise.

His tempura is orthodox and precise. In contrast with the heavy traditional style of old Tokyo, his cooking is light, almost airy in its refinement. It also tastes exceptionally good.

For the time-starved lunchtime crowd, there are simple tendon rice bowls, topped with a variety of seafood and vegetables. But we were in a leisurely mode, with substantial appetites as well. So we plumped for one of the two set-course menus (¥3,150, including seven kinds of tempura; or ¥4,200 for eight) and settled back to enjoy a closeup view of a masterclass in deep-frying.

Miyazaki cooks each ingredient separately, one item at a time, delivering everything directly to your plate with long cooking chopsticks so it arrives in front of you crisp and piping hot.

First up, two kuruma-ebi tiger prawns. The heads arrive first, spiky and crisp in their light veils of batter, the perfect foil for a sip or two of good sake. Then come the rest of the prawns, their shelled bodies smooth and sweet.

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Tempura classics: Shiitake mushroom stuffed with shrimp (above); and the final course here, as at most tempura houses, kaki-age (mixed seafood tempura) on rice, served with miso soup, pickles and tea ROBBIE SWINNERTON PHOTOS
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Next, chunks of fleshy maitake mushrooms; megochi (flathead), a small fish found in abundance in Tokyo Bay, although now as likely to come from the waters off Kanagawa Prefecture; and half a wheel of new-season lotus root, lightly cooked, crunchy and full of juice.

The highlight is the serving of hamo (pike eel), a delicacy of the autumn season. The soft, white, fluffed-up flesh is beautifully complemented by the crisp golden batter enrobing it. The standard soy sauce dip with grated daikon is considered too coarse for such a subtle flavor: all you need is a sprinkle of salt and a wedge of kabosu citrus.

After a shishito (green pepper) and a finger of okra, the last serving is two morsels of anago (conger eel). This, too, is wonderful in its contrasting textures and light flavor. You are barely aware of the oil it's been cooked in.

Tempura of this quality sits so easily, we are tempted to order just one more bite from the a la carte menu. A single plump shiitake mushroom, its fleshy brown cap sliced open after cooking to reveal a couple of sweet little ama-ebi shrimp. What an outstanding combination.

To round off the meal, we are given rice, miso soup and pickles. But even this involves tempura. The rice is topped with kaki-age, a small patty of battered shrimp and shellfish, and this involves a choice: you can have it topped with the standard tare sauce; or you pour tea over it in ochazuke style; or sprinkle the tempura with salt and mix it up with your rice, an original combination they call ten-bara.

There are just two other aspects of Uoshin that are, strictly speaking, unorthodox: the cruet of curry powder offered as a condiment (it does go well with the okra); and the small cellar of predominantly French wine (personally we'd rather stick with sake).

But that is about as far away from tradition as Miyazaki is prepared to depart. He clearly holds no truck with novelty or experimentation, and why should he? The aim, as always in Japanese cuisine, is to serve high-quality seasonal ingredients so that their flavors shine through. Mission accomplished we'd say.

Uoshin's sister restaurant in Nihonbashi serves equally excellent tempura, but in a more contemporary setting and in a slightly higher price bracket (although it's still a lot more affordable than the high-end traditional tempura houses in this area, such as Hayashi or Tenmo). Tempura Uoshin, Corredo Bldg. 4F, 1-4-1 Nihonbashi, Chuo-ku; open daily 11 a.m.-10 p.m. (Sun. and holidays until 9 p.m.); (03) 5205-7661; www.uoshin.ne.jp/nihonbashi Tempura Uoshin has no connection with the chain of down-market izakaya taverns of the same name.

Tempura Uoshin

Location: 2F Iwata Building 1-12-10 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku
(03) 3796-4041

Open: 11 a.m.-2 p.m and 5:30-9:30 p.m. (last order)

Closed: Sundays and holidays

Nearest station: Roppongi (Hibiya and Oedo lines)

How to get there: From Roppongi Station (Exit 2), walk down Roppongi-dori toward Nishi-Azabu. Just before you reach the Nishi-Azabu Crossing, turn left (along the side of Gompachi). You will see the stairs leading up to Uoshin on the right after about 40 meters.

What works: Great value for quality tempura

What doesn't: The interior is very plain and sober.

Number of seats: 10 at the counter and one table for 4

Smoking: Permitted but discouraged

Price per head: Lunch: tendon from ¥1,575, set menus from ¥3,150; dinner menu from ¥8,400, also a la carte; 10 percent service charge

Drinks: Beer from ¥630; sake from ¥840; shochu ¥840; wine from ¥945/glass, from ¥3,150/bottle

Credit cards: Major cards accepted

Language: Japanese and English menus; a little English spoken

Reservations: Recommended

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