Saturday evening’s proceedings at Tempura Hajime felt more like espionage than an actual dinner. Both Adam and I agreed that it was one of the strangest restaurants we’ve been to but nevertheless, we were glad that we were able to experience Daisuke Miyamoto’s famous $72 p/h tempura banquet before he and his hostess wife, Noriko, goes back to Japan next month. I considered myself pretty lucky to have scored a booking (on a Saturday night, no less) as apparently the restaurant only serves 12 “clients” a night, and each sitting was staggered accordingly so that Daisuke-san could give his undivided attention to each party.
It all started on Friday morning. I was sitting at my desk, working extremely hard (I hope Brent is reading this) where a text message came in. I opened it and chuckled when I read the last bit*:
Please enter from brown wooden door at 60 Park St (no restaurant sign).
*I’m aware that we’re technically not supposed to be checking our mobiles while we’re working so I take back what I said about Brent reading this.
Oooh, the limited seating availability, the secluded location, the text message. This almost read like a Robert Langdon plot except that the prize at the end was a feast of tempura instead of the Holy Grail or some stupid pyramid. That was fine by me!
We rocked up to our 6pm booking and immediately found that brown wooden door that the sender spoke of in the text message. As soon as we stepped into the dimly-lit corridor, a young waitress popped out from nowhere and immediately led us to the diminutive yet cosy dining rooms-slash-kitchen which reminded me of an operating theatre. She showed us the banquet menu that was fixed though she said that she was happy to make substitutions should there be any allergies. Given that most of the items on the menu were seafood items though, it is unlikely that they’ll cater for you though so if you happen to hate seafood, you were pretty much stuffed. Oh, and you suck.
I ordered a mixed drink of shochu and lemonade, a refreshing concoction, which I desperately needed given that it was quite hot outside ($10).
Adam and his G & T ($9). An oldie at heart.
To kick off proceedings, we were given a plate of sashimi (ocean trout + onions, kingfish + seaweed and John Dory + plum) which came with a fresh home-made wasabi, which I (being a wasabi fiend) actually ate without spitting it out, a testament to how good it was. A beautiful sesame and miso chicken salad with cucumbers accompanied the sashimi; it was a sweet and nutty dish that I could easily have for lunch every day. Yum.
Over the course of the meal, we were treated to morsels of fresh food coated in a beautifully light tempura batter which was fried in a mixture of soy bean, tea oil and sesame. What impressed me was not the fact that the tempura batter was unlike the soggy, gluggy mess they serve at other Japanese outlets (it was so crispy, so light, almost wafer-like), but the fact that the batter actually brought out each ingredients’ flavour to another level. For example, a strip of sweet corn is usually just that – a strip of sweet corn. Boring. But when Daisuke-san dips it in his special batter, fries it and then presents it to you in a little serving dish, you pop it in your mouth and go, ‘WOW!’ while shaking your head because you never thought that a measly piece of corn could taste THIS good.
We were given a tray with bits and pieces in it prior to the first tempura course. The waitress instructed us to eat each tempura however we liked – au natural or by 1) dipping it in lemon sweet and Murray River sea salt or 2) dipping it in tempura sauce and shredded daikon. We were specifically told NOT to cross-mix elements from 1) and 2) together or it won’t taste good.
Straight after taking this photo, the young waitress immediately pounced on me and told me that I was NOT allowed to take any photos. I was stunned to say the least (especially since there are gazillion food bloggers out there who have been to Tempura Hajime and lived to tell the tale – WITH PHOTOS) and so I gave her a bit of a glare and said, “No photos? Why?” She then stuttered something about the chef not liking photos and said that she was happy to take a photo of us sitting together, but to put my camera away when the chef is around. She said something else but I didn’t understand a word she was saying so I grudgingly put my camera way just to make her go away. Seconds later though, Daisuke-san reappeared and his response to Adam’s question on whether we were really not meant to take any photos was “Of course you can take photos of the food! I’m also happy to take a photo of the two of you, just don’t take a photo of the kitchen or myself!” Heh. Having given Daisuke-san’s blessings, we got back to work:
The sweet corn that I was telling you about.
Unagi and nori-wrapped tuna with avocado and Japanese mayonaise. Both were dressed in a coating of teriyaki sauce.
A close up of the tuna. +1 for the middle that was still raw.
A light green salad with a tangy sesame dressing provided a refreshing accompaniment.
(I did too)
My favourite one: Scallop filled with nori and sea urchin. I’m not a huge fan of sea urchin – I hate that overly briny taste and smell – but tonight, sea urchin was my BFF. The briney notes were there but it took a backseat this time while letting the sweet, natural taste of the fresh sea urchin share the limelight with the voluptuous scallop. Divine.
Sweet potato. I have to admit that, compared to the other stuff I had thus far, this one didn’t do it for me. Then again, I’m not a fan of sweet potato.
John Dory and shiso.
We were given a shot glass of shochu mixed with plum soda to refresh our palate before the final leg of the journey.
Mushroom stuffed with minced prawn.
The tempura was so well-cooked that very little oil was left on the paper, which was only changed about 2-3 times during the entire meal. Heck, if I left a handful of Smith’s chips on the same paper, the oil spot would be much bigger…
Eggplant stuffed with minced chicken.
The final dish of the night was a small serve of kakiage don (rice with a tempura of prawns and vegetables, including more sweet corn). It was a perfect course to end what had been a remarkable tempura banquet.
For dessert, we received a simple vanilla panna cotta in a Cointreau and muscat juice dressing. Not the most imaginative dessert by far, but the perfect ending to what was an amazing dinner consisting of very simple elements.
Re: the service. There was only one waitress serving us the whole time and although she irked me by telling me about the ‘no photo rule’, she did her job efficiently and with grace. I did, however, feel a bit freaked out the whole time though. Adam and I were in the dining room alone with Daisuke-san for most of the meal (at least before more guests rocked up just as we were finishing our dessert) while the waitress lurked behind the sliding door which was ajar. She was watching our every move and every time our glasses were less then three-quarters full, for example, she would immediately come out of her hiding hole to replenish it. Yes, that was good service a la Flower Drum-style but at least at the ‘Drum, we could see the waiters/esses whereas the waitress at Tempura Hajime always seemed to pop up out of nowhere. If she wasn’t so nice (apart from when she told me off, that is) and if I wasn’t enjoying the food that much, I would have felt more unsettled like Winston Smith in 1984 or the person that Gordon Sumner sings about in ‘Every Breath You Take.’
Still, it goes without saying that a dinner at Tempura Hajime is one that one should experience at least once. Naturally, the price tag does not justify a weekly or even a monthly visit but I would recommend going just to see what tempura is supposed to look and taste like. You might find it difficult to secure a booking before the Miyamoto couple leave though as I can imagine their booking schedule is full for the next few weeks!