After wandering the streets of Akihabara,the so called “Electric Town,” with its glittering lights, nonstop electronic din and cosplay clad locals, John and I not only felt sensory overload, but were famished. Our growling stomachs weren’t making it easy to choose from the huge variety of culinary delights available in Tokyo. Luckily, before our hunger entered the danger zone, called Defcon Five by a friend, we found a tempura restaurant called Shinjuku Tsunachachi So-honten.
We walked though the wooden sliding doors and were led upstairs to a seat at the bar that ran along the small kitchen. I always like eating where I can have a view of the chefs at work. When I’m at a sushi bar, I get a better appreciation of the way the flavors of a roll are created as I watch the seemingly simple process of seaweed, rice and fish being combined. Little did I know, at this restaurant, watching tempura being made would be as thrilling as savoring a delicious bite of it.
John and I ordered two different set meals. We were served clam soup, miso, pickled vegetables and rice, while we watched the rest of the meal come together. A selection of squash, kale, asparagus and other seasonal produce was dipped in batter, fried and placed piece by piece on our plates. Dipping each bite of food in the sauce, made of fish stock, rice wine and soy sauce, gave the crunchy tempura a rich juiciness. The carrots crunched with sweetness, the potatoes flooded my mouth with umami and the humble lotus, tasted almost meaty. As the chefs cooked for us, their faces were partially hidden by grease screens. We could only see their eyes, which gave them a theatrical allure, like glimpsing a geisha behind her fan. After the assortment of vegetables was served, it was time to move on to the fish course.
The fish course began with the chef showing us what he was about to fry up. With the grace of a ballerina, up rose the chef’s hand above the grease screen, clutching a live eel. The eel’s tail wagged magnificently as the chef danced it in a short arc, just at eye level, before lowering it to his cutting board for the kill. A few moments later, it was on our plates and tasted creamier and flakier than any barbecued unagi I’d ever had. I thanked Mr. Eel for dying in order to be our dinner, before chomping into the crunchy coated tender fish. Sooner than we finished enjoying the eel, a wriggling prawn appeared in the clutches of its executioner. The chef seemingly slowed down his presentation just long enough so we could appreciate all those little legs and antennae saying their last goodbye before being doused in an oily bath. The prawn had the fresh sweetness of a crustacean newly from the sea and was good to the last bite of its crispy fried tail.
The remainder of the fish we were served had met their demise sometime earlier than the eel and the prawns, but were just as delicious. Our bellies were pleasantly full and we were ready to take on the rest of Tokyo. We left dinner knowing that the next time we had tempura, it would surely lack the thespian tone of this meal.