You may think you know tempura, but you haven’t truly tasted it until you’ve had a meal prepared by Tempura Master Masao Matsui. At the age of 65, Matsui has dedicated his life to the art of frying; he’s been cooking since he was a teenager. If there were an Oscars of Tempura, he’d be getting the Lifetime Achievement Award.
After decades at Tokyo’s finest restaurants, most recently the Nadaman restaurant at the New Otani Hotel, he opened Tempura Matsui in New York City in late 2015. There, he serves a dazzling 10-course omakase ($200) that’s already garnering celebrity fans Stateside. Every meal at Matsui begins with Sakizuke (an amuse bouche like steamed fluke cake) and involves assorted sashimi, tempura, a palate cleanser such as pickled plum, rice, dessert and more. But the 14-piece tempura course is the centerpiece, and it's a parade of unfathomable wonders. A recent menu included shrimp heads, shrimp, soft roe, king crab, sea urchin, anago (Japanese saltwater eel), Japanese whiting, smelt, carrot, lotus root, pumpkin, shiitake, sweet long pepper and petite onion.
The miracle of Matsui’s tempura is not only the beauty of the ingredients but the batter itself—it’s roughly the weight of lace. Achieving this lightness involves a meticulous process: Almost all of his ingredients are first washed in fresh water—except ocean fish, which are washed in salt water. Then the ingredients are dried on cloth towels, then dipped in his signature batter: a mixture of egg, cold water and Super Violet flour, a low-protein flour that helps create that gossamer wrapper.
Every piece of tempura is fried to order (read: just moments before you’ll eat it) in a custom blend of sesame, vegetable and cotton oils heated to 200c (392F, to be precise). The pieces are immediately ferried from the frying pan to your plate; the miracle of that batter must be tasted to be believed. To accompany your tempura, you get freshly grated German rock salt, along with wedges of lemon, shaved daikon radish, and a bright dipping sauce made from two kinds of dashi (bonito and kelp), soy sauce and mirin. Once your server places the freshly fried tempura on your plate, you can season to your liking. Though you really don’t need anything at all.
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