The father and son moved silently between the chopping board and the fryer. It looked like a dance – each movement choreographed to perfection. With speed and precision, their metal chopsticks shimmered as they transferred each ingredient from the fryer to the plate.
I was sitting at the counter of the Tenkou Honten run by Kenichi Higuchi with his wife and son. Out on the street, you would never guess the restaurant boasts a two-star Michelin rating with its unassuming location off the Ebisu Dori shopping arcade. But stepping through the front door, I experienced a paradigm shift. Compared to the clutter, wires and the bright neon lights of the arcade, the Tenkou Honten was a sanctuary of tranquility.
With only room for eight people at the counter, dining at the Tenkou Honten felt exclusive. I came for the lunch course – a full tempura meal at an astonishingly reasonable price. The other diners spoke in hushed tones as they savored each mouthful of tempura.
“The secret to great tempura? Fry the ingredients at a high temperature and eat it while it’s piping hot,” explains Higuchi, the owner and head chef of Tenkou.
Higuchi started the first Tenkou restaurant near the Peace Boulevard 30 years ago, before opening the much-acclaimed Tenkou Honten eight years ago.
“I wanted to create an environment where people can enjoy tempura at a leisurely pace,” says Higuchi. “I want them to have a luxurious dining experience.”
Every day Higuchi personally scours the local food markets to buy in the freshest seasonal produce. He only buys enough ingredients for eight people at lunch and ten for dinner. According to Higuchi, this leaves no surplus so he can work with the freshest and most seasonal ingredients every time he cooks.
The lunch course was called the ‘omakase menu’. “Omakase” means “chef’s choice” and trust me, you wouldn’t want it any other way.
Higuchi began the tempura after I finished the small salad entree. Rather than being presented with an assortment of fried tempura, he presents each morsel individually, only moving onto preparing the next ingredient once I was ready.
The first tempura to arrive was crunchy prawn legs, followed by tempura shrimp – the timeless classic. Within the 14 individual ingredients prepared for me that day, the Tenkou Honten specialty of a shiitake mushroom & clam and the scabbard fish tempura was astounding. But in truth, it was hard to pick a favorite. Higuchi selects ingredients and serves them in an order that either compliments or contrasts with the previous mouthful. It felt like a culinary version of an elaborate musical composition. Higuchi was the master conductor, orchestrating a symphony of taste just for my palate.
I could sense Higuchi always checked my progress before preparing the next ingredient. I enjoyed the meal at my own pace – never feeling rushed and never left waiting. According to Higuchi, “everyone eats at a different pace” and he made sure to adapt to each customer, rather than the other way around. Aside from introducing each ingredient, the only other guidance was the ideal condiment to accompany the bitesize morsel – either sea salt, curry salt or a dashi soup.
Finally, came the ‘Kakiage’ (a nest of tempura vegetables). They had a variety of different ways to prepare this final tempura. The popular choice – having it served on a broth of green tea and rice. Before dessert, Higuchi’s son prepared the matcha tea with all the ritual of an authentic tea ceremony.
After the meal, there was no doubt in my mind why this restaurant received its Michelin rating. The quality is beyond dispute. As you can imagine, Tenkou Honten’s reputation has spread among foodies, so make sure you book as early as you can.
“With a smaller number of customers to cater for each day, I can focus entirely on providing a quality dining experience,” says Higuchi.
“Tenkou” means “number one tempura” in Japanese and this restaurant certainly lives up to its name. Come here if you want some of the best tempura in Japan. Photographs & Text by Tom Miyagawa Coulton