Jon and Taka wanted to take us somewhere special for dinner, and sushi was out because Japan doesn't have much vegetable-based sushi - sorry no avocado rolls :-(.
So, Taka found an awesome place for tempura.
After being greeted by a woman in a beautiful kimono we removed our shoes and stepped up into the restaurant. The experience started with a traditional cup of strong matcha served in a large common room. Matcha is pulverized green tea mixed with water, sometimes used as part of a tea ceremony. Every time that I had matcha in the past, it turns out I had done it wrong. We learned that one should eat a little bit of sweet mochi with white bean to cut the bitterness of the tea. The white mochi and bean was a beautiful contrast to the deep rich green tea.
Taka explained that Shoufukaku was once a closed door restaurant. Only after your first meal, invited by a friend could you ask for a reservation of your own. As the economy has declined however, some of the exclusivity has also waned.
After we were done enjoying our tea we were escorted through a maze of tatami lined hallways wrapping around beautifully manicured gardens to our private room with four seats on one side and the cooking area on the other. Had it been earlier in the day we could have enjoyed a beautiful private garden view.
During the meal, the chef was right in front of us and would talk about what we were eating, serving each piece of fried goodness at the perfect moment. Taka had called ahead for Lisa so the chef had an array of seasonal veggies ready. Many of the veggies we hadn't seen before, and there were a few were things that were even new to Taka. Several vegetables were, as Taka explained, not easily cultivated and could only be harvested from the mountains north of Nagoya.
The meal started with a delightful salad of fiddlehead fern, onion, and tiny bits of lettuce dressed with a smoky, mustardy, miso, and vinegar dressing that Lisa has been trying to deconstruct for days. Tempura is served with three dipping options - shoyu (soy sauce) + daikon radish, salt, or lemon juice.
A few of our favorite pieces were a mushroom stuffed with scallop and shrimp, mountain tree shoots, and plum stuffed with chestnut. The final tempura is special - it is served as a giant ball and can be eaten by itself, over gohan (rice), or mixed with rice and green tea as a soup. By that time we were all completely stuffed and couldn't finish the miso soup and tasty fruit jelly that rounded out our last course.
We learned after dinner that our chef was one of the top 5 tempura chefs in the country, and in fact he was the top in his particular frying style. During the meal we all agreed that he was an award winner; he kept leaving our room with items in the fryer, returning only when they were perfectly done to a light golden brown. The chef's talent was also apparent in a more subtle way; we always had a perfectly warm food waiting, never too much and never running out. After the meal we learned that he had been working as a chef for 40 years and that he kept leaving us to supervise other younger chefs.
We went back to the Kondo house and fell asleep with full, happy Buddha bellies.