I learned something fundamental about traveling after my experience at Tempura Matsu, and that is, if you're completely dependent on guidebooks or travel sites, you'll miss out on so much. Tempura Matsu was recommended to us by my good friend James. His wife is Japanese, had been there, and highly recommended it. I don't think I would have discovered it any other way. For that, I'm eternally grateful.
Tempura Matsu is a 40-year old family establishment owned by the Matsuno's. The mother is the Maitre d, the daugther Mariko, the main host, and the son, Toshio, one of the leading chefs. (I know the father is among the head chefs, but he wasn't present the night we there.)
Aside from the food being spectacular, the staff were so accommodating to us. They didn't overly pamper us, but simply made us feel incredibly at home. We ended up chatting with Toshio and Mariko during the meal, and we quickly became friends. When we told them where we were staying in Kyoto, they were so shocked at how far we would have to walk to get to the station, that they offered us a ride. I gracefully declined, because I was afraid of the cab fare, but when our ride pulled up, it was Mariko, in her personal car, insisting that we jump in. So, that's what we did--the hostess of the restaurant gave us a ride home! That's unheard of. These are some of, not only the most talented people in hospitality, but also some of the kindest you'll ever meet.
(We hung out with Toshio the next day, too. He took us out for some fancy drinks and gyoza. I'll post about that adventure soon.)
I've eaten at Ryugin; a 3-star Michelin restaurant; under the Top 50 of the World's Best Restaurants list by San Pellegrino; and widely regarded as Japan's absolute best. And it was amazing. One of the best dining experiences I've ever had. This was better.
Tempura Matsu will never get 3-stars. No restaurant like this would. It's not pretentious enough, honestly. At the end of the day, that's all it really is. Do they deserve it? Hell yeah. But it won't ever meet Michelin's strict and enigmatic criteria, most of which are not dependent on the actual food. Which is a shame, because while the chefs put on a stellar 3-star performance, the casual interaction we had with the staff, and the positive energy and noise in that restaurant was unlike any 3-star restaurant I've ever been to. And what if that's what I wanted? What if to me, that was perfect? What if I didn't want that awkward interaction with the server every time I got up to use the bathroom; their obligation to push in my chair and fold my napkin? What if I wanted to push in my own chair, and fold my own napkin? A perfect 3-star rating wouldn't agree with my idea of perfection. That's okay, because even though they might be a bit elusive, there will always be restaurants like Tempura Matsu, and that's perfect for me.
21-26 Umezuonawabacho Ukyo-ku, Kyoto, Kyoto Prefecture 615-0925, Japan
Chef Toshio Matsuno
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Ami ebi - sweet shrimp, also known as spot prawns.
Yomogi - Japanese mugwort
Kaeshi - soup base typically served with cold udon and soba. Made from mirin, soy sauce, and sugar.
This guy is a bad ass.
The blown crystal is for cold sake, and the miniature chalice, for hot.
Chef Toshio was breaking down, cleaning, and mise en placing this dish all night.
The squid was minced and cooked in blazing hot earthen-ware table side...
Their vast selection of crockery. Rarely would everyone in our party have identical plates for the same course.
Look at this shell! It's so prehistoric-looking.
The oyster was served with a traditional tentsuyu sauce. The meat was very light, creamy, and tasted very clean. The longan berry was also a nice touch.
A great set. This was the creamiest ami ebi I've ever had. The sweet taste lingered subtlely until the next course.
Don't remember what this was! I know it was dressed in fresh yuzu and soy and that it was delicious, though.
Purportedly, from the Edo period.
Gently steamed epoch prawns served with a miso 'bisque' made from the heads.
Epoch prawns are incredible firm shrimp, and have a great snap to them. They are also intensely red when cooked.
A very simple dish; veyr soft, and delicate in flavor and texture. The baby mountain yams were something I've never had. They tasted like potatoes, but not as starchy, and--for lack of a better word, slimier, in a good way.
Before the reveal.
Check out this cool misshapen gold saucer they used to cook our fish.
The red snapper was cooked in a broth made from its bones.
This was AMAZING. A nuclear explosion of crunch and crisp.
Ending the red snapper course was the broth the chefs cooked the red snapper in. Nothing is wasted here. The bones go into the cooking broth; the flesh served as sashimi; the skin transformed into edible chips; and the cooking broth reintroduced as a consomme.
Some really important people came in and got a bunch of cool stuff we didn't. This was just one of them.
This tasted like a Chinese stir-fry elevated way beyond recognition. The meat was expectedly buttery, but what was surprising to us was how buttery the eggplant was. It was dense, but extremely tender. I wish I knew what the garnish was because it was gorgeous, and tasted like okra.
The chefs brought this to our table and explained how this eggplant is unique to Kyoto.
They ended the hot course with their namesake : tempura. It was good, of course. The pike conger has tiny, delicate bones inseparable from the flesh. It took me by surprise, but I learned to enjoy its crunchy texture.
Mariko, the hostess, insisted that we drank sake with our tempura, and gifted us with complimentary unfiltered sake.
This is my new favorite vegetable tempura. It's crunchy, dense, but it's not heavy, even when fried.
Udon noodles hand-made with Japanese mugwort and served with quail egg, kaeshi, wasabi, and grated mountain yam. This was a sexy dish, and the most memorable. The noodles were so pleasantly elastic and chewy.
Served hot alongside the udon for a contrast of temperatures.
When we finished our noodles, Chef Toshio asked for my camera. I didn't know why. At this point, he could have tempura'd my camera, and I would have eaten it. Instead, he asked us to raise our giant blocks of ice, cheers each other, and drink the cold soup straight from the bowl. So cool.
This was a perfect ending to the meal. Super simple. All you tasted was pure buckwheat in every bite. And it wasn't too sweet. It just topped off the meal in a very nice way.
Toshio, and his sister, Mariko, easily gave us the best customer service experience we've ever had, anywhere in Japan. That's saying something. I really hope to keep in touch with them, and I can't wait to return to this hidden gem.