Tokyo KyotoOsakaYotaru Honten

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Yotaro Honten

If your idea of tempura includes giant prawns covered in crunchy, frilly, explosive batter and sweet tempura sauce, do not come here. Yotaro Honten is a special place suited for tempura purists — specifically, in the Osaka style. The serious atmosphere mirrors the food. You might have noticed that this small establishment is new to the 2011 Michelin Guide — earning two stars during its debut — but the attention hasn’t changed a thing.

We arrived, soaked, on a rainy evening with a friend from Nagano, and to be honest, we were hoping for a warmer atmosphere to shake off our chill, but we were soon glad for our friend’s rapport with the chef. Being a potter (actually, one of the best Oribe potters in Japan, in our opinion), he asked a lot of questions about technique: Questions we were afraid to ask. The owner-chef was a serious man and an artist himself, and once he acertained we weren't in the restaurant business out to steal trade secrets, appreciated this, and commented that he enjoyed answering serious questions and "didn’t have much patience for stupid ones”.

It’s best to sit at the counter to gain a view of the master at work. A glass window shields diners from the hot oil while giving a bird’s-eye view of his spartan work space and the tempura magic. Here, the fourth-generation owner/chef continues in his family’s footsteps, creating great tempura in the Osaka tradition since 1921. Sea salt — baked several times to yield a fine, almost powdery texture — is the only condiment. Baking the salt makes it “less salty” and complements, instead of masks, the fresh flavors and soft texture of the tempura. Like every fine tempura establishment, each piece is laid out as it is made, in front of the diners on simple white sheets of paper. The idea is to eat it piping-hot and freshly made, before the moisture escapes the coating. And from the first bite, the quality is apparent: The tempura leaves almost no oil on the paper, which is replenished from time to time.

Tai meshi at Yotaru Honten
Above: Taimeshi (sea bream rice) is a house specialty. Below: The bones are removed and mixed with the rice.
Tai meshi
Address: 2-3-14 Koraibashi, Chuo-ku, Osaka
TEL: 06-6231-5561
ACCESS: 7-minute walk from the yodoyabashi station
bread tempura tempura chef at work
negi tempura kisu
Above, clockwise from upper left: Bread filled with shrimp paste; the owner-chef at work; Negi (onion) tempura; Kisu, filleted inside out. Below, clockwise from upper right; Ginan (gingko nut); Autumn rice stalks and chestnuts; Asari soup; The plain and simple exterior.
ginan autumn arrangement
soup Yotaru honten exterior

We had pre-ordered (see below) and our course started with the “house specialty”: ground shrimp sandwiched between white bread. The founders own invention; unconventional and unusually delicious. Then, fig, which was creamy and surprisingly tasty, followed by more standard ingredients: anago (sea eel), negi (green onions, my favorite), satsumaimo (sweet potato), kisu (freshwater fish), ginan (gingko nut), shirasa ebi (small shrimp from Osaka), edamame, shimeji mushrooms, myoga (ginger bud) and sasage mame (giant green bean). Each ingredient contrasted nicely with the one preceding it, and we were starting to feel full. Finally, the last course was an artful ode to autumn: A single sprig of rice to celebrate the rice harvest — its kernals popped like popcorn — along with sweet chestnut.

Midway through the tempura course, (which was, count ‘em: 14 courses), a server appeared to show us the taimeshi, the restaurant’s specialty. A whole tai (sea bream), weighing perhaps three pounds or more, was simmered on top of rice and seasonings in a donabe (covered earthenware bowl). This was then taken back to the kitchen to finish; the skin and bones removed and mixed with the rice. The result — which appeared at the end of the meal with pickles and asari clam soup — was incomparably rich and full of flavor; the perfect counterpoint to the light and airy tempura that preceded it. Like the tempura, the rice was not flashy but honest, direct and full of soul.

Reservations are recommended (English is not spoken), and it’s a good idea to order ahead of time. The ¥4,000 course includes tempura, taimeshi and soup, while the ¥8,000 course includes sashimi, various appetizers and dessert. Ordering the taimeshi ahead of time is a must, for it takes time to prepare and a proper sized tai must be available. Ordering ahead of time also bridges the language barrier. The chef has served many a gaijin (foreigner) without being able to communicate a single word.

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