After a soft opening over the weekend, Michael Lee has officially opened his third Durham restaurant, M Tempura, housed in the former Scratch Bakery space in the alleyway on Orange Street. Lee also owns popular spots M Sushi and M Kokko, known for its Korean fried chicken. Like Lee’s other restaurants, M Tempura’s interior is spare, showcasing raw materials such as natural brick, concrete, and a custom wood bar made by Bull City Design.
At dinner, M Tempura will focus on tempura, the Japanese tradition of lightly battered and fried food. At tempura restaurants in Japan, particularly in Tokyo, tempura is served omakase style (or chef’s choice) and is designed to be a lengthy dining experience with small bites and dishes served in succession. As in Japanese sushi restaurants, each bite is meant to be immediately consumed, following strict rules. Though M Tempura doesn’t have rules, per se, Lee is adamant that it’s not a fast-casual concept.
“Tempura is not just frying. It is a different art of frying,” Lee explains. “The main goal is to allow the thinnest possible coating to give it a nice, delicate crunch but allow the main flavor of the ingredients to shine through. The batter uses special high-quality flour, and each restaurant has their own secret ratios and ingredients.”
He goes on to explain that, unlike Korean tempura or Western versions, Japanese tempura batter isn’t seasoned, as to allow the subtle flavors of the vegetables and seafood to shine through. As a result, the taste can at first register as slightly bland—but Lee says that’s the point.
“You don’t want all the pieces to be heavily seasoned when you’re going through four to five dishes and thirteen to sixteen tempura pieces,” he says. “It is definitely not a takeout item.”
Since tempura omakase requires a lengthier time (and monetary) commitment than most of us have midday, M Tempura is focusing on a donkatsu style set menu for lunch. The katsu style is different from tempura in that proteins—Durok, Kurobuta, and Iberica pork, as well as seafood options—are coated with panko breadcrumbs and deep fried. In Japan, it’s typically a one plate dish accompanied by rice and shredded cabbage.
“This keeps the menu simple for fast lunch service and friendly prices while offering something totally different from lunch and dinner,” Lee says. “In Japan you would never see the same restaurant doing both cuisines under one roof, but we are essentially doing two separate restaurants for lunch and dinner. We are trying to bring many small concepts into the wonderful Durham and Triangle area that we currently do not have.”