111 Orange Street, Durham
Halfway through dinner at M Tempura, a piece of pure magic appeared on my enamel tray: a stout half-moon of eggplant encased in an ethereal cloud of translucent batter. I cradled it between my chopsticks and took a bite. The crisp shell cracked gently, the interior molten like a campfire marshmallow. In its yielding cloud of earthy sweetness was the essence of eggplant, brought to its apogee by absolute care and precision.
In a meal that was essentially a procession of impeccable marvels, it stood out as the apotheosis.
The best Japanese food is borne out of a monastic dedication to technique. Many of the culture’s most beloved gastronomic exports—sushi, kaiseki, ramen—lay at the fulcrum of cooking and craft, and to prepare them at the highest levels requires rigorous practice. This acute attention to detail, and the idea that it provides elite-level dining experiences has made Japanese cuisine immensely popular in the United States. This has naturally brought a wave of establishments that have, at best, a shallow understanding of the devotion required to get things just right.
M Tempura could easily have ridden the currents of fashion to a position of comfortable mediocrity. Instead, it pursues perfection—and often comes astoundingly close to achieving it.
Tempura is all about the batter, a delicate crispness surrounding one-or-two bite-sized morsels with little-to-no adornment. The batter must be mixed to order and kept ice-cold, lest it become stodgy and doughy. The oil must be immaculate, the temperature monitored assiduously. It’s tricky, even for deep-frying experts.
Originally a technique for making a meal of green beans less depressing, tempura was brought to Japan in the sixteenth century by the Portuguese. It quickly blossomed into an ongoing game of “can we fry this?” and eventually achieved ubiquity. While it’s now found everywhere from humble bento lunches to noodle soups, tempura is best experienced at tempura-ya, temples of batter and oil where the meal is an omakase procession of expertly fried bits of seafood, vegetable, and other delicacies. M Tempura is a classic tempura-ya, one of only a handful in the United States. If it seems strange that such a place has landed in Durham, well, it is. Chef Michael Lee envisioned M Tempura as a “someday” restaurant, a down-the-line addition to his mini-empire founded at the excellent M Sushi. But Lee moved the idea to the front burner when presented with the opportunity to take over the old Scratch Baking spot on Orange Street. Cozy and intimate, with a roomy kitchen and the footprint of a dining counter, the space was perfect for a tempura-ya.
Dinner service at M Tempura is available in three multi-course “sets,” each launched with a few palate-prepping bites before moving on to the main event. We started with a salad of local greens and shaved cauliflower, dressed in a ginger vinaigrette that I happily associate with the salads served at strip-mall Japanese steakhouses, antecedents to yelling, chopping, and shrimp-flipping. Although a bit more elegant and certainly more subtle, it serves the same purpose here—a cleansing bite of green as prelude to spectacle.
Next came a crudo of bluefin tuna. Yes, bluefin is delicious, but here it’s an unnecessary indulgence, especially when plopped halfheartedly in a pool of ponzu and roe and slivers of radish that end up as a scattered handful of fancy-looking “stuff” that slides off into a pile at the very idea of being picked up and eaten. Perhaps it’s an afterthought, because the evening’s main event soon obliterates any lingering doubts caused by familiar-tasting salads and raw-fish false starts.
Each diner is presented with a tray upon which rests the DIY accoutrements of proper tempura eating. The essence of tempura is how the natural flavors of simple ingredients are heightened and enhanced by the delicate batter and precision cooking, so each fryer-bound item is essentially unseasoned. Flavoring the finished bite is up to the diner, to whom the server helpfully provides a tiny bowl of salt and a sliver of lemon (ensconced in a fish-shaped metal “squeezer”). A subtle dipping sauce of dashi, mirin, and soy gets a dollop of shaved daikon and nestles alongside a small bowl of pickles in candy-vibrant shades.
The scene set, the tempura begins to arrive. It’s appropriate that the procession begins with shrimp, the tempura-treated sea creature with which American diners have the most familiarity. This shrimp bears zero resemblance, however, to whatever late-nineties “fusion” holdover P.F. Chang’s somehow forgot to scour from its menu. The batter is in a class by itself: impossibly crisp and dainty, not so much dissolving on the tongue as evaporating. The shelled shrimp tail is wonderfully meaty and sweet, but the whole, soft-shelled version is a lesson in spiny deliciousness, little shrimp heads exploding with juicy brine.
Vegetables follow. Shiitake mushroom, chewy and savory. Asparagus, flamboyantly in-season, tender, and lemony-sweet. A chunk of lotus root that flirts with undercooking but, thanks to impeccable frying, emerges apple-crunchy and satisfying.
I believe I mentioned the eggplant.
There are a few missteps. The okra, raw-tasting, slides clumsily out of its batter shell, a casualty to the vicissitudes of fryer-time. The salmon is visually enticing but weirdly disappointing, unctuous and overly rich, one of the only dishes that felt like less than the sum of its parts. Another caveat: The dining room’s overworked ventilation system practically guarantees that you will leave infused with ambient fryer aroma, which may or may not be a problem depending on how often you want to revisit your meal over the next few hours.
It’s a neat trick to experiment with seasoning along the way. Some dishes take well to a dunk in the ambrosial sauce. Others need a sprinkling of salt and a squirt of lemon. Others require no help at all, like the Mero sea bass. Dense and hearty, but flaky and yielding within its shell of batter, it’s essentially the world’s greatest fish finger.
Most of these dishes, in fact, conjure a childlike sense of fried food satiety, only streamlined and sophisticated. The scallop tastes like a fairytale version of something you might get on a boardwalk, dumped with fries in a paper basket. The sweet potato—the only item on the menu to be partially cooked before frying—would be a perfect accompaniment to a hunk of BBQ.
The limited drinks list at first seems like a final quibble, but the selections end up pairing perfectly with the meal. Both a squeaky clean Sancerre and an ice-cold Asahi are charming accomplices, but our server effortlessly recommended an excellent sake, which stole the show with its dry finish and round texture.
In the case of a restaurant like M Tempura, any drinks list, appetizer, or ambiance is going to end up ancillary to what is primarily a long-form technical masterpiece, the aim of which is to deliver simple and perfectly executed comfort food. By the time the final set pieces arrived—a bowl of toothsome soba noodles followed by a few bites of ginger ice cream—I had stopped being impressed and remained merely delighted.
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