Updated: Mar 24
Is there anything that isn't delicious after receiving the deep-fried treatment? Probably, but don't tell that to the Japanese. They have mastered the art of deep-frying and have turned it into a core pillar of their cuisine over five centuries. Tempura is so integral to washoku that it's easy to find dedicated tempura restaurants in Japan that range from affordable lunch spots to high-end kaiseki places.
For us here in KL, our choices are rather limited when it comes to tempura. Sure plenty of Japanese restaurants all over the city serve tempura, but I have eaten enough heavily-battered tempura that left a cloying, oily aftertaste in the mouth to know that I shouldn't order it unless I know the chef cooks it well. The opposite end of this scale is Tenmasa, dedicated to predominantly edomae-style tempura with some modern influences. Tenmasa also just so happens to currently be the only tempura-specialist fine dining Japanese restaurant in town.
The restaurant recently had its first event in collaboration with TMI Trading, a local Japanese-focused F&B importer who brings in sake like Kamoshibito Kuheiji, and I was fortunate enough to pay Tenmasa another for the occasion.
For the discerning drinker – Kamoshibito Kuheiji is a Nagoya-based sake brewery that marries high-level Japanese sake-making know-how with French wine-making sensibilities.
After almost two years later since my last visit during its opening, I'm happy to report that the young and affable Masanori Iwaasa, Tenmasa's head chef, got better at his craft. The pairing menu was pretty dang delightful, featuring a heavy emphasis on seafood and in-season greens to go with crisp, clean sake.
Here's the menu.
Let's dive right in.
Tempura kaiseki meals always starts with the prawn. Or at least it seems so from my limited experience dining at tempura restaurants. Japanese chefs usually opt for kuruma ebi (Japanese tiger prawn) for its slightly sweet taste and meaty build but here Iwaasa has chosen a local tiger prawn. While not as satisfying as a kuruma ebi, our somewhat slender local Sabahan-caught prawn was a worthy replacement and an understandably strategic move on the restaurant's part to keep prices reasonable.
The real difference for Tempura at this level that you'll undoubtedly taste is in the oil. Most tempura specialists use a specific type of oil or even sometimes create a blend. Tenmasa, however, uses rice bran oil. Timing and technique then comes into play to ensure that deep frying the ingredients only leaves a thin layer of batter to encapsulate either a perfectly-cooked package, leaving only the oil's fragrant aroma and fresh taste without any of the unwanted lingering qualities.
Tentsuyu, the dipping sauce typically served with tempura, also plays an integral role by imbuing the fried morsels of food with light umami flavour. At Tenmasa, diners can either dip their tempura in salt, flavoured salt, or tentsuyu, but the chef will always let you know which ingredient pairs best with which when he serves it.
Kisu, the leanest of the silverfish, was also a hit. The act of deep frying the fish replaced its usual fishy qualities with that of the aromatic oil, resulting in a relatively clean-tasting fish. Just a dash of salt here goes a long way.
Both the ebi and kisu, served as part of the first tempura course, paired refreshingly well with a Kuheiji Kanochi junmai daiginjo. The fruity-floral, marginally spicy aromas and minerality of the sake wonderfully balanced out the earthiness of the rice bran oil and the salinity of the seafood, leaving the palate always cool, cleansed and ready for the next course.
This shiso leaf tempura that you see in the photo above with the almost comically generous topping of ikura, shiro ebi and uni?
If you ever dine at Tenmasa and are willing to splurge a little, ask Iwaasa to add this to the meal if possible. I'll recommend it, but I certainly won't spoil it.
One of the major reasons as to why I love Japanese cuisine can be summed up in the photo above. Take incredibly high-level produce, introduce seasoning to enhance the natural flavours of the ingredient without overshadowing it, and you have culinary elegance on a plate. Taking a break between tempura courses, Iwaasa served a seasonal plate – snow crab dashi with vinegar jelly to be served with a Katsuyama Ken junmai ginjo, which was crowned champion sake in the 2019 International Wine Challenge.
The crab was delicious, sweet and slightly briny enhanced by vinegar and grounded with micro-greens and flowers as well as a little acidity from the tomatoes. The sake's moderately dry taste and elegant mouthful proved to be a refreshing combination when paired with the sweetness of snow crab meat.
For tempura course two, I had maitake, satsumaimo (sweet potato), oyster and awabi (abalone) with caviar paired with a Dewatsuru Kimoto junmai, served cold and warm. This part of the meal was arguably my favourite.
The sweet, caramelised sugars of the sweet potato trapped underneath the layer of crispy tempura batter was so satisfying to chew. Factor in Dewatsuru served cold, which highlighted the lighter qualities of this full-bodied sake with hints of dried mushrooms lingering at the end, and we have another winner.
Maitake, on the other hand, perfectly matched the junmai in a marriage of nuttiness and umami. I've always been partial to maitake and I reckon most shroom heads who have yet to try this fantastic fungi would like it too.
In lieu of shirako, which I do not like, Iwaasa very kindly swapped out cod fish milt for oyster for me. I'll take the mild salinity of oyster over the ammonia-heavy taste of shirako any day thank you.
The star of the second tempura course was in my opinion that generous slab of Hokkaido awabi. As if a sizeable piece of abalone wasn't enough, on comes a helping of caviar to edge that luxe dial to a 10 and a warm, sultry cup of sake to push the experience firmly into 11 territory.
Sure, the whole affair was done in five minutes. But, what a glorious five minutes it was.
I have a love-love relationship with tendon, and Tenmasa's anago tendon was no different. What's not to like? A deep-fried egg that bleeds as soon as you run your chopsticks through it and deliciously soft yet crispy fillets of salt-water eel on a bed of fluffy white rice. The white rice actually deserves special attention here, for it alone with that thick tentsuyu glaze was treat enough.
A clean and smooth Niigata-style junmai from Midorikawa was chosen to pair with the rice bowl and it is easy to see why in hindsight. The light and dry sake was subtle enough on the palate to make its mark yet not bold enough to steal focus from the eel. Bravo.
Umeshu served two ways – a sherbet and as is – very nicely ended the meal on a sweet yet slightly boozy note. Iwaasa's umeshu is marvellously balanced, making for easy sips and a fantastic cold treat.
Tenmasa is a solid go for the washoku enthusiast or the fried food lover. Chef Iwaasa continues to refine his craft and the food he serves also appears to be on the up and up with each return that I make. The restaurant's first sake pairing event confirms this for me, and I do recommend it as a welcoming break from the score of sushi restaurants vying for your attention.
The restaurant plans to have more events in the future, so stay tuned. Event or no event, I think you should still put Tenmasa on your list.