Thousand Cranes tempura bar - dinner - May 23, 2007
Ambience - The restaurant itself is beautiful. It's on the third floor, inside from the Japanese garden. The restaurant has a regular menu, and it also has a sushi bar and a tempura bar. The regular restaurant seating looks out onto the garden, so it's a great view in the daytime and at night, since the garden is lit. There are also separate individual dining rooms with sunken floors. The sushi bar is in the back of the restaurant, and the tempura bar is behind that.
Service - Incredible. The person refilling our water and my tea was fairly attentive at first, though that dropped off a little when he had other customers, so we had to ask for a refill occasionally, but he never took long and was always cheerful. The tempura chef was amazing. We were the only ones at the 12 person bar, so we had his full attention. He was very helpful and informative and forthcoming with suggestions and tips. His English was a little broken, but we were able to carry on a few good conversations with him. He's been there for 27 years, and on his days off (Sunday and Monday) and when he takes vacation, the tempura bar is closed, though the rest of the restaurant remains open. He's the only tempura bar chef.
Dinner - We looked at the menu (choices are like at a sushi bar with individual items - different fish and other seafood and lots of vegetables), and since it was our first time, we decided to have the set menu, which came with an appetizer (he made us dover sole with some white onions and ponzu sauce - mmmmm), seafood and vegetable tempura, rice, miso soup and dessert. We figured that way, he could just decide what to feed us. He would periodically ask if we liked a particular item before making it for us. I told him that the only thing I didn't like was eel, but otherwise, anything else was good. Oh my goodness. He made so much food: smelt, salmon, squid (which was really meaty and delicious), bay shrimp/small scallops combo, crab claw, oyster, huge scallop, Japanese peppers, okra, asparagus, chrysanthemum (not the flower, but it looked more like a tree branch), lotus root, sweet potato. The tempura batter was very delicate and didn't overcoat the meats and vegetables but just gave them a nice crispy texture. I love tempura anyway, but it has to be fresh so that it's still crispy - I hate soggy tempura. Well, this is about as fresh as you could ask for. He deep-fries the item, and then takes it right out of the fryer and puts it on your plate. (It's set up just like a sushi bar, with a raised counter in front of you, and he puts a serving plate on the counter in front of each person and then puts a piece of paper on the plate (which he adds to periodically) to soak up the oil. He also gives you grated daikon and the sauce to mix together yourself, and there's also grated ginger on the side that you can add to it. And you can ask for more. You have a sauce bowl and a couple of plates in front of you that you can move the food to from the serving plate. As he would put the items on the serving plate, I could still see the oil sizzling underneath the batter. One thing you do have to learn is that while your eyes and mouth want to eat the item as soon as possible, your mouth will pay the price if it's too soon because it is VERY HOT. He also taught us that like sushi, you should eat tempura with your hands, which we tried occasionally, but even if it had cooled down enough to eat, it wasn't always cool enough to hold, so I burned my fingers once or twice. He also taught us about using sea salt on some of the items instead of using the sauce, and sea salt was amazing on the smelt and squid in particular. At the end of the meal, he gave each of us a HUGE strawberry (like the ones that are dipped in chocolate at Disneyland and cost $4). The waiter came by and asked if we wanted dessert (green tea ice cream), but we turned him down.
Wine - The husband had an Asahi, and I just had green tea. As I may be acquiring a taste for good cold sake, I may try that in the future.
Dessert - Just the big ol' strawberry.
We would definitely go back. We're already making plans to return with one person. Go hungry though if you order the set menu. You can of course also just order individual items. We're also thinking of going back and trying the sushi bar since there were a few items that the tempura chef told us about that sounded really good.
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