My Best-Kept Secret in Tokyo
It doesn’t mean to be hiding, but its location on the Roppongi Hills plaza, across from the Enoteca, without a marking
on its door, gives it an air of mystery. The reality is that the restaurant is branch of popular and established restaurant with a main branch in Nihonbashi with a newly opened branch slightly outside of Tokyo. As a self-confirmed “foodie,” I have always thought that Tokyo is a city that could please even the fussiest of palates. Tempura Mikawa, however, exceeds all expectations, and will ruin the casual diner for eating tempura anywhere else.
The décor of the restaurant is the first thing that catches the eye. The entry door itself is a brilliant yellow with birds flying upwards painted on it. The door is set in from the plaza, with a cascade of rope in front of it. To walk in, the door must be slid left and guests must duck under the blue Japanese noren (small, low, welcoming curtain) in front of the door. Inside, there is a counter that seats ten and then, to the right, behind sliding paper doors, there are four tables on the floor with foot-wells underneath them so diners to not have to sit on their knees or cross-legged. Two giant paintings grace the walls of Mikawa, done by the Japanese artist Maeda, whose graphic prints and interesting shapes of ceramics have made him famous throughout the country. The effect is a warm and welcoming splash of color.
One is greeted at Mikawa by the wife of famous chef from the main shop. She wears colorful kimono and seats each diner personally, bustling around like an efficient mother hen. The effect is that I feel like I’m being personally taken care of every time I walk in there.
There is not a lot of choice with the menu of Mikawa. For lunch they have a 5000 JPY set or a 7000 JPY set and for dinner, there’s an omakase (chef’s suggestion) menu for about 10,000 JPY. There is one type of sake available that is served warm and one type of sake that is served cold. There is one brand of beer served.
But it never matters. What the diners get is a feast of the imagination.
One must note that somehow, this tempura feels light. It is so gently battered and quickly fried by a well-trained expert that no one who eats at Mikawa will ever eat tempura the same way again. One secret is potato starch instead of flour as the base, but there’s also some secrets in there that shall forever remain a mystery, and I’m delighted about it. I don’t need to know how it all happens – I just want to enjoy it!
The items that the long-trained chef serves are all locally obtained – and is all fish, shellfish and vegetables – old fashioned style. The first course is ebi, shrimp, but not the colossal type that is popular. These are normal-sized, local shrimp. We eat two of them, and then we promptly receive the shrimp heads to enjoy, which are crunchy and vaguely reminiscent of popcorn. Over the seven years we have been frequenting Mikawa, I’d say that the shrimp heads have become our favorite treat there. The rest of the courses are equally small and filling and there are many of them. There’s squid that somehow melts in the mouth; whiting, a small fish served in a bunch; a fish of the day; a veggie course of asparagus, eggplant and whatever else is in season (in the autumn there’s matsutake mushrooms – we always go for a treat of them in September!); and then the ending is kakiage, which is served to the diner in a possibility of three ways – in soup, over rice, or by itself. Each course is served slowly with plenty of digestion time between.
As with most course menus in Japan, there’s a little, tiny dessert which is only mildly sweet, at the end. At Mikawa, it’s most often a little bit of plain jelly with azuki beans in it. It’s the perfect ending to a perfect meal and somehow the cool, soft feeling relieves any over-stuffing one might feel.
Mikawa is a treat for the senses. The sound of the sizzling tempura, the bright décor of the restaurant and the delightful explosion of light taste in the mouth invite pure pleasure.
What I have learned over the past seven years in Japan is to open doors. Sometimes unmarked doors can hold the greatest and most delightful surprises.