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Review: Until you’ve eaten at Michael Lee’s M Tempura, you haven’t had tempura at its best

Tempura isn’t as high profile as sushi or as trendy as ramen, but there’s no denying its popularity.

Take a look at the menu of your favorite Japanese restaurant, and I’m willing to bet you’ll find tempura among the listings. It may be just a cameo appearance — an appetizer from the kitchen at a sushi bar, or a couple of tempura shrimp in a bowl of udon noodle soup. In many Japanese restaurants, tempura gets a more prominent role, with an entire entree category devoted to variations on the theme. I’ll even double down on that bet and wager that you like tempura as much as I do.

But I’m here to tell you that, unless you’ve eaten at M Tempura, or one of the handful of other omakase-style tempura restaurants in the U.S. (two in New York, at last count, and one in California), you haven’t had tempura at its best.

Like omakase sushi, the tempura version is a chef’s choice selection presented one bite-size course at a time, each intended to be eaten immediately to appreciate it at its very peak. In the case of sushi, it’s the freshness of the fish that’s showcased. In tempura, it’s the diaphanous crispness of a perfect tempura batter crust.

JUMP_MTEMPURA12-FE-040319-JE
M Tempura in Durham uses the traditional fresh Japanese milk crumbs for the fried Japanese specialty: katsu. The katsu sets, including the kurobuta pork pictured here, are only served at lunch and include miso soup, rice, mixed pickles, shredded cabbage, and katsu sauce on the side. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

M Tempura offers three omakase options, ranging from the $29 Basic (9 courses plus steamed rice with a runny tempura egg and miso soup) all the way up to the extravagant “M” Omakase. That one will set you back $79 per person, and it’s available only if everyone in your party orders it. Regardless of which level you choose, prepare to have your eyes opened to a whole new tempura experience.

Splurge on the “M” Omakase and you’ll be rewarded with a lavish 11-course tempura feast, sandwiched between a couple of non-tempura starters and a couple of small plates at the end. Oh yeah, and dessert.

The first starter pairs a crunchy shard of chicharron and an airy house-made ricotta velouté spangled with salmon roe, green tea salt and a drizzle of maple syrup — an unlikely-sounding riot of flavors and textures that proves to be inspired. The second is a multisensory kaleidoscope of sea trout, honey crisp apple, fish roe and aji amarillo sauce. Both are memorable in their own right. It’s hard to believe they’re just priming your palate for the main feature.

Next, a black lacquer tray is set in front of you with traditional tempura accompaniments — dipping sauce, grated daikon (stir this into the sauce), a small dish of colorful mixed pickles, yuzu salt and a lemon wedge in a whimsical fish-shaped stainless steel squeezer. If you opted to sit at the counter, then the front row view of owner/chef Michael Lee or chef de cuisine Savannah Miller battering and frying the first tempura course, Argentine pink prawns and their (eminently edible) heads, will surely start your mouth watering in anticipation.

Lee, who also owns the excellent M Sushi and M Kokko, is uncompromising in his insistence on freshness and quality in his ingredients, so the tempura offering is susceptible to minor changes depending on availability. But you can be sure he’ll sprinkle a few lavish highlights in among the procession of his signature “M” Omakase. Currently, those highlights include a generous dollop of caviar atop an exquisite tempura scallop; a melt-in-your-mouth nugget of A5 wagyu beef (that’s the highest grade available); lobster; and scallop mousse and truffle-stuffed potato. That said, even the “ordinary” tempura items — asparagus, shiitake mushroom and the like — are exemplary.

After a palate cleanser (recently, honeydew sorbet showered with lime zest) come the small plates: lightly breaded skate wing in a Szechuan sambal sauce; and house-made squid ink pasta tossed in a clam butter sauce, ringed with half a dozen steamed clams.

Dessert — ginger ice cream on one occasion recently, blood orange sorbet garnished with meringue and shiso leaf on another — conclude a meal that will no doubt earn a spot among your most memorable meals.

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M Tempura serves a multisensory kaleidoscope of sea trout, honey crisp apple, fish roe and aji amarillo sauce as a starter for the M Omakase. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

A few items are offered a la carte: scallops, prawns, lobster, vegetables and noodle soup, included.

Tempura is offered only in the evenings, and reservations are strongly recommended. Seatings are spaced out to ensure that the fryer can keep up the measured pace, and each individual course arrives timely and at its peak.

At lunchtime, the fryer is put to use turning out a different fried Japanese specialty: katsu. True to form, Lee uses the traditional fresh Japanese milk crumbs for the breading rather than the common panko — and it shows in the supremely delicate crust of the final product.

The streamlined lunch menu includes just a handful of katsu sets (served with miso soup, rice, mixed pickles, shredded cabbage, and katsu sauce on the side), and a like number of sandwiches. Brief as it is, the selection manages to offer something for every taste and budget, from $10 vegetarian potato croquettes to a (take a deep breath) $79 A5 wagyu beef katsu sandwich.

There’s also Chilean sea bass, a chicken katsu sandwich, and the classic pork tonkatsu — traditional, or topped with Japanese curry sauce. Pork kurobuta, just a dollar more than the standard tonkatsu, is well worth the upcharge.

Open since last October in the old Scratch Bakery space in downtown Durham, M Tempura is a compact restaurant with just 40 seats total at the tables and counter. The decor might be described as American urban meets Japanese austere — white paper lanterns on an etagere behind the host stand, dried flower wreaths between windows set high in a rough brick wall. It’s a suitably understated setting for a restaurant where the food deserves all the attention you can give it.

M Tempura

111 Orange St., Durham

919-748-3874

m-restaurants.com/m-tempura

Cuisine: Japanese

Rating: 4 1/2 stars

Prices: $$-$$$$

Atmosphere: American urban meets Japanese austere

Noise level: low

Service: exceptionally well-trained and eager to please

Recommended: everything

Open: Lunch Tuesday-Friday, dinner Tuesday-Saturday

Reservations: strongly recommended for dinner

Other: beer, wine and sake; get a sitter; vegan and gluten-free options available; parking on street and in the Chapel Hill Street garage

The N&O’s critic dines anonymously; the newspaper pays for all meals. We rank restaurants in five categories: 5 stars: Extraordinary. 4 stars: Excellent. 3 stars: Above average. 2 stars: Average. 1 star: Fair.

The dollar signs defined: $ Entrees average less than $10. $$ Entrees $11 to $20. $$$ Entrees $21 to $30. $$$$ Entrees more than $30.

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