Tempura in America and tempura in Japan are two very different creatures. In America, you'll find tempura garnishing bowls of udon, as an appetizer of vegetables or shrimp, and bastardized into popcorn shrimp bites served with a creamy, Sriracha-esque dipping sauce. For the most part, tempura in the US is little more than a soggy afterthought—a fried snack in the middle of an otherwise sushi heavy menu.
In Japan, tempura is the meal. Whole restaurants are dedicated to the beautifully crisp, golden bites, traditionally served omakase style alongside a counter bar so you can watch the master work and eat your tempura the moment it comes out of the sizzling oil.
While traditional tempura restaurants have a long history in Japan, tempura restaurants in America are far more rare with Japanese cuisine tending to mean sushi, ramen, izakaya, and kaiseki. But luckily for Angelenos, chef Satori Masada is all about bringing an authentic, high-end tempura experience to America with a new Los Angeles outpost of the Kyoto-based tempura restaurant Tempura Endo.
Specializing in high-end tempura served in the traditional omakase style, Masada focuses on bringing in the highest-quality ingredients he can find while giving a California touch to his dishes. You can expect bites such as a scallop stuffed with caviar, an egg roll chock full of sweet and briny urchin, an embossed miniature shrimp toast, and chunks of prime imported wagyu wrapped in a light layer of batter. Guests are encouraged to pair with subtle green tea salt, truffle salt, or imported Japanese salts.
For top tier tempura, every little thing matters. Masada even gets crazy specific about his flour choice and swears by "weak flour" to put forward perfectly paper-thin tempura. Masada goes with Nissin premium weak flour because of the ultra-fine texture and almost non-existent amount of protein, which works to prevent the development of gluten within the batter. Gluten is basically the archnemesis of Tempura Endo; developing as little of it as possible allows the tempura to come out light and airy.
But it isn't just the flour. What kind of water you use, as with any other flour/water interaction, has an effect on the tempura as well. Masada swears by cold hard water that's rich in calcium and magnesium. Hard water also helps remove any harsh, bitter taste in the original ingredients and prevents the creation of gluten, achieving an ideal, permeable membrane-like coating that can hold the flavors of each ingredient, while removing acridity.
But beyond the typical obsessiveness over flour and water that's typical of tempura chefs, Masada does something that is definitely not typical of traditional tempura: He adds wine to it.
Masada takes chardonnay and mixes it into the batter for his seafood to bring a subtle fragrance and added depth of flavor to each bite. For his vegetables, he adds cold sauvignon blanc. Adding alcohol to tempura is not unheard of. Because gluten forms with water but not with alcohol, sometimes a touch of sochu or vodka is added. But a majority of wine in place of water is different. Not only does the wine impart a nuanced flavor upon the tempura, it also makes the tempura crispier and drier as the alcohol prevents gluten formation and evaporates once it hits the hot oil.
The result is perfectly crunchy tempura with a layer of batter so thin that the flavors of the meat, fish, and produce within them shine through in a way that's hard to find outside of Japan. And it's that level of execution, the non-traditional use of wine, and the top-quality ingredients that makes Masada's tempura a unique picture of both the history and future of tempura.