Tenshu — tempura donburi in Gion
Tenshu, located in Kyoto’s Gion district serves a famous tempura dinner course and an equally famous donburi at lunch. Tenshu is a very famous restaurant, countless celebrities and national politicians dine at Tenshu. On a weekend you can expect to wait 30 to 60 minutes to be seated for lunch!
On the recommendations of several Japanese friends, I visited Tenshu for lunch.
Tenshu is located in Gion, the most well known and vibrant hanamachi (geisha district) of Kyoto. Tenshu is located just west of Yasaka Shrine on Shijo Street (四条通り, Shijio-dori), just a few blocks east of the Kamo River.
I went on a weekday and arrived around 11:30 and was able to get seated immediately.
Tenshu is a small restaurant and seats about a dozen guests (not unusual in Japan), mostly at a single counter and there is a single table.
Actually, I was a little disappointed. Tenshu is a bit run down and grungy. However, the staff is friendly and the service is prompt.
I was seated at the counter, which, like a sushi bar has a glass barrier. On the other side there are two cauldrons of boiling oil where the chef deep-fries the tempura. Now, I think that the theatrical aspect of the Japanese culinary experience is wonderful, but in this case, there wasn’t much to see. Ya just drop the tempura into the oil and pluck it out when it’s done, right?
After I sat down I noticed that the counter, my tray and so on, was all covered in small droplets of oil! I became acutely aware of the smell of oil permeating the place. The people next to me seemed to be regulars and appeared completely unfazed so I decided to just put being bathed in oil droplets out of my mind.
The lunch menu consists of four tempura donburi (天丼, tendon) dishes. There is saltwater eel (穴子, anago), shrimp (海老, ebi), mixed (anago and ebi) and the famous kakiage (かきあげ). I had the kakiage tendon which is gigantic. The kakiage tendon contains 6 kinds of diced vegetables including Japanese sweet potato, kabocha squash and several varieties of greens.
Tenshu is very particular about all the ingredients that go into it’s famed tempura. The water for the tempura batter comes from Mount Atago, north-west of Kyoto. The eggs are special (exactly in what way is unspecified). The old for deep-frying is sesame oil!
The kakiage doesn’t even come close to fitting in the donburi bowl. After deep-frying, the 2.5cm thick piece of tempura is dipped in slightly sweetened tare, but only half. The dipped half is placed on top of the rice, on the un-dipped half you sprinkle maccha-salt (powdered green tea mixed with, salt) — this goes great with tempura! Maccha-salt is served only by fine tempura restaurants.
The tendon dishes are served with tsukemono (Japanese pickles) and miso soup.
Tenshu Kakiage Tempura Donburi
The house tsukemono on the left and in the red bowl (top center) is the maccha-salt mixture to be sprinkled on.
Notice the board on the upper left, the images are of celebrities and Tenshu appearances on TV.
critique: Well, Tenshu comes highly recommended by Japanese however I was underwhelmed. The kakiage tendon is a monotonous, one-dimensional dish. It’s huge and oily. I couldn’t finish mine. I would like to go back and try the anago and mixed tendon. Dinner is 13 courses of tempura, and though the menu looked great, I am sure that I could not enjoy sitting through all 13 courses, while being steeped in cooking oil.
If you are just looking for a great tasting meal, you might want to give Tenshu a second thought. If you want to try something in Gion that is very, very popular with Japanese, and that is not ridiculously expensive, give Tenshu a try.
English: no English menu, no English website, the staff is quite friendly.