Much of Ginza’s nightlife is on side streets such as the ultra-expensive Namiki dori with its hostess clubs and exclusive expense account-only restaurants. But one block over on Suzuran dori are a myriad of cheaper drinking holes and eateries clustering toward Shimbashi. Many of these spots are hard to find, but none more hidden than Ten Asa, one of my favorite tempura restaurants, and a quintessential Ginza experience.
You approach Ten Asa down a dark cleft, barely shoulder wide, between two multi-story buildings. Walk past blue plastic garbage cans, strumming air conditioning units, ragged mops, perhaps an alley cat or two, and eventually you’ll spot the glow of a lighted sign at a noren-curtained entrance. Slide open the door and you’ll find a lovely, traditionally appointed restaurant with an L-shaped counter seating nine.
Ten Asa serves a great lunch, the tempura teishoku set (2700 yen) or the less expensive tendon box lunch set (1600 yen), but to appreciate the full tempura experience, you need to try a dinner course such as the Yumei (6800 yen) with its eight tempura tidbits.
Arriving at 5pm on a recent evening, I had my choice of seats, but soon other customers drifted in: A grey-haired gent in an elegant brown kimono, then a pair of businessmen in shirts still brilliantly white and crisply starched.
The course features seasonal vegetables, fish and other delicacies, lightly battered and crisply fried, interspersed with several other dishes, including a starter, a small salad, then rice, miso soup, pickles, and finally a dessert.
Tempura marries well with a cool glass of Chardonnay (1000 yen) or a flask of chilled saké, such as the rich and mellow junmaishu, Daishichi (2800 yen), but most customers order a cold bottle of lager (850 yen). With your drink, you’ll get a few deep-fried hone sembei, “bone crackers,” including the cord-like backbone of an anago eel, salted and crunchy, tied into a pretzel; a crisp ribbon of kisu fish backbone, and two sets of delicate shrimp legs from the crustaceans you’ll soon be eating.
At a leisurely pace, each item is placed on the folded sheet of pristine white paper in front of you: Baby corn, complete with silk, cooked to a popcorn-like nuttiness. A shiitake mushroom as thick as a ribeye steak and just as meaty. Megochi, flathead fish, with firm tasty flesh. A tiny eggplant. A golden onion, the size of a ping pong ball, sliced in half.
A woman in a deep blue kimono glides in and sits next to the grey-haired gent. She is of a certain age too—her coiffed raven black hair shines. Her crimson nails click on the beer bottle as she pours him a fresh glass. Soon they are engaged in lilting conversation.
Next to me another businessman enjoys his tempura while reading a book on Buddhist statues. Dessert comes—a scoop of deep pink plum sherbet, flecked with ume flesh, and a cup of jade green sen cha.
The kimono couple laugh. A lover’s tryst? Who knows? Who cares? It’s the Ginza after all.
8-7-19 Ginza, Chuo-ku. Tel: 03-5568-6200. Open Monday to Saturday. Lunch 11:30am to 1pm. (L.O. 2pm). Dinner 5pm to 10pm. (L.O. 9:30pm). Closed Sundays and Holidays.