At the corner of 39th Street and Tunnel Exit Street—what essentially amounts to the exit ramp for the Queens Midtown Tunnel—you'll find a discreet doorframe masked by a small curtain. Next to it, a simple placard heralds Tempura Matsui, a restaurant specializing in the Japanese dish consisting of fried seafood and vegetables. Inside you'll find chef and owner, Masao Matsui, a 65-year-old tempura expert who's previously operated similar restaurants in Japan before achieving his dream of bringing his passion to NYC. With the opening of his namesake restaurant, Matsui may be heralding the next big trend in Japanese cuisines, moving past stalwarts sushi and ramen to introduce American palates to a different specialty of Japanese cooking.

Most Americans know tempura as the panko-laden shrimp or vegetables offered at many Japanese restaurants, but the versions coming out of the oil at Tempura Matsui bear almost no resemblance to those gut-bombs. Matsui and his assistants whip the light batter and dredge each piece individually before its time in the hot oil, a blend that Matsui created himself. Ingredients are fried a la minute before being served piece-by-piece to ensure the shortest amount of time between the fryer and your mouth.

During a visit to the restaurant last week, Matsui began the tempura tasting with fried shrimp heads, addictive pops of crunchy antennae, legs and tiny claws. If one were able to recreate the process easily at home, they'd make the case for the next innovation in fried snack foods. Following that, buttery king crab, a cherry tomato that instantly turned to liquid once bitten and the other sleeper hit: a mushroom whose humble exterior did nothing to warn of the mouth-searing heat hidden inside. Bite with caution.



The tempura segment is but one section of a 10-course meal, which begins with a trio of smaller dishes including creamy homemade sesame tofu and toothsome simmered octopus. The unexpected favorite of the evening was the Chawan-mushi with red rice, tai fish and uni ankake. An exploratory spoon dip into a kiln-fired cup—one of the many beautiful, distinctive dishes used throughout the meal—reveals a creamy custard studded with bites of sea bream and chewy red rice. On the top, a tongue of sea urchin floats in a thick broth.

Dishes are doled out in quick succession, leaving just a bit of time between courses to take in the surroundings. If you're seated at one of three tables in the small but well-appointed space, that means laser beams into the backs of diners seated at the 9-seat bar overlooking the frying action. At those seats, one can watch every piece of fish and vegetable being prepped or notice the custom of buying the chef a glass of sake as he prepares the meals. This lovely gesture, coupled with a playful staff and an all-Beatles soundtrack during our meal, saved what could be construed as a more formal environment from being overly stuffy or precious.

There are moments of unquestionable deliciousness in a meal here, but at $200 per person, we're left to wonder who this restaurant is really for. There are more ambitious and expensive tasting menus in the city, to be sure, but it's too early to tell if New Yorkers will be as amenable to shelling out hundreds of dollars to eat what amounts to (very expertly) deep fried stuff. Aside from dishes mentioned here and a lovely, if simple, sashimi course, the other entries didn't pack enough of a punch to justify the enormous price tag. But those shrimp heads—keep 'em coming.

222 East 39th Street, 212-986-8885; website. Dinner Monday - Saturday, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. Reservation only.