Recently named one of the 50 Best New Restaurants in America by Bon Appétit, Durham’s M Tempura specializes in exactly what its name suggests. Dinner consists of multiple courses of tempura-fried vegetables, meats, fish and beyond, but such a menu will run you either $29, $43 or $79 — a bit hefty for a student on a budget. Go for lunch, however, and you will find simpler offerings of katsu dishes that demonstrate the precision and technical expertise that can be manifested within a cooking technique as simple as frying. I have never tasted a fried food more precise and delicate than the one served at M Tempura. It was a joy to experience their perfected iteration of an often misunderstood style of cooking.
Tucked away on a one-way street in downtown Durham, M Tempura embraces a minimalist aesthetic both inside and out. You can easily miss it while passing by, but look for the painted “M” on the window and you will know that you are in the right place. Durham restauranteur and chef Michael Lee opened M Tempura this past year as a part of his M Restaurant Group, his third official venture with many more concepts coming soon to Durham. This outpost was sure to stun and separate from the pack, as its accolades sang of the restaurant’s magic and capability to delight even the pickiest of diners.
Upon being seated, you are greeted with a simple set of chopsticks, a napkin, a glass cup and a menu. Coming for lunch only warrants eight main options: four regular katsu dishes, two sandwiches, curry katsu and noodle soup. I opted for the curry katsu — as it seemed the most thoughtfully composed — and I am glad to say that it was the most delectable piece of fried meat that I have had the pleasure of consuming.
M Tempura defines their katsu as “protein that has been coated with special Japanese milk bread crumbs and delicately fried,” a classification that you will realize is underwhelming once you take a bite. Before you do, take in the presentation in for a second. Notice how clean the slices of pork are, how only the corners of it touch the curry sauce, how the rice is so nicely formed into a mound, how the salad is so simple yet so elegant and how the pickles are sorted by color. Once you take a bite of this dish with all of its components you will get a feeling of comfort within your soul that is hard to ignore.
The pork is so expertly fried that the crunch brings about a feeling of astonishment, making you enter a state of peace as you realize that there has likely never been a bite of pork more succulent, crispy and uplifting as this. Paired with the curry it becomes an entity in and of itself, making your family’s Thanksgiving turkey fear for its place at the table as it realizes that its partnership with gravy could easily be decimated as this new contender enters the arena. The rice is cooked to a perfect stickiness and is best enjoyed dipped in the curry. The salad is revitalizing. Light and served with a flavorful dressing, it is a breath of fresh air in the middle of all the fried glory that you are partaking in.
But the pickles? They have a flavor that I can’t quite put into words. Remember “Arthur”? They evoke the feeling you get when you hear the sound effect indicating that a character is transitioning from real life into an imaginary scenario. Unique and rejuvenating, they’re a wonderfully bright accompaniment to your meal. Combine all the parts of your lunch together and you’ll get a meal that will linger in your mind for weeks to come.
The opportunity to visit M Tempura is not to be missed. Whether you opt to go for lunch or for dinner, you will be presented with incredible options that are certain to inspire awe and instill within you a new reverence for the art of battering and frying foods. Find the time to hop on the BCC bus right off of East to make the trip to downtown Durham. You will be more than satisfied with the experience. You will leave the restaurant reborn, invigorated by the excitement of the meal and eager to return again.