The Woods of Tempura Matsui (by Steven Hall)

Tempura Matsui transports you from a very busy Manhattan Street (it sits at the corner of the midtown tunnel east exit) to a traditional home in Japan. Upon my first viewing in May I was skeptical; upon completion I was brought to tears. From the small sign that bears its name, to the Japanese banners hanging at the entrance, Tempura Matsui is unequivocally Japanese.

What struck me here, as it does in other Japanese restaurants, is the wood used for the dining counters, bar and ceiling. The surface you eat on in a Japanese restaurant is just as important as the food itself, and the ambiance the wood creates is calming and elegant. How can wood create such a mood? In my own home I have a similar situation, a 7ft. piece of Claro Walnut that was brought to life by the artist Peter Kirkiles. It is the centerpiece of the living room, an extension of the kitchen, it's where I work, when home, read the daily newspapers (yes I still read newspapers) it's where Alan works, it's where we eat, and it's where I chop and dice. It's natural edge gives waviness to the straight lines of a New York City apartment, the table is part of our family.

What wood has, is history. I knew the wood at Tempura Matsui must've had former lives, so I spoke with Jessica Wickham, whose company was hired to source the wood. Jessica's studio, in Beacon NY, prides itself on using carefully selected sustainably sourced hardwoods. They mill and dry most of their material themselves, but this project called for some very specific, hard-to-find woods.

The tempura counter and banquette tables are solid White Oak.  Sourced from a naval timber yard in Rhode Island (actually the tree came down in Virginia) it is old-growth with very fine growth rings.  It is unusual to find natural edge white oak, Brushstroke is the only other restaurant in NYC with such a White Oak counter. The wood is so gorgeous that they call it the “King of Woods.”

The tempura counter in the VIP room is solid rift-sawn White Oak from the Spessart Forest in Germany. This wood was sourced by Talarico Hardwoods from Pennsylvania that specializes in this material.  It is completely CLEAR, no defects, it is a very specific look, calm and elegant.

The drinking bar is solid Black Walnut from a tree that grew (on a nunnery of all places) in Lancaster County, PA.  The tree was huge, and was struck by lightning.  Jessica purchased the log from a wonderful sawyer there, and had it milled and air/kiln dried for years before she found the perfect home for it at Tempura Matsui.

The stunning ceiling in the main room and the VIP room was done to simulate a traditional “sukiya-style” villa ceiling by Yann Giguère (of MOKUCHI Woodworking), a Brooklyn-based, French Canadian woodworker who practices traditional Japanese woodworking, all work done with hand saws, hand planes and chisels.  Some of the wood was imported from Japan, such as the bamboo and the lapped “sawara” panels in the ceiling. interestingly, the Fuji vines that are used to bind everything together are actual vines, very specific traditional material used in Japanese wooden house construction.

The wood paneling in the restaurant is all done by Braga Woodworks in Middletown, NY. They made, hand-sliced, and laid veneer for the panels from the front entrance to the bathroom doors. The organic + ritualized look and feel at Tempura Matsui is quintessentially Japanese; they embrace local materials and seasonal details paying attention to very subtle elements like light, shadow and texture.

So next time you dine anywhere, and especially at one of the many Japanese restaurants in New York City, take a moment to pay homage to the wood. Nature has been brought directly to your fingertips. Touch it, grasp it, find your inner hippie and become a "tree hugger" for just a moment, the gods of the forest will make sure you have a great meal.

Tempura Matsui
222 East 39th Street
New York, NY 10016
(212) 986-8885