Food & Drink

Scratch Bakery left downtown Durham, but M Tempura is ready to take its place

Chef Michael Lee owns M Sushi, M Kokko and M Tempura. He is opening his fourth restaurant M Pocha in downtown Durham
Chef Michael Lee owns M Sushi, M Kokko and M Tempura. He is opening his fourth restaurant M Pocha in downtown Durham Juli Leonard

The chef of celebrated M Sushi and crave palace M Kokko will open a new fry bar called M Tempura in downtown Durham.

Chef Michael Lee is taking over the cozy space at 111 Orange St., that was occupied by Scratch Baking for eight years.

M Tempura, scheduled to open later this summer after a brief renovation, will serve tasting menus of bite-size fried things in a dining room of around 40 seats.

Tempura, perhaps the pinnacle of the fry arts, is often associated with Japanese cooking — vegetables and shrimp are fried so lightly they might be healthy.

Lee told The News & Observer in January he has plans to open several more restaurant projects in downtown Durham, but M Tempura wasn't originally one of them.

"This wasn't part of the original concepts," Lee said of M Tempura. "It kind of popped up."

He thought M Kogi and M Taco might be next — Korean barbecue and taco concepts that will be separate restaurants but share a kitchen, similar to how M Sushi and M Kokko operate.

A mutual friend of his and Scratch owner Phoebe Lawless showed him the space as a possible contender for M Kogi. It turned out to be too small, but he started thinking of another idea.

"We had just taken a trip to Manhattan and Japan and ate at these wonderful tempura restaurants," Lee said. "I do tempura all the time at home and am fairly good at it. I thought, wait a minute..."

Suddenly the Orange Street spot was perfect, Lee said, as Japanese tempura shops are often tiny and intimate.

Lee said the M Tempura menu will mirror much of what goes on at M Sushi. Tempura is typically fried seafood and vegetables, but Lee plans to mix in other proteins, including lusciously rich red meats like Iberico pork and Wagyu beef.

"We'll take pristine ingredients, and they're fried very minimally, very delicately so the flavor of the product can come through," Lee said. "It's traditional to eat at the counter and eat the bites right away, so the fried stuff doesn't get cold, so it's served at the optimal time and temperature."

M Tempura largely will be served omakase-style, where chefs choose and prepare the best ingredients of the day, rather than a menu of a la carte options.

Look for more of this as Lee's restaurant group grows. Look out for an all-vegan Buddhist cuisine restaurant, a pop-up inspired chef's table space and eventually a non-profit fast casual concept.

Other than M Kokko, Lee said the other concepts will all be omakase.

"When we open the Korean barbecue, it will be one of a kind, probably nothing else like it in the US," Lee said. "It'll almost be a course menu, one or two bites of each thing. So you could come as two people or by yourself and still enjoy everything. (Omakase) helps showcase what we're trying to do with each ingredient."

Lee is drawing nearer to selecting a site for M Kogi, but nothing has been finalized, he said.

Lawless still has a smaller version of Scratch Bakery, next to her full-service service restaurant The Lakewood.

News of M Tempura was first reported by the blog Bites of Bull City.

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