April 2, 2009

A more traditional izakaya

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I've been going to Irori (いろり) for izakaya dining for years, but lately I felt the need to seek an alternative, if only for an occasional change of scenery. Tonight I tried out Ishiyama (石山), an izakaya in Causeway Bay reputedly refrequented by Japanese expats. Given that most of the menu items are in Japanese, with the rest in Chinese, I'd say that's a pretty clear indication of the clientele. It's a good thing I know my way around Japanese menus...

My friends' dining habits are very mainstream when it comes to Japanese cuisine, so I took over and took them on a tour of what izakayas are all about. Thinking back I definitely ordered up a storm, especially since someone complained about being hungry from a small lunch.

We started with a cold Koya tofu (高野豆腐). It actually reminds me of the Chinese frozen tofu (凍豆腐), which is frozen to create a spongy texture with lots of holes inside. It's a simple enough dish to start with.

The stir-fried julienned burdock (金平牛蒡焼き) was OK and it's standard izakaya fare, but my friends have never had this veggie. I wish I could find burdock in Hong Kong that is breaded and deep-fried, like the way they make it in Taiwan. It's sooooo good...

The firefly squid (蛍烏賊) was a special tonight. I'm not sure if I've had this tiny squid before in Japan, but it's pretty interesting to have as it supposedly glows in the ocean like fireflies. It's a little bit fishy, but this can be neutralized by dipping it into the honey mustard sauce provided. Pretty yummy.

The stewed beef tendons (牛筋旨煮) were pretty nice, if a little too "Chinese" to us. Surprisingly it's a bit spicy, but tender and delicious nonetheless.

I was surprised to find stewed pig intestines on the menu. I guess I never realized that this was something eaten by the Japanese. I of course love the stuff, and this version was stewed with carrots and radish - standard Japanese preparation.

The sea eel sushi (穴子すし) was a big hit. The flesh is silky soft, without the annoying bones that one finds in freshwater eel (鰻). In addition to the usual sweet soy sauce, there is a dab of a special sauce on top which was a combination of yuzu (柚子) and sansho (山椒) - giving it a slight citrus and peppery kick. We all really enjoyed it so a second round was ordered.

The spinach in sesame sauce (胡麻ほうれん草) was nice, with sprinkles of sesame seeds on top. Pretty standard fare though I can recall a pretty tragic version at Miso...

I have always loved egg-bearing smelt (子持ちししゃも) ever since I was a kid in Tokyo, and I almost always order it when I'm at an izakaya. I could have easily devoured the entire order by myself...

The grilled fishcake (焼きさつま揚げ) was somewhat of a surprise. Usually the fishcakes found in Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong taste a lot more commercial, made of mass-produced fish paste. Not so the ones at Ishiyama. They are made from minced fish and you can see and taste the difference in texture. These are so much nicer!

I had a different image of the yuzu radish (柚子大根) in my head when I placed the order. Instead of the radish being stewed so that it's soft and almost melting, the radish has been pickled and is served cold. Still, it's a pretty nice alternative to the usual oshinko (おしんこ)...

The eggplant stewed with miso (茄子味噌煮) was done with minced pork and shredded scallions. Interestingly this reminded us of the stewed eggplant with garlic and chilli (魚香茄子) that we find in Sichuan cuisine, but a sweeter version without the spice of course...

No visit to an izakaya these days is complete without ordering the deep-fried chicken cartilage (鳥軟骨唐揚げ). The ones here aren't as yummy as what I can get from Irori, but still hits the spot. I asked for shichimi (七味) for added flavor.

Deep-fried salmon skin (鮭皮塩焼き) was a little fatty and unhealthy, but sooo yummy! There is a thin layer of fatty meat underneath the skin, so this isn't as crispy as what I normally have at the Kimberley Chinese Restaurant. But still delicious.

Finally we have the Hiroshima pancake (広島焼き), a variant of okonomiyaki (お好み焼き). This is pretty thin so there's not much batter, with a layer of cabbage in the middle. The top has been sprinkled with lots of seaweed, making it pretty tasty. Coming at the end of the meal, it's pretty darn filling...

I brought along a bottle of aged sake (古酒). The Matsu No Tsukasa 2002 Special (松の司) from Seto Seizaburo (瀬戸清三郎) is a junmai daiginjo koshu (純米大吟醸古酒), which is aged before being bottled and released. It's a limited bottling of 1,150 with a seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 35%, which is very low. The wine is reasonably sweet on the palate - Nihonshudo (日本酒度) of +4 - with a spicy after finish. It's also very smooth, a result of the aging process (released June 2007). It's actually very delicious and I'm definitely going to look for more of this on my next trip to Japan.

A very happy meal...perhaps it was my ordering but I felt that the dishes here were more traditional compared to Irori. Food was definitely good and worthy of many returns in the future.

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