September 28, 2013

Private dining, almost

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I did something terrible that I haven't done for a long, long time… In fact, I don't even remember the last time I did something like this.  I double-booked myself.

Two weeks ago I had arranged to meet some friends for dinner tonight.  As I had been busy traveling to Taipei for Mid-Autumn Festival, and then gotten busy preparing for my board meeting with the boss, somehow it slipped my mind.  And it didn't help that I wasn't responsible for booking the restaurant for our gathering, so the event failed to register and I never put it in my calendar.

A few days ago, I discussed dinner plans with another couple.  I wasn't very eager to go out for another meal, as I had already reached my weekly quota of cheat meals with the Sotheby's dinner.  My extremely kind and considerate friends decided that they would entertain me at home and cook up some simple vegetables and rice, so that I could stay within the boundaries of my diet.

So imagine my absolute horror when, while checking out some amazing pieces from Vacheron Constantin at Watches and Wonders this afternoon, I received a message reminding me that dinner had been booked at Kazuo Okada per my suggestion.  I realized right then and there that no matter what happens, I was going to have to look like a jerk and cancel on someone.

I decided to stick with my friends who made the reservation at Kazuo Okada, as I had booked them first.  I apologized profusely to the friends who were entertaining at home, and stopped by to deliver some contraband I smuggled in for them.

1971 Hasenklever Bonnes-Mares - nose a little dusty, but that could have been the glass.  Some black fruits like plums, a little leather.  Nose was somewhat decent but palate was very short.  Then again, I had just drunk some coffee so my tastebuds were not functioning anyway…

Having delivered the package along with the mea culpa, I joined the other set of friends and headed across the harbor.  It's been a few years since I was last in Hung Hom, and I was utterly amazed by Winnie the Chew's ability to navigate the streets…

It was past 8pm when we stepped inside the restaurant, and found ourselves to be the only customers of the evening.  Another couple arrived a little later, but didn't seem to be having dinner and left shortly.  Wow!  The last time I had the restaurant all to myself was during my 6-month move to Singapore nearly a decade ago, when so many decent and upscale Western restaurants seemed to be devoid of customers.

Given that this was an "extra" cheat meal, I figured I'd better be good and order the cheaper of the two kaiseki sets, having read that the chef's kaiseki set was the "extensive" set.  Well, it turns out that both sets have the same number of courses, and differs simply in the quality of ingredients used.  Oh well…

Flash smoked salmon with nuta sauce (瞬間薫製サーモン) - this is apparently a signature dish here, and I could see why.  We could smell the smoke coming through the pores, and removing the cover instantly filled the air with intense cherry wood smoke.

Once the smoke has cleared, we find two slices of torched salmon wrapped around green scallions, sitting on some nuta (ぬた) sauce made with white miso (白味噌).  Some finely shredded strands of radish (大根) and deep-fried potato (ジャガイモ) are placed on top. Both the smoking and torching imparted intense smoky flavors to the salmon, and the fact that it was only lightly cooked meant it retained a nice, succulent texture.  A very good start to the meal.

Cured mackerel and seared squid vinaigrette sauce (〆鯖と炙り烏賊 白酢かけ) - the top layer of the dish consisted of a cooked prawn (車海老) and sliced eggplant (茄子) sitting on a very thin wafer of lotus root (蓮根).  Fortunately the prawn was nicely done and not overcooked.

Below the lotus root sat pieces each of mackerel (鯖) that had been cured in kelp (昆布), along with slices of squid that had been finely scored before being torched, all sitting on this sauce (白酢) made from soy pulp, sesame and vinegar.  I could have sworn that our waiter actually told me that the mackerel was bonito (鰹)…  In any case I thought the mackerel and squid were pretty yummy, especially that smoky flavor again on the squid.

Scallop shijyo ~mushroom sawani style soup~ (帆立真丈 茸沢煮椀) - the giant ball in the middle was made h both scallop paste as well as diced scallops encased inside.  This was actually pretty tasty. The bowl was filled with lots of different mushrooms like shiitake (椎茸), maitake (舞茸) and enoki (榎茸), and garnished with capsicum slices and radish sprouts.

Today's sashimi (本日の造り) - the olive flounder (平目) slices were pretty thick and chewy, which was a refreshing change from the usual.  The splendid alfonsino (金目鯛) pieces had the skin ever so lightly grilled to impart that smoky flavor.  Nice with the yuzu soy sauce (柚子醤油).  Interestingly, in addition to the usual shredded radish there was also some very finely shredded pumpkin, which actually wasn't as sweet as I would have expected.

Chef's choice shinogi (凌ぎ) - a single piece of torched rosy sea bass (赤鯥) sat on top of the rice, with salmon roe (イクラ).  Rosy sea bass definitely needs to be torched to bring out all the flavors.  Nice.

Deep fried tilefish and grilled pike mackerel with chestnut sauce (甘鯛揚げ浸し 秋刀魚塩焼き栗ソース) - the waiter called it the "chestnut combination", since chestnut was served in several ways here.  There was also ground chestnut powder as well as deep-fried chestnut chips.

The tilefish was deep-fried and served with shredded burdock (牛蒡) on top, onion and chestnut halves.  Decorated with a leaf from the chestnut tree.

The pacific saury (秋刀魚) was rolled up tightly and grilled, and served on a bed of chestnut purée.  Garnished with pickled ginger shoot and ginkgo (銀杏) nuts.

This “chestnut" was a very interesting creation, and earned brownie points for the chef in my book.  While the center was indeed a piece of chestnut, the burr which appears to have cracked open was made with white fish gelatin and green tea somen (茶素麺).  How creative was that?!

Duck tempura with simmered Japanese radish negi thick sauce hot pot (鴨天婦羅と大根 小鍋仕立て 葱餡かけ) - this was the only dish that failed this evening.  First of all, why bother to batter and deep-fry duck?  Leaving that aside, this came in a pot over a flame, and the flame was just too damn strong and ended up overcooking the duck.  I asked the waiter if he could help me put the flame out, and his initial response was to suggest that I wait for the flame to die down by itself.  When I complained and insisted, the staff took it away and returned it to me without the flame.

Unfortunately, the duck had been way overcooked by now, and was dry and tough inside the batter which had turned mushy thanks to the scallion sauce that was poured into the bowl.  The one saving grace was the radish, which had been cut in one long ribbon and rolled up in the middle of the pot.  The eggplant cubes and cherry tomatoes didn't seem to add to the dish.

Japanese oyster rice (牡蠣御飯 みそ汁) - this was pretty decent, as the oysters were tasty and the rice pretty fragrant yet subtle.

Chef's dessert (本日の甘味) - slices of persimmon (柿), a monaka (最中) with red bean paste, and some marscapone with coffee ice cream.

We decided not to open the bottle of Champagne my friends brought, since I wasn't in the mood to drink a lot.  So we ended up order a small bottle of sake, and as it turned out the restaurant chose not to charge us for it.

Dassai Sparkling 50 (獺祭 スパークリング50) - interesting that in addition to a sparkling wine, this was also an unfiltered sake (にごり酒).  Nose of banana, fermented rice and yeasty notes.  Pretty sweet on the palate as expected.

I had heard some good things about this place, and in the end I was not disappointed.  The food was very solid, and the chef certain showed a good amount of creativity.  I am definitely looking forward to coming back here, and I'm also looking to try out sister restaurants Messina and Yu Lei (玉蕾).  Now if only this place wasn't such a pain to get to...

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