February 7, 2017

A Japanese feast in Hong Kong

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I'm slow at trying out new restaurants.  I generally don't go to a new restaurant within the first 3 or even 6 months of opening, as I'm not a news reporter and don't need to brag about being first.  I also have zero desire to 'step on landmines' - spending my hard-earned money on a meal that may turn out disastrous.  After all, many new restaurant openings are so hyped up by the PR machine - helped by so-called "KOLs" (what the fuck are those, anyway?) who readily spread the word (more likely images these days) after being invited by the restaurant.  So I wait for the hype to die down, and if people are still talking about the place, and if my friends have given me enough positive feedback, I may be curious enough to try it out for myself.

The Great One had raved about La Bombance after dining there a few months ago.  In fact, it was chosen as one of the five best (new) restaurants the South China Morning Post tried in 2016.  The fact that the original restaurant in Tokyo has itself a macaron, and the local partner has already backed Tenku RyuGin (天空龍吟) and Ta Vie旅 - both restaurants I love - also gave me confidence that this place could deliver.  So I rounded up a couple of friends to check it out together.

I had already told the restaurant at the time I made the reservation that two of us won't eat tuna.  This morning I was shocked to find out that one of the friends we invited was in pain from gout.  This meant that there were a whole host of ingredients he couldn't touch.  I called the restaurant about 3 hours before dinner, and read out the list of ingredients that were off limits.  It was a pretty last-minute notice, so we weren't expecting them to be able to do much about changing the menu.

The assistant manager recognized me from my visits to Tenku RyuGin, which was a nice surprise.  I always knew that I could be a real pain-in-the-ass customer who would be remembered by restaurant staff... After all, I don't go to Tenku RyuGin that frequently...  Anyway, we were also told that the kitchen had managed to change out every single ingredient I had listed as being off-limits for my friend - and even taken care to remove another ingredient that they believed would be bad for gout.  How's that for service?!

First came the hassun (八寸), which was beautifully presented.  These looked like they still had the Japanese new year theme of red and white, and consisted of:

Deep fried Japanese smelt served with basil tartar sauce (公魚フライ  バジルタルタルソース) - it's been a while since I last had deep-fried Japanese smelt (ワカサギ), and the basil tartar sauce really worked well with it.

Homemade sesame tofu in red and white style, served with kuruma shrimp and sea urchin soy sauce (紅白胡麻豆腐  車海老  黒豆  ウニ醤油) - the "red and white" style tells me that this belong on a special menu for osechi (お節), with the red and white alternating bands of the shrimp, and the black beans reinforced that notion.

Herring eggs on kelp served with canola flower and bonito flakes (子持ち昆布  菜の花  系かつむ) - herring eggs (数の子) is another ingredient used in osechi menu, and I love the crunchy texture.

Sea cucumber flavored with vinegar (生子酢) - the Chinese don't usually pickle sea cucumber in vinegar, and the sharp acidity here along with a hint of bitterness was interesting.  The tiny little cubes of Japanese yam (山芋) provided a little extra crunch as well as some of the trademark slippery mouthfeel.

Dried persimmon stuffed with cream cheese (干柿クリームチーズ射込み) - a hint of savory flavors along with the sweet and chewy persimmon.

Kagoshima wagyu beef in dashi (牛ポトフ風スープ) - now this is why I always ask for a Japanese menu... because the English and/or Chinese translations often fail to convey the original meaning.  The Japanese menu clearly stated that this was a beef pot-au-feu, made with vegetables from Kyoto such as greenhouse onions, Kyoto red carrots (京にんじん), maitake (舞茸) mushrooms, and lotus roots.  The medallion of beef was oh-so-slightly overcooked, but still very tender and very, very flavorful.  There were a few rice puffs floating on top of the soup, which turned out to be surprisingly spicy thanks to the black pepper.  Very nice.

Then came the sashimi (お造り):

Sea bream (鯛) - this was lightly torched (炙り) for that hint of smoky flavor.
Simmered abalone topped with liver sauce (鮑肝和え) - very tender.
Hokki clam served with grated radish and ponzu sauce (北寄貝ちり酢和え) - crunchy and acidic as expected.

Then one of the chefs came out to make nigiri sushi (握り寿司) in front of our "counter" table.

Striped horsemackerel sushi (縞鰺握り寿司) - our substitute for not taking tuna.

Torched yellowtail sushi (寒鰤握り寿司) - with a few sesame seeds on top and seemed a little spicy.

Japanese green sea urchin sushi (馬糞ウニ握り寿司) - we were told that they had gotten a shipment of Japanese green sea urchin in, and asked whether we wanted an extra piece of sushi.  Of course we said 'Yes'...  These were nice and sweet, and the sea urchin came from Hirakawa Fishery (平川水産).

Pan-fried yellowtail and foie gras served with black vinegar sauce (寒鰤とフォアグラ、大根ステーキ バルサミコソース) - this was very good.  The piece of pan-fried radish "steak" at the bottom was pretty tasty.  The best season for yellowtail is winter, both the fish and the thin slice of foie gras on top may seem slightly overcooked at first.  But having the two ingredients in the mouth at the same time - along with the balsamico sauce - seemed to work really well.  The big lima beans were surprisingly tasty.

Steamed tilefish served with grated turnip, ginko nut and black fungus (甘鯛蕪蒸し  焼き穴子  銀あん) - hands down everyone's favorite dish of the evening.  The tilefish (甘鯛) was steamed on top of some kelp (昆布), and served with a mash of Shogoin turnip (聖護院かぶ) mixed with strips of vegetables such as carrots.  Besides ginkgo nuts and lily bulbs on the side, there was also a piece of simmered conger eel (穴子).  I gotta say that the flavors here were all very delicate - sweet, savory, and umami - with a hint of smokiness on top.  This perfect balance of flavors is what makes traditional Japanese kappo (割烹) cuisine so interesting.

Charcoal grilled bamboo shoot and Kagoshima wagyu beef fillet flavored with yuzu pepper sauce (新筍と牛ヒィレ肉炭焼き) - this was served a little tepid, which was a shame.  The tender beef fillet sat on half a young bamboo shoot from Kagoshima - which was deliciously sweet and tender.  The chef has drizzled some yuzukosho (柚子胡椒) miso (味噌) sauce, which didn't pack as much of a kick as I had expected.  There was also a sprinkle of sansho leaves (木の芽) on top as well as some sea salt on the side for added seasoning, although I didn't think the salt was necessary.

Crispy fried sakura shrimp cake with seaweed somen (桜エビかき揚  海苔煮麺) - I love sakura shrimp, especially when they've been fried to a crisp.  I also love somen (素麺), and putting all of these ingredients together couldn't have been more perfect.  Inhaled, but not as quickly as Hello Kitty did...

Sea urchin donburi (ウニ丼) - instead of tuna (マグロ), we got sea urchin instead!  I'd call that a good trade.

Black sesame sorbet (黒ゴマシャーベット) - the sesame was pan-fried before being used to make the granita, and this definitely intensified the flavors.  Really, really good.

Egg pudding (焼きプリン) - I looooove Japanese pudding (プリン) because they tend do be really creamy and runny.  Really, really good.  Even Hello Kitty - who normally doesn't like sweets or desserts - found this to be really yummy.

Matcha (抹茶) - Chef Koya Takayuki (小屋孝行) came out from the kitchen to whip up the matcha for all the customers, with water from the cast iron tea pot sitting in the middle of the room.

I brought along a bottle of sake for casual drinking, as the corkage was reasonable.

Isojiman Daiginjo Junmai Emerald (磯自慢 大吟醸純米 エメラルド), 2016 - seimaibuai (精米歩合) of 50%.  Sweet on the attack but starts turning dry mid-palate.  The finish was definitely long and spicy, but the palate was still kinda round.

We were very happy with our dinner.  Perhaps there weren't as many "WOW"s as we would have gotten at Tenku RyuGin, but there were no fails tonight, and taking the pricing into consideration, there was no reason at all for us to complain.  Our friend was super-impressed with how the kitchen handled his dietary restrictions on such short notice, because apparently every establishment in Japan managed to miss something - even ones with 3-stars.  Kudos to the team at La Bombance.  And yes, I'll repeat the cliché from the Governator: "I'll be back!"

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