Sunday, January 19, 2014

Tabibito - A decent new restaurant (that we managed to get a table)

A few of us from AG turned up at Tabibito on Friday, on the "official" opening night when they offered the full menu for the first time. The timing was actually unintentional - we thought the place has opened for a while but apparently it was just their soft opening with a limited set menu. The restaurant called itself a Japanese-style tapas/Okazu place, and took up the spot of the former "Corner Kitchen" at the far end of Po Hing Fong, a blind alley further up from Hollywood Road. This was used to be a quiet neighborhood but quite a few interesting cafes and restaurants has to open up in the area recently, turning this into a up-and-coming hip hang-out spot.


The setup of the restaurant is simple yet pleasant and comfortable, with the kitchen hidden in the corner, a small bar than a few tables in front and a long, communal bench opening up next to the pavement, which we occupied on that evening.

The menu was divided into four sections - Raw, Sea, Land and Soil. Raw and Sea were pretty self-explanatory, and land and soil stand for meat and poultry, and vegetables. They were all in small plates good for sharing. We ordered a few from each based on the staff's recommendation and I was quite impressed with quite a number of dishes. My favorites were a few deep-fried courses. The sweet corn tempura was more like a crossover between a fritter and a tempura and was fried to the right crispiness with cheese and sprinkles of sea salt as the great backdrop. It's delicious and crowd-pleasing. Same with the fish and chips which came in bite-size pieces - the batter was made with Hitachino beer they got on tap and it's fluffy and voluminous (if there's such a word), and the curry aioli was spot on with the right hot and creamy flavors. The chicken karaage has super-rich, smokey taste without being over salty, plus they came in good portion, though that didn't stop us from finishing the pieces in no time.

Mud crab okonomiyaki was another dish that I like. It's a simple dish with mashed mountain yam (yamaimo), mixed with cabbage and bits of crabs, fried on a pan and served with bonito flakes and plenty of Japanese mayo and okonomi sauce. It has good structure and I loved the subtle fresh crab taste that went through in every bite. Very delicious.

The two uni dishes we ordered to start were the interesting ones and we had mixed opinions over them. The first - uni-spiked tofu - was actually a cold dish with homemade tofu and uni (sea urchins) covered in dashi jelly. It's very unusual but I appreciate the bold attempt. The second - a uni mac and cheese - was a bit ordinary in comparison, with nothing much to show forth with macaroni baked with gryuere, parmesan, sprinkles of truffle salts and panko, plus of course, uni. To me it's a little "meh" - I don't see any improvements over a normal mac n cheese.

The "TwentyFour Hour Rib Nikomi" was a small piece of short ribs cut lengthwise with the bones on and cooked (presumably sous-vide) for 24 hours and served with a red wine demi-glace and kimchi. It's good but pretty predictable and without much characters - you could essentially put this into any menu in any restaurant in town.

We ordered oden just to see what their version would be like for this common Japanese street food. It's a hit and miss. While I love the truffle-enhanced dashi broth, and the combination of the daikon and sweet akamiso (which almost tasted like hoisin sauce), I was let down by the bacon-wrapped potatoes which were served alongside. It's a little bland to my liking and don't feel like it's contributing to the overall taste of the dish - something richer in taste and less filling, like an ebikusi dango (minced shrimp ball), would have been a perfect replacement for the potato, without deviating too much from the traditional version. But nonetheless I love the broth so much that I ended up bottomed up the whole two bowls.

We had a few more dishes which were okay. I personally think the spicy wagyu tartar - raw tenderloin minced and served with spicy miso, egg yolk, white sesame, capers and more - a bit overwhelming and totally shielded the taste of the beef, even though the overall texture was good. We also ordered some oysters in the raw section, which flown in from the States, and were served with pickled myoga ginger and daikon ponzu vinaigrette. It's a bit small but fresh and delicious. The Jidori and Kurobota Meatballs were also decent, with minced pork meatballs cooked in caramelized onions and topped with chicken skin, fried quail eggs and shiso garnishes. It's a bit crowded in flavors but nothing wrong with that.

The night we came they only offered a limited drink menu - but they got Hitachino beers on draft which came from a boutique brewery in Japan, plus more in bottles, and a few specialty cocktails along with other standard drinks. I had the pale ale which was refreshing, clean and tasty. Overall we liked the service - considered this is the first night of business, they did a decent job in keeping everything in control, and we didn't just say that because they offered us free champagne to celebrate their opening, just so you know.

We felt like having a little more food before calling it a night, so we ordered some mini-sliders of "Sloppy Joe", with a Japanese spin, of course. In between the poppy seed-covered sweet and soft bite-size slider buns were threads of pulled meat from roast pork leg, cabbage slaw with Kewpie mayonnaise, pickled onions with a light touch of barbecue sauce. The combination tasted great.

We finished with a dessert of salted caramel "chawanmushi", which was rich but not over filling, just the way we wanted to end our meal. Well, showing up at the restaurant on its first night of official business could be a risky move, but glad we enjoyed our experience. There were hiccups here and there, understandably, but the smiles and attentiveness from the wait-staff did help make us happy.

I think one common question is likely to be - how does this compared to say, Ronin, a similar restaurant not far away? (My thoughts after dinner at Ronin can be found here) Well, I think while Ronin probably has a better bar menu with good variety of whisky and more sophisticated food, Tabibito is more easy-going and comfortable, and the setting's more suitable if you have more than a couple of people in your group. It's really hard to compare, but let's just say we will definitely come back here - if we ever get a seat once the words came out of its opening.

When? January 17 2014
Where? Tabibito, 20 Po Hing Fong, Sheung Wan, Hong Kong
Favorite Dish? Chicken Karaage, with soy, mirin, ginger, hickory smoked salt and lemon


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