Thursday, March 19, 2015

Beer and Kushiyaki

We walked down the stairs feeling a bit tipsy from "Battle of the Brews", a beer tasting event organized by Beertopia, which featured some 30 craft beers from around the world with live music performance at The Space in Sheung Wan. With the effect of the malt and the hops and the alcohol kicked in, we felt like needing something to eat so my friend suggested this new Japanese Izakaya place near Lan Kwai Fong.

Keyaki is a relatively new bar/restaurant owned by the same folks who opened Shiba, a small kushiyaki place in K-Town we happened to drop by with some other friends a couple of weeks before (which we liked). Both places served a similar menu with most of the items done on the grill and a very interesting drinks menu featuring some unusual selections of nihonshu and shochu (and beers)

The side alley of Wo On Lane, just a block away from the central Lan Kwai Fong, was still a bit quiet by the time we arrived - it's a bit late in our dinner standard but obviously the night was still young for the clubbing and drinking crowd then - but Keyaki was already buzzing with people drinking and eating. And we could smell the good food from outside. The setting of the place was casual and definitely more bar than restaurant. The L-shaped counter with high chairs stretched from the back to the front opening up to the pedestrian-only street, and on side of the restaurant there were a few small booths for those who wanted some personal space. Behind the counter was the bar and kitchen area, with a few people operating the 2 charcoal/gas combo stoves near the entrance and a wall filled with bottles. The ventilation was superb but still, this is probably not your ideal first date venue or a place you wanna don your designer suit - don't say you haven't been forewarned.

As we have expected, a big section of the menu was dedicated to various chicken parts, from the thigh to neck and heart and liver and wings, but they also had a great selection of seafood and vegetables, some of which were also laid out in a tray near the kitchen for customers to see and choose from. The restaurant is one of the few in town featuring a real charcoal grill (it's hard to get a license for such set-up because of safety regulations) and they sure made good use of it, as most of the food items were made on the grill with excellent smoky flavors.

I was a bit surprised a few items were already sold out by the time we got there, including the tsukune, or the minced chicken, one of the most common items. But at least they still had the minced chicken with shiso available so we ordered one of each to start. I thought the seasonings were a bit light - probably just a reflection of the particular style of the place - but it's still mavellous with a "crusty" outside and good firm, crunchy texture inside, worked perfectly well with the Japanese egg yolk which was served in a little bowl. I also loved the chicken liver which was soft and rich.

We went on to sample a few other meat and vegetable items. The ox tongues were sliced thin before putting onto the wooden skewers, and they were well-seasoned and delicious. The shishito peppers were mild but well-charred, served in the traditional way of shaved bonito flakes on top. The mentaiko (marinated cod roe), grilled lightly in open fire and cut into chunks, was equally fabulous with the right kick of spiciness.

But tonight the real winners were the few seafood items we had - all done on the grill. The saba, or mackeral, was marinated with mirin beforehand, giving it a hint of sweetness and got around the strong, fishy tastes often associated with the fish species. I also liked the abalone which was tender and tasty even with minimal seasonings. I reckon the hamaguri (giant clam) tonight was a bit tough - probably slightly overcooked - but it was juicy and came in good size. 

The kuruma ebi, or the giant prawn, was of the size of my palm and had wonderful flavors from head to tail, and the shell was grilled crisp so I just ate almost the whole thing. The buri kama, which was the yellowtail collar, took a while to arrive but it's delicate and oily with slightly charred and crispy skin.

I loved the onigiri - grilled rice ball - at Shiba last time so I asked for a repeat to finish our meal with. It's skillfully cooked with the right balance of flavors from the shoyu glaze brushed outside and a firm texture inside. It was probably even better than the one we had last time because of the charcoal smoke present here.

I had the pleasure to pick out the drinks from the menu, featuring some unusual jizake (地酒), or local selections from various regions in Japan with special attention over Niigata, a wonderful rice and sake-producing prefecture. Having our palates used to the richer malt and hop flavors from the beers earlier, I went for something rustic and picked out a Nigori, or cloudy sake, which went over a slightly different filtering process to let through some koji/rice sediments, hence giving the drink a cloudy appearance and a richer rice taste. The one we had came from Aomori prefecture up north, was creamy, surprisingly smooth and full of sweetness. Almost a little too smooth for a traditionally rustic, casual drink, unlike the more delicate junmai ginjo or daiginjo.

While some other places may offer better food, or use more interesting ingredients, or more comfortable setting, but this is a cozy neighborhood joint with good vibe and excellent cooking at a very reasonable price point, something of a rare commodity in this part of town, and definitely somewhere we would love to come more often.

When? March 14 2015
Where? Keyaki, G/F, 14 Wo On Lane, Central
Menu Highlights? Grilled yellowtail collar
Drinks? Momokawa Nigorizake, Aomori Prefecture

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