Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Proper Kaiseki

I came to know this Japanese place through a rather unusual source - sponsored ad on Facebook how about that? (just to show it does occasionally work you marketing people!) I was intrigued by the fact that the restaurant, called Tenkuni, is specialized in Tempura and Unagi, or freshwater eel, as they advertised. You know, there's only a handful place in town that serves even half-decent Unagi dishes that can be somewhat close to any random ones in Japan, so that got me curious enough to give it a shot on one weeknight.

Food specialty was not the only interesting thing about Tenkuni before we even set foot inside. When I saw the address, I was a bit shocked. Despite the rather elegant name, "Champagne Court" is not exactly the most prestigious location in all of TST with rather seedy establishments upstairs in this commercial building that could easily rival the more famous Chungking Mansion down the road (of course, I only learned that from newspaper and magazines - just to be crystal clear). So the thought of having a decent Japanese restaurant inside such building was baffling at best.

Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised already when I arrived at the entrance with the small wooden sliding door up a small flight of stairs from outside the building on the street level. The façade was all traditional Japanese with shoji-style door and wall with just a handful of tables discreetly divided by paper screen with a private room and an annex section further back. The waitstaff was dressed in kimono, and the table setting was tastefully done too with beautiful ceramics crockery. The setup alone was impressive.

We have requested the summer kaiseki set when I made the booking as they offered a discount on the menu provided you ordered in advance. The dinner set consists of 5 courses in the simplified kaiseki format - starting with hassun, the appetizer course with several side dishes, then mukozuke our sashimi course, a couple of tempura platters, then finished with takiawase (a simmered dish), gohan (rice) and tome-wan (soup).

Hassun was presented in several small bowls on a neat ceramics tray. The pickles and goma-tofu with uni were fine, and I loved the aigamo-ni, or the Japanese style grilled duck breast served with a salad underneath and a dab of mustard on top. It's well-marinated with soy-based sauce and cooked just right. The sashimi course was a simple platter with four different types - hirame (flounder), shimaji (striped jack), meguro (tuna) and hotate (scallops) - served with freshly-grated wasabi on the side. They were pretty decent.

I could hear the front-staff signaling to the kitchen just as we were finishing up our sashimi platter, so they could prepare the next course. About 5 minutes later, the first tempura course arrived at our table with two items, the kuruma-ebi (giant prawn) and nasu (eggplant). The prawn was fresh with firm texture and was of excellent size, well coated with batter before deep-fried for the crispy texture, along with the head served on the side, also deep-fried but without batter this time. The eggplant was sliced into fan-shaped and deep-fried with a thinner batter. On the side the usual condiments were served - the sauce, grated daikon and a bowl of salt. I must say the tempura pieces were exceptional - delivered piping hot from the kitchen directly to the table, and the cooking time was perfect. The eggplant was juicy without getting all soaky - that did require some skills.

We had more pieces in the second round and this time there were abalone, pumpkin and freshwater eel. And they were just as good as our first round. So we were convinced they are indeed specialized in what they said they are good at.

We continued with takiawase course served in a pretty lidded porcelain bowl. In the middle of the bowl was a meatball topped with winter melon (togan) in a dashi broth for a stunningly beautiful presentation, with flower pattern carved on the simmered togan. Underneath the meatball was soft and delicate, reminding me of the Shanghainese Lion's Head dish. Part of the kaiseki experience is about attention to details in cooking and presentation, and I was amazed with both in this course.

We got a taste of their another specialty of freshwater eel in our last course, with a couple of grilled eels served on top of rice. The eels - coming from Shizuoka's Hamanako - were not of the fattiest type (perhaps not of the best season) yet it's well-grilled with the crispy surface and soft meat infused with a light brush of the sweet tare sauce. Next to the bowl of rice was the bowl of Suppon Dashi soup made of the soft-shell turtle. It's not an unusual food ingredient used in traditional kaiseki meal, but I was still surprised to try that in a random local restaurant. The dessert of yuzu sorbet was a simple one but it was a tasty bowl of sorbet to conclude the meal with.

Considered their size, they got a decent selection of sakes on their menu with a few interesting bottles. We ordered a carafe of Shichida Junmai 75% Aiyama Hiyaoroshi from Saga Prefecture, with rich rounded flavor and fruity on the palate.

We didn't know what to expect before the dinner but came home impressed and happy with our meal. Their dishes were all done properly using seasonal ingredients and with great presentation. Will definitely come back to try more of the unagi (they offered that a la carte and in some of their set menu items) and maybe more seasonal dishes.

When? September 26 2017
Where? Tenkuni, G/F, 44 Carnarvon Road, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Tempura Platter
Drinks? Shichida Junmai 75% Aiyama Hiyaroshi, Tenzan Shuzo, Saga Prefecture
七田純米愛山七割五分磨き冷卸 - 佐賀県天山酒造

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