Monday, January 27, 2014

A long post on Rozan

Our friend D suggested that we splurged a little bit to check out Rozan (鮨魯山), a high-end Japanese restaurant in Wanchai's Morrison Hill neighborhood, and so we picked one random, cold January evening when all of us were in town. The restaurant is part of the trio of fine-dining establishments owned by billionaire socialite Peter Lam, all located on the ground floor of an apartment building (the other two being Ginsai and Wagyu Takumi which serves seasonal washoku and Franco-Japanese fusion cuisine respectively).

First thing that caught my mind as I walked through the discreet entrance on the side street was how spacious the place is for a restaurant that serves to a maximum of 12 and the minimalist decor made it looked even bigger than it already is. In the center of the brightly-lit dining area is a simple L-shaped hinoki counter carved from a 600 year-old tree, plus a small table at the back. Behind the counter was an ample work area for head chef Masataka "Masa" Fujisawa and his assistant.

Turned out we were the only group of customer that evening so it did feel privileged to have the entire place to ourselves (and the full attention of Chef Masa-san and the staff) - I suppose that's one advantage of dining on a random weeknight. There was a choice of 4 menus - but we went for the most popular Omakase set which came with a series of otsumami, futamono, shizakana, sushi, soup and dessert.

(From left to right) Top: Komochi Ika+Kohada, Karasumi, Houbou; Bottom: Matai, Kinmedai, Akagai
Chef Masa started working immediately after noting our dietary preferences. We started with a dish with Komochi Ika (Squid with eggs) and Kohada (Gizzard shad) sashimi served with Nanohana (field mustard flower), finishing with some sweet shiromiso sauce. It’s a refreshing and delicious. The kohada was excellent and I was actually a little disappointed that it didn’t come in bigger portion as nigiri sushi. The second course was house-cured Karasumi, or dried mullet roes, which were sliced, lightly toasted over open fire and served with grated daikon and salt-baked fava beans. It's a well-thought little dish with rich umami flavors and daikon plus fava beans balancing out the saltiness from that of the karasumi.

Moving on to the more traditional sashimi dishes based on seasonal catch, we had Houbou (Gurnard) served thinly sliced with a dab of miso-based sauce wrapped in the middle, then Matai (Sea bream) eaten with fresh shiso flowers. I love that subtle and unique fragrance (from the shiso flowers) which augmented the mild sea bream taste. Kinmedai (Golden-eye snapper) was slightly grilled with some skin on and served with a splash of sudachi juice, then a beautiful piece of Akagai (Ark shell) was placed on the plate. They were all nice except I think the soy sauce that was given was probably too rich for a few of them - a different sauce prepared for each piece would have been ideal.

Meiji Maguro
My favorite otsumami was the Meiji Maguro (Baby tuna) cooked tataki style. The whole piece was grilled with skin on, then sliced into thin pieces, and served with finely diced green onions and garlic sauce. Normally a darker, richer katsuo (skipjack tuna) was used in such preparation and I thought the garlic would have overwhelmed the milder meiji maguro, but it's delicious, and the fish actually has great taste with young, tender texture which worked perfectly with the sauce.

We finished with Kaki (oyster) farmed in the remote coast of Akkeshi in Hokkaido and served with a little momiji oroshi (spicy grated daikon) and dashi jelly. It was fresh and plump and juicy with just the right garnishes to enhance the flavors.

Our futamono (the "lidded course") was a pretty dumpling with clams wrapped inside and matsutake mushroom and dashi broth in a fancy, golden ceramic bowl. It's a pleasure just to look at the presentation and it's a great in-between course. And before we moved on to sushi, the chef brought out the Awabi (abalone) and served as our shizakana (the "substantial course"). It's probably the most extravagant ingredient of the evening with the abalone from Kyushu almost the size of my fist to be shared among us four. It's steamed in low heat and served with the sauce made from its liver. I loved its soft but bouncy texture and the contrast in flavor with the sauce... but, and let me put it this way, it didn't drop me to tears like the other times I had a similar dish elsewhere. It's very decent but stopped short of greatness.

(From Top to Bottom) Left: Kawahagi, Shiro-Uni; Right: Buri, Akamutsu, Kuruma-Ebi
Just as we were finishing up the abalone dish (and mopped up all the liver sauce on the plate), Chef Masa and his assistant slowly started preparing the ingredients for the sushi courses. Of course it's served in the conventional order edomae style, with lighter fish first and then moved on to richer ones in progression. First, Kawahagi (Filefish) was served in the traditional way with its liver, then the sweet and delicate Shiro-ebi (White Shrimp), Hokkigai no Aburi (Seared clam shell) with a smokey hint and then the fatty Buri (wild yellowtail) brushed with a light soy sauce.

Top: Akamai-zuke, Bottom: O-toro
We had two pieces of tuna this evening. A thick slice of Akamai-zuke (Marinated Tuna) was dipped in a bowl of soy sauce for about 2 minutes before served with a dab of yuzu kosho paste on top, and the O-toro (fatty tuna), coming from the part right next to the cheek of the tuna, was sliced super-thin against the grain and served like a "mille-feuille" (similar to the one I had at Sushisho Masa in Nishi-azabu). The toro has very good marbling and hinged on just the right balance of meatiness and oiliness, partly because of the way it's sliced. It's just perfect.

Shiro Uni
With some pickled daikon, ginger and cucumber to cleanse our palate, we continued with a few more nigiri sushi - Kegani (Hairy crab), Shiro-Uni (White sea urchin) and Akamutsu (Rosy seabass or Blackthroat seaperch) - and finally, the Negitoro maki (Fatty tuna with scallions roll). Our jaws dropped when Chef Masa brought out the wooden board full of sea urchins arranged one next to another - it's such a sexy beast, if only we could have the entire board. Chef Masa explained this was the shiro-uni variety which has a paler color than others, say the more famous Bafun Uni, and much rarer to find even in major fish markets in Japan. And don't let the pale color fooled you - it's rich, creamy, clean and succulent with a strong hint of sweetness from your first bite, and have a long, pleasant after-taste on the palate long after. Even though winter's not exactly the best season for uni, I have to say this is definitely one of the best ones I have tried.

Chef Masa asked whether we would like anything additional before the conclusion of our sushi course. I debated between asking for an encore for something I have tried or something different, and at the end I asked him to make me a Kuruma Ebi (cooked tiger prawn) sushi which wasn't served earlier. It wasn't as big as one I have had but nonetheless with good flavor and firm texture. Lastly, we had the duo of Anago (Sea eel) prepared two different ways - shirayaki (grilled with sea salt) and kabayaki (brushed with sauce). They were soft and very creamy. I also liked the Tamago-yaki, which was served after the anago, and it's uniformly cooked, sweet, soft and custardy. Our dessert is a small dish of wasabi icecream with mochi and strawberries, which was simple yet tasty too with an interesting kick from that of the freshly grated wasabi mixed into the icecream custard.

Head Chef Masataka "Masa" Fujisawa
During the meal Masa-san only kept a small batch of shari (sushi rice) in the round hinoki box right next to him (and changed to a new batch midway through the meal) so it's kept consistently moist and fresh from start to finish. The rice was served warm - at around body temperature or slightly below - which I think worked well with the fish tonight, and a mild akasu (red vinegar) was blended in after cooked to give the rice a mellow, rich flavor.

Marvelous Blade Chef Masa is using
Throughout the evening, Chef Masa was relaxed but focused, and it's a great experience watching him controlling the rhythm at the right speed for the entire meal with excellent knife skills, working effortless on the ingredients. I was admiring his shiny-looking (and sharp) yanagiba and he told me he has the knife specially made with his name and his wife's engraved on the blade - how cute was that! He's such a friendly chap and fun to talk to (sometimes with the assistance of the wait staff who helped to translate). The service was great too - having two front staff serving us exclusively - who were knowledgeable, helpful and hospitable.

Sake and Wine for the evening
Despite the restaurant having an impressive sake list featuring some of the unusual choices, I decided to bring my own since there's a few we got from recent trips to Japan that I would like to share. Jun-gin Sanju-hachi-go (which literally means Junmai Ginjo Number 38) from Kokuryu Brewery is a seasonal release from the 38th barrel of the season, available in limited quantity at around October/November every year. The bottle was refrigerated at home but I asked that to be served without further chilling, so we were able to taste the differences as the sake was slowly warmed up by ambiance. It exhibited smooth and affirmative body and as the night progressed more profound flowery fragrance and fruity flavors were revealed. As the restaurant manager offered to waive our "corkage" if we ordered something from their wine menu as well, we also picked a Riesling from Alsace on offer, which has a sharp acidity backed by not-so-ripe granny smith apple and citrus notes. While the sake works great with the sushi, I think the easy-drinking Riesling matched well with the otsumami, with the acidity balancing out some of the sweet miso flavors.

Random night we might have picked to visit the restaurant, that was certainly no random meal. I would say it's right neck to neck among the top ones in town, and with excellent food and the ambiance and great service, I think it's worth what we have paid (which was not astronomical but by all means substantial). The Meiji Maguro no Tataki was the memorable one (and my favorite of the night), and so was the Shiro-uni - both were among the best of its kind I have had. I would be thrilled to see more elaborative otsumami dishes, but overall I loved every aspect of the meal and the company. Not too shabby a meal to start the year with, I reckon. 

More pictures can be found in my Flickr page:

When? January 22 2014
Where? 鮨魯山 Rozan. Shop 2, G/F, The Oakhill, 18 Wood Road, Wanchai, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Meiji Maguro no Tataki (seared baby tuna), and all the sushi dishes
Jun-gin Sanju-hachi-go, Kokuryu Brewery, Fukui Prefecture (純吟三十八號 - 福井縣 黑龍酒造)
Paul Blanck Rosenbourg Riesling 2008

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