Sunday, September 4, 2016

Taste of Niigata

You know the end of summer is near when you saw sanma (Pacific saury) showing up on the seasonal menu of Japanese restaurants around town. While the fish - with its Japanese name meaning "autumn sword" - is still far away from its prime season in around October/November, we figured we should give it a try as we dropped by Ebi no Hige, a small restaurant in Causeway Bay specialized in the cuisine from the agriculture and seafood-rich Niigata (新潟) prefecture.

This is the place we often recommend to anyone who wants nice and proper Japanese food without wanting to over-splurge, especially for their more-than-reasonable lunch sets. Dinner service was a bit more elaborate, with a few full-course options plus an a la carte menu focusing on regional and seasonal ingredients and cooking.

We went for one of the full-course sets with a few twist on the menu plus the sanma that was off-menu (we found it on their facebook page) The pairing of strawberry and ham as part of the appetizer platter was an interesting one which I enjoyed, and the toro (fatty tuna) and aji (horse mackeral) in the sashimi platter were the ones that stood out, both with fatty flavors. The sliced abalone served in its own shell was tasty too, having simmered in shoyu and dashi, with a firm, bouncy texture.

The best Nodoguro (Blackthroat seaperch) was said to be the ones caught off the coast of Sea of Japan up north near Niigata area. We ordered this grilled whole and it's perfectly done. It's in pretty good size - around 25cm long head to tail - and grilled on open-fire with a sprinkle of salt. The mildly-charred skin was crispy and the meat was delicate and had great flavor.

Sanma was the additional course that we ordered. The meat was served as sashimi with grated ginger, scallions and soy sauce, and the head, tail and bones were later deep-fried and served as snack towards the end of our meal. Though still not the fattiest we have tried, I liked the firm texture and rich and clean taste. And we couldn't have asked for a more umami-rich course with the mini hotpot with assorted clams (hokkigai and tairagai?), sea urchins and shrimps simmered in a cream of sea-urchin soup base. That was served as our main course.

Of all the wonderful food ingredients they grow and catch, Niigata is perhaps most famous for its rice, especially those from Uonuma (魚沼) in an area known as the "Snow Country". And we ended our meal with a pot of Uonuma rice cooked in earthen pot with grilled eel. Traditionally, summer is the most popular season for eel - that's why we specifically requested this instead of the one served in their regular set menu. The rice was just gorgeous - and it had to do with both the quality of rice and also the cooking, done inside the pot placed above the stove, which required more time and care and skills.

Apart from food ingredients, Niigata is famous for their sake production as well - more to do with the water source than its rice as we learned last time visiting a brewery there - and the restaurant featured an extensive menu of sakes from the region with a good price range to pick from. We went for a carafe from their menu of limited edition bottles, an unfiltered, unpasteurized junmai ginjo from a boutique brewery made with rice produced locally. Super-dry, rich with a slightly "bitter" aftertaste typical of an unfiltered sake and definitely uncharacteristic of other local production which was usually milder and more delicate.

There were far more Niigata specialty dishes than those we did manage to try this time, but we were very satisfied, and this also meant we definitely need to go back more often to what I considered to be a hidden gem in this neighborhood.

When? August 18 2016
Where? Ebi-no-Hige, Level 12, 15 Sharp Street East, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Grilled Nodoguro, Sanma Sashimi
Drink? Koshino Hakusetsu Junmai Ginjo Nama-genshu, Yahiko Shuzo, Niigata Prefecture
越乃白雪 しぼりたて無濾過純米吟醸生原酒 - 新潟県 弥彦酒造

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