Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Serious Kappo Dinner

Maybe it’s what I heard from others who have been, or I am just curious about this interesting combination of the chef and the concept and the venue, but Haku is one restaurant I have been wanting to visit for some time, and we worked out of the way to arrange this dinner date there in September before our long trip out.



I found it difficult to find the right words to describe what Haku is and what they serve. On the onset it looks like those traditional Japanese kaiseki restaurant with the subtle entrance through the curtain and a long dimly-lit corridor (though it’s right in the middle of a busy shopping mall) with wooden kitchen counter and fine selections of crockery and glassware. But then it’s also casual in the sense the back kitchen was visible to people who dined, atmosphere was very laid-back and lively with the omakase menu of the evening scripted on a random piece of paper, which reminded me of a kappo-style eatery in some random neighborhood in Tokyo. I guess that’s exactly what Chef Agustin Balbi’s team was trying to do when the concept of Haku was being incubated – walking a fine balance between casual and serious dining.

We went for the omakase menu, with the ingredients being introduced to us on a piece of paper written in English (and changes slightly daily). It began with a few amuse bouche bites – four of them to be exact – my favorite was the nori cornet filled with dashi cream and finely diced fish tartare presented in a wooden sake container. I love the texture of the toasted nori sheet folded like a mini-cone with the umami-sweet taste of the cream exploding inside your mouth. The tiny kibinago fish, lightly battered, deep-fried and served on a tall bamboo skewer, was tasty as well.

The raw oyster came next on an ice-bath, topped with a dab of yuzu kosho and green apple granita. The oyster was firm, juicy with a mild creamy flavor, and it worked well with the condiments with the slightest touch of the peppery after-taste from the kinome leaf on top.

I think all of us at our party agreed the second course of Tomato and Bellota Ham was our favorite of the evening. The Japanese tomatoes – coming from Kyushu and Hokkaido we were told – were fresh and super sweet, almost candy-like. Small pieces of slightly-cured baby iwashi (sardine) and shredded Ballota Ham were added to the dish for the umami taste. To counter the sweetness strips of shio-konbu (salt-cured seaweed) was spread on top which added to the crunchy texture too. As the dish was presented, Chef Agustin then spooned toasted sake lees onto the dish which seems to have an amplifying effect to all the excellent flavor inside the dish. We love this for the surprising factor with seemingly straight forward combination of ingredients.

I was a bit mixed with the Hokkaido Uni course. Sure it scored a perfect 100 for presentation – tongues of Bafun sea urchin from Hokkaido was spooned on top of a piece of brioche toast with aubergine and sea urchin cream sandwiched in between completed with the pretty, purplish shiso flower, and the uni was outstanding too with such clean ocean taste. But the sheer-size of the piece did make it a bit messy to eat as finger food and I was looking for something crunchier and milder as base, not the soft and buttery brioche toast which was a bit overwhelming when combined with the uni. Not a complaint, but was just thinking out loud what can be done to make this even better. Following that, an off-menu item appeared, which was a piece of dark savory “cake” made of pork blood, combined with mayo, strands of mitsuba and freshly shaved katsuo-bushi. It was an interesting combination and I loved the soft but rich cake with custard-like filling.

The Kuruma-ebi course was not what I have originally envisioned. In a round deep porcelain bowl was pieces of perfectly cooked prawn with bits of chorizo on a bed of barley mixed with bisque-like sauce made of the prawn’s head and shells, then sweet onion espuma was spooned on top at the counter just before serving. The just-cooked prawn has good texture and the barley gave it an excellent bouncy bite, and overall it has a strong smoky aroma and flavor. I was amazed at the delicate prawn contrasting with the sauce and condiments with such strong tastes and I thought it worked well.

The next course of toro showed Chef Agustin has well-adapted to the local clientele despite only here in town for just 2 years (previously with The Ocean before Haku). On the plate was EVERYTHING that would make his customers happy. Round of chopped chu-toro (medium fatty tuna), Polmard beef with Kaviari Kristal caviar and gold flakes piled on with the dish shine under the perfect lighting on a big round etched glass plate. Who wouldn’t want to take a snap of this immediately and post on their Facebook/Instagram/Twitter feed? No surprise this is the signature (and most talked about) dish of the restaurant, and I think it is delicious too with outstanding ingredients being used in sumptuous portion (the picture shown was the dish to share among the two of us).

Our main course was wagyu. It’s well-executed with the A4 rib-eye piece from Kagoshima given some smoking treatment on charcoal before finishing on a searing pan at the cooking station right behind our seats. On the side was a simple soy glaze, ribbons of cucumber and young white radish all slightly grilled and a piece of begonia leaf. Somewhat predictable this may be (beef seems to be the natural choice after we already had toro, uni, oyster and caviar in our previous courses), it’s well-executed. A bowl of rice mixed with sea weed completed our savory courses.

Two desserts were served to end our meal – first a slice of the seasonal musk melon from Kyushu, followed by Pear sorbet and yogurt served in a hollowed Akizuki pear. And before we go, cotton candy floss served on a stick as the final petit fours. We brought our own bottle this time, and I thought the Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo has refreshing aroma to start, then the rounded creamy taste began to come out nicely towards the end, right on time for the rich wagyu course. Without knowing what's on the menu I think it went well.

The restaurant was packed on the night of our visit – hardly surprising given all the good words we have heard from others (and we agreed). With the number of covers they need to cater on any given night I think they did a decent job in keeping everyone well-fed and happy, though I personally could live with a slower pace of service. I did feel a little rushed in the middle of the meal when one course was quickly served as soon as we put down our spoon for the previous one. But Chef Agustin was great explaining the dishes in details and spent time interacting with his customers – that’s what a perfect kappo restaurant should be like and glad we finally got one in town with lovely dishes to show forth.

The menu was well-curated and well thought of, with all the dishes hitting the right spot utilizing top-notch ingredients. I felt they got the great formula to be successful in this unique dining space. We will be back for sure.

More pictures here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/g4gary/albums/72157689066979425

When? September 14 2017
Where? Haku, Shop OT G04B, Ground Floor Ocean Terminal, Harbour City, Tsimshatsui
Menu Highlights? Kyushu Tomatoes/Bellota Ham
Drinks? Isojiman Junmai Daiginjo Omachi 43 (28BY), Isojiman Shuzo, Shizuoka Prefecture
磯自慢純米大吟醸雄町43 (28BY) - 静岡県磯自慢酒造
Web: www.haku.com.hk


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