Friday, April 20, 2018

Visiting Sushi Chef

"The name sounds familiar…" I told myself when I saw the online post about the pop-up dinner in town featuring chef from Ginza Sushi Aoki, and only after checking my picture album I realized I did visit the restaurant in Tokyo some years ago during one of my business trips. Obviously that meal didn’t leave much an impression for me (otherwise I would have recalled that easily) but I was happy to enjoy an evening at FUMI in Lan Kwai Fong where Chef Toshikatsu Aoki, second generation owner of his family namesake restaurant, showed off his skills and ingredients for 3 days only as the visiting chef.

I have never been to FUMI before but the décor didn’t change much from the casual Japanese kappo restaurant that the site once was. But for this pop-up event, they made some adjustment to the table set-up, with two make-shift sushi counters in the middle of the dining area so more customers have a better view of the chefs while they were preparing the sushi pieces. Not the most ideal I guess but that's what we had to live with for pop-up events like this.

Unlike most omakase meal which is purely based on chef’s discretion and no printed menu was available, this time we were given the full list of courses with detailed description for each. We had the earlier dinner seating and started right as everyone in our party has settled in our “front-row” seats right next to the chef’s counter. Some eye-brows were raised when our first course arrived, with a couple pieces of Kinmedai (goldeneye snapper) sashimi in a glass bowl with a light ponzu sauce and topped with shiso flowers and thin slices of kiwi fruit. Not the most usual combination – well I wasn’t a fan of kiwi normally but the taste was subtle on this one, and I liked the fatty texture of the kinmedai with a hint of sweetness from the marinating sauce.

Chef Aoki-san walked around and showed us the lacquer box with chunks of the prized bluefin tuna kept inside, from a fish originally weighed over 170kg, before he sliced some up and put into a soy marinate. The marinated chu-toro, or the medium fatty tuna, was then made into a sushi hand-roll and passed to us as our second course. It’s served in smaller portion than a regular hand-roll (size of a cigar) but I love the subtle fatty taste well balanced by the marinate. Next was the Hotaru Ika, or the firefly squid, with these famous tiny crustaceans coming from Toyama Bay flash-boiled than smoked with cherry wood, then served wrapped in cherry leaves and topped with a piece of cured sakura/cherry flower. The smokiness did have an effect on the dish giving this a somewhat different taste than what I was used to for this ingredient now in its prime time of the season.

Chefs (Aoki-san and later his apprentice who took turn serving the two counters) continued working on our sushi courses and in between, more otsumami dishes came our way from the back of the kitchen. I found the chef’s style somewhat in between traditional and contemporary, sometimes with a twist on the combination of ingredients, sometimes with a slightly different presentation to the most traditional edomae-style. Toppings were used in various sushi as flavor enhancer, like the Kohada (gizzard shad) with the shrimp roes, Kuruma Ebi (giant prawn) with grated pickled egg yolk, or the nodoguro (blackthroat seaperch) torched than topped with a slice of herb-infused kurasumi (dried mullet roe). Of those my favorite was the nodoguro, served with a fattier cut skinned on with the thin slice of dried mullet roes bringing some creamy texture and hint of deep sea-water and umami taste.

It’s similar for the otsumami courses too, with a creative touch but to a lesser extent. The “eel terrine” reminded me of the English jellied eels, with the anago (sea eel) from Kyushu (Tsushima strait near Nagasaki Prefecture) rolled and steamed then chilled and set with the jus turning into jelly form. A pair of small pieces were served - one topped with citrus "pearls" and the other, caviar. It’s somewhat unusual to have anago served cold which gave more softer texture and taste (and this time I liked the caviar one for the better contrast of flavor) The Chawanmushi was more in the traditional form, served in the colorful Kutani-yaki porcelain bowl, with the silkiest egg custard with a few pieces of whole shirauo, or ice-fish, on top.

But in general I did enjoy the traditional courses more – the otoro, the prime fatty tuna, came from the upper part of the belly, and I did like the tender texture and of course, the mouthful of smooth fatty taste (just a tad bit sinewy towards the last few bites). Both Akagai (ark shell) and Hamaguri (giant clam) came in very decent size with both served as nigiri sushi – other than the fact that the Hamaguri was slightly gritty, both were tasty (almost sweet) with a firm bite.

The menu did gear more towards sushi rather than otsumami (the appetrizer courses) so all of us got pretty full at the end. I thought what was listed as "3 kinds of sea urchin" would be served as one piece but turned out it’s 3 mini-sized sushi served on a small rectangular plate, starting with the light-colored Hokkaido Bafun Uni, then the Kita-Uni from Aomori and last (but not least) the murasaki-uni from the south (Kumamoto) which has the darkest color. Of the three my favorite was the Bafun uni with its clean flavor and served at the right temperature to bring out the best of its taste, I reckon. So I was happy that more of those bafun-uni was used later on, with very generous portion, in the form of an “risotto” mixed with unago (freshwater eel) done at the counter by the chef before spooned into individual bowls to serve.

Overall I think the meal was an enjoyable experience with nice ingredients being presented in an unique way. Despite the chef somewhat hindered by having to deal with a different setting than he’s used to (Ginza Sushi Aoki only has one long counter with a handful of seats while here he has to deal with twice as many customers as he normally would at any given time), he did a fine job in making sure everyone’s happy with well-executed dishes in good pace. Sure helped in satisfying my sushi craving for a while.

(Dinner was by invitation and based on an one-time omakase menu by a visiting guest chef)

When? April 19 2018
Where? FUMI, Level 6 California Tower, Lan Kwai Fong, 30-36 D'Aguilar St, Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Nodoguro with Dried Mullet Roe Nigiri Sushi
Drink? Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo, Asahi Shuzo, Yamaguchi Prefecture
獺祭 純米大吟醸50 - 山口県旭酒造

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