Thursday, July 26, 2018

Lunch Three Months Into Planning

I rarely bothered to go through the hoopla in scoring table reservations at those newest, hottest or the most sought-after restaurants, but I made an exception for the new Hong Kong branch of Sushi Saito. Opened a few months ago, til now the reservations have been restricted to the restaurant group’s VIPs or someone who have visited the restaurant before – I did try just calling them direct and was told booking is not open until late this year or next.

I was curious enough to ask a friend of mine to make that referral back in early April and get a table reservation for lunch for four people on a Sunday some 3 months later in early July (that’s their first open slots available when I checked with them) Then there’s the deposit requirement to secure the booking, and a long T&C document (3 pages long) that attached which I seriously contemplated whether I need a lawyer to vet before signing. (Deposit is NON-REFUNDABLE, document need to be COMPLETED and SIGNED within a week – yes, all caps, bold and underlined in the email just so there’s no ambiguity - like those message you may receive from your boss for something important)

Anyway, I complied as instructed and here we are, 3 months after the booking confirmation, we arrived at the restaurant with our friends S and J, some "15 minutes before our booking time" of noon, "dressed in covered shoes, long pants and collared shirts", with "no children of ages 11 or below", all as stipulated in the detailed instruction given to us by email. Well, I guess you can’t find a restaurant more secluded than this in town, located on the high floor of Four Seasons Hong Kong (it’s converted from one of the conference room on their Executive Lounge floor), and through the entrance we were led to the back room with the counter that can seat 8 (there’s another identical room in the front so all together 16 diners can be served in each seating).

Chef Kenichi Fujimoto was making the final preparation for the lunch service at the counter as we arrived, and as soon as the other customers in the room arrived, he promptly started with our first otsumami dish, with thinly-sliced ankimo (monkfish liver) served with drizzle of ponzu and sudachi zest. While the ones I had elsewhere were usually prepared by rolling and steaming (similar to “au torchon”) and served with a sauce with sharp acidity, here it’s cooked as the whole fish liver and sliced just before serving, and it’s soft and delicate with the distinctly sweet dressing which balance well with the creamy texture.

While we were finishing our second otsumami course which is a small piece of engawa (flounder fin), slightly grilled and served with a dab of grated daikon, soy sauce, sesame and chopped scallions prepared at the back kitchen, Chef Fujimoto-san continued to make preparation for our sushi courses by taking out the fish from the hinoki box, carefully portioned and put them in proper mise-en-place. I think most of the sushi pieces were excellent and memorable, some probably the best I have tasted anywhere. To me, the highlight of the afternoon was definitely the Aji (horse mackerel), with a firm texture and subtle oily flavor, completed with a small dab of grated scallions on top and the slightly warm rice (shari) with good acidity that accompanied perfectly well with the neta (the fish).

Another one I thought has the perfect combination of shari and neta was the Kinmedai (goldeneye snapper) from Chiba Prefecture with the fatty texture well balanced by the acidity from the vinegar used in the neta. The sumi-ika (squid) looked ordinary but it’s delicious, with the piece of squid scored in crisscross pattern (showing great knife skills) giving it a tender texture with a good bite and served with a heavy dab of salt on top.

The Bafun Uni from Hokkaido was served in lower temperature than usual, as per owner Saito-san’s distinct way of preparation, and the mellow creamy and umami flavor was left in my mouth long after the piece was consumed. (I only wish the nori was slightly crispier – I swear I didn’t take long to take a snap before eating and observed the 30 second rule but by the time I held it it’s already a little soggy) I guess the only piece I wasn’t too fond of was the hoshikarei (star flounder) which was our first piece – the taste was outstanding but I found it a little sinewy in the middle that made it too chewy for me – yes I was expecting nothing short of perfection. (a gentle scoring or leaving that part out would have solved the issue) The other pieces we had included shiro-ebi (white shrimp), akami (lean tuna) from Hokkaido that went through 6-day aging, the chu-toro (medium fatty tuna), hamaguri (giant clams) and anago (sea eel) - they were all more than decent.

Futomaki is another special feature of Sushi Saito, and as we finished up our last sushi course, Chef Fujimoto began to bring out the ingredients for the roll (anago, tamago, shrimp, kanpyo and more) and started preparation at the counter. The tamago (egg) was also excellent, with the wobbly, custard-like egg in perfect texture that almost melt in your mouth with a subtle sweetness.

Chef Fujimoto was courteous and friendly throughout our meal, serving with a smile and explained everything for us in English and Japanese (plus some Cantonese, much to our surprise). But I did found the rest of the service a bit off, at least from the highest standard I expected from a top Japanese restaurant. After we were seated and settled at the assigned spots in front of the counter, we were asked to get up and move to one end of the counter instead. I suspect they have either mixed up our reservation or someone else’s, or just to make room for their more important customers that walked in at last minute – no matter what happened I found it awkward given the stringent instruction given to us prior to our booking confirmation. And no explanation, not a word of apology or acknowledgment for having to "shove us to the side", plus they didn’t even bother to move the table settings for us, including the towel that’s already been used – that sure left a sour note to our dining experience. For the rest of the afternoon, the service has been slow as well, but it's just more nuisance than annoyance. I wasn't mad or anything but just found this below par.

We didn't go for any wine today. While I agree it's totally within their right, I found their exorbitant corkage fee punitive - they may as well say outside alcohol is not welcomed - so we were happy to leave our own bottle at home (and had it at dinner elsewhere) They did have a decent drink list of wines and sakes, but there's not much of a surprise nor offered at a reasonable price that made me too eager to try any. So we were happy with our cup of hot green tea - their tea cups were so gorgeous anyway so I ain't complaining for something simpler to go with our food, which was our main focus.

Then there’s the question of whether this is worth it, either from the price point of view or the trouble involved in making this happened. I guess if you take account into this being the only overseas branch of a famous Tokyo sushi-ya, with the location, ambiance and the quality of ingredient and food, I would say I am happy that we came and ate, and it’s worth the fuss that one needed to go through. The sushi lunch was undoubtedly one of the best we had in town, and no intricate details were overlooked – of course given my comments above I am strictly referring to the dishes presented not anything else – from the ingredients to the preparation to the combination and even to the tableware that was used. Chef Fujimoto told us many of the crockery used and displayed at the restaurant were specially commissioned by the famed ceramist Shiro Tsujimura in various firing styles, so it felt like we were going through an art exhibition while enjoying our lunch at the same time. While I wasn't in particular hurry to return, I definitely will, for their impeccable sushi dishes. And hope the booking process would be simpler and with better service then.

More photos can be found here:

When? July 8 2018
Where? Sushi Saito, Level 45, Four Seasons Hong Kong, 8 Finance Street, Central, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Aji (Horse Mackerel) Nigiri Sushi

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