Sunday, August 26, 2018

Casual Japanese Wine and Dine

A few weeks ago I had a good time at Kappo Ro Ann, the Japanese restaurant specializes in Kumamoto cuisine, so I thought I should also check out Sara, its sister restaurant under the same management on the other side of the harbor, and this time with a few more friends. Similar to Kappo Ro Ann, Sara focused on the ingredients and cooking from one particular region in Japan, and in this case, it’s Saga Prefecture in the northern part of Kyushu.

The restaurant was opened for business only a few months ago, taking over the space formerly occupied by another Japanese restaurant that we visited quite often (until they sadly closed last year). I think they even retained much of its décor and furniture, including the long open kitchen/bar area with counter seats near the entrance. Arita-yaki ceramics was perhaps the most famous products from Saga and they were prominently featured both on our table with all the serving ware used throughout the meal, and on the wall behind the bar with those large plates handmade by craftsmen in Arita on display.

Their dinner menu was based on a la carte options, featuring many of the specialty products from Saga Prefecture, which included seafood, beef, pork and chicken, plus vegetables. Same with their drink menu, with a wide selection of sakes and even wines made in the prefecture and the surrounding area, including bottles from a few famous sake breweries. This time we went for a few things that are listed on the menu as their signature items to share among us.

We started with a couple of salad dishes – first the coriander salad with slices of onions, and then an assorted vegetable salad, all using products imported from Saga. The coriander salad, from a farm in Takeo, has a mild grassy taste mixed with a light citrus dressing, and the mixed vegetable salad was served with Ariake nori on the side as wrappers.

All their seafood was said to be caught/farmed in Genkainada area just off the Saga coastline, and Yobuko Kensaki Ika (squid) is among the more well-known ones. In the most traditional way (known as ika no ikizukuri), the body was cut and sliced by chef from a live squid and served on the plate while the rest of the body parts of the squid still twitching in reflexes - an indication of freshness. The remaining part was then taken away to be prepared as tempura afterwards. Here, the squid arrived at the restaurant killed and flash-frozen (so no drama of a moving squid like we had when we visited Saga) but it’s still served in a similar manner, with the squid body presented first as sashimi then the fins and tentacles as tempura. The sashimi was rich in umami and a hint of sweetness and has amazing texture, and I love the delicate batter coated on the tempura and went straight from the deep-frying pan to our table, so it’s perfectly crisp. We hardly need any additional seasonings for the pieces.

We moved on to a few courses with chicken, specifically Mitsuse Chicken, which is a breed local to Saga. The Tsukune, or chicken meatballs, was done yakitori-style, with ground chicken meat mixed with cartilage and grilled on a skewer. It’s perfectly cooked with a slightly crispy crust and served with a rich egg-yolk dipping sauce on the side. I think it can easily rival one at any yakitori-specialist restaurant in town. The Chicken Thigh, our second chicken course, was deboned, marinated in brine and vinegar, and then cooked over charcoal fire which gave them a distinct smoky flavor – reminded me of the Miyazaki-style momoyaki chicken that I had in Kagoshima a few months ago. Rounding up was the Chicken Wing, grilled whole from wing tip to the drumstick part, then cut into pieces for sharing.

Saga-gyu was one of the more famous breeds of Japanese wagyu, known for its marbled fat and rich meaty flavor, and we have it done as katsu, or fried cutlet. I could live with a crispier batter but the meat was perfect – rare in the center with the most tender texture. Just a tiny dip of the thick and sweet soy sauce (made from a Saga soy brewery) was all that’s needed for an accent of the umami taste. We also had the grilled pork belly (using Kinboshi Sagabuta Pork), done on an open-fire grill with a generous brush of spicy miso on top, with portion good for sharing among us four and worked well as bar snack to go with the alcohol.

We had a couple of bottles to go with our food – the first one we brought in ourselves was characteristically done mellow and sweet style, followed by a second bottle from their drink menu which was clean and dry with modest aroma. We finished with a couple more savory dishes towards the end – the soymilk noodles in Mitsuse chicken soup was recommended by the manager, and the rich but clear soup was hearty with the soft, thin noodles and a dab of yuzu kosho on the side. The grilled onigiri was properly done, in the simplest way using the same soy sauce we had earlier., carefully basted while cooking to give the riceball a crispy crust with flavor well infused. We were satisfied.

When? July 30 2018
Where? Sara, 12/F, OLIV, 15-21 Sharp Street East, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
Menu highlights? Whole Yobuko Kensaki Squid Sashimi
Juyondai Gokujo Morohaku Junmai Daiginjo - Takagi Shuzo, Yamagata Prefecture
十四代極上諸白純米大吟釀 -山形県 高木酒造
Azumatsuru Tokubetsu Junmai Omachi Nakagumi - Azumatsuru Shuzo, Saga Prefecture
東鶴特別純米雄町中汲み - 佐賀県 東鶴酒造 

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