Sunday, June 14, 2020

Bemused Kaiseki

While we were in the hood for the weekend we thought we would take the opportunity to explore one of the new restaurants in K11 Musea. Tominokoji Yamagishi is the first overseas branch of the Kyoto-based restaurant of the same name, specializes in kyo-ryori, the formal Kaiseki cuisine rooted in imperial Kyoto.

The restaurant is hidden in an obscure corner inside the mall and upon entry, we were seated by the small room next to the door. I wasn't too happy about them not being forthcoming with this arrangement both when I called to book and then called again to confirm a few days ago - I probably would have declined if I knew their counter seats were not available. Certainly not a right mood to start the meal with.

During lunch service they offered a single 7-course menu which was an abbreviated version of their more elaborate dinner but with the similar theme of small dishes served sequentially based on seasonal ingredients and different cooking methods.

We began with a small bowl of goma tofu topped with bafun uni. Love the excellent texture of the "tofu" made with kuzu and the subtle sesame flavor mashed in, combining well with the umami taste from the sea urchins, but the soy sauce was a tad bit too strong to tip the dish slightly off-balance - felt like they just poured it straight off a bottle without even tasting. Next was gyu shigure-ni served in a lidded lacquer bowl. Inside was thin somen with dashi topped with shredded Kagoshima wagyu. What's most interesting was the dashi, clear but rich, starting off with the nice aroma from the yuzu zest and gave way to the spicy kick from the kuro-shichimi added in.

Another beef course was served next and inside another lidded bowl - this time the stewed beef was served as filling to the imo-manju, or savory dumpling made of potato flour and mixed with mashed green pea to give it a nice tint of green. And on top, a dab of salted plum puree and Japanese fern providing the extra dimension of flavor and served in a ceramics bowl. You have to ask the chef why he would put two beef courses on the menu and served it back to back.

What followed was the Sunomono course, traditionally a cold course served in a vinegar dressing (Sunomono means "vinegared dish"). What we were served is scallops with seasonal vegetables (asparagus and tomatoes) with sesame vinaigrette dressing and extra toasted sesames on top (goma-ae style) in a glass bowl. That's my least favorite course of the afternoon with overwhelming sesame flavor just killed the dish, plus the dressing tasted like it came from a supermarket bottle with just sweetness and no aroma nor other flavor to show forth. No offence, but I could make a better goma-ae dish at home on any given day.

Luckily the best course came right after the worst with the Sugi-hassun course served in the form of two different seafood ingredients prepared two different ways and plated on a square cedar tray. First was the sakura-ebi kakiage, with the tiny shrimps (sakura-ebi) mixed with shiso leaves, battered and deep-fried. It's done similar to tempura but was made extra crunchy, and well-seasoned that no additional sauces were required. Second was Hokkaido kinki (scorpian fish) done yuan-yaki style - with the pieces filleted, marinated in sauce before grilled on open fire. It's perfectly cooked with good mix of smoky and hint of citrus sweet flavors.

Rice at the end was the signature course of the restaurant. Koshihikari rice was cooked in the traditional large earthenware pot (and prepared using water coming from Kyoto) with a small bowl of sashimi platter (yari-ika, chutoro and uni served with egg yolk sauce) and condiments (shirasu, mentaiko and nameko) on the side. Hard to be wowed by a bowl of plain rice but it's well-cooked in every aspects, and I loved the sides too especially the pickled nameko mushrooms. I also liked the simple dessert of milk pudding with a brush of sudachi zest with the soft texture and subtly sweet flavor.

I was generally satisfied by the food thinking some of those dishes were about the best one could get outside of Japan (with the exception of a couple courses), but then I was somewhat bemused by the service and the whole dining experience - from seating us in a tiny room instead of the counter (and without asking for our consent ahead of time) to not offering us a menu to giving us only sketchy description of each dish to telling us a cup of hot tea at the end of the meal would cost us extra (which I thought he's kidding when he said it). That's certainly the first time I heard this anywhere and made one wonder whether they would also go skimpy on other less noticeable details. While (most of) the food was decent, the meal was missing substance and spirit and the restaurant failed to live up to its fame.

Just as we finished our meal, the manager came in and recommended us their dinner menu, saying it would offer a whole different dining experience - maybe at 3 times the price tea would be at least included as part of the meal or I would feel less like being moved along an assembly line with rather cold service. But guess I would probably never know.

When? May 17 2020
Where? Tominokoji Yamagishi, Shop 506 K11 Musea, Victoria Dockside, 18 Salisbury Road, Tsimshatsui, Hong Kong
Menu Highlights? Sugi-hassun: Sakura-ebi Kakiage and Hokkaido Kinki Yuan-yaki
Drink? Tatenokawa "Tatenyan Vol 7" Junmai Daiginjo, Tatenokawa Brewery, Yamagata Prefecture
楯野川たてにゃんVol. 7純米大吟釀 - 山形縣楯野川酒造

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