THERE'S A TRICK to doing a Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong. Step one: hire a Japanese chef. Michelin-star association preferred, but not essential. Step two: put in a sushi bar. Step three: market to Japanese customers, making sure when they come they are seated in plain sight for maximum authenticity value. Step four: watch the dollars roll in.
It's a formula as tried and true as it's unoriginal, but few deviations find longevity in a restaurant market whose creativity is necessarily curbed by real-estate woes. So it was a calculated risk two or so years ago when the true jewel in Sushi Ta-ke's crown (as opposed to the heavily name-dropped Japanese chef Sugiyama), the Chinese sushi chef known to customers as Ah Do (“Like the ‘do' in ‘cando',” he likes to say) decamped to helm the bar at a small, nontraditional omakase specialist called Kishoku.
It turns out Hongkongers will flock to good Japanese, whether it's produced by the serious protégé of a Tokyo legend, or a sun- and gym-loving Chinese guy with a penchant for good sake. It's not happenstance that he's not Japanese, either, but a deliberate strategy, reveals Ivan Yeh, the low-key but not low-energy force behind Kishoku, as well as two newly debuted restaurants, beachside barbecue Shoku, and a steakhouse called Primal Cut. “A lot of Japanese chefs are great, but they believe in their style and they stick to their style and they're not so receptive to variety,” he explains.
“Even Jiro-san, [of Sukiyabashi Jiro] in Tokyo, he sticks to [his formula] and you don't have change. Local chefs are more receptive – they're more open to new ideas, to customer suggestions and needs – and I guess that's what we believe, too.”
As with Kishoku, Yeh and his wife Elaine are turning tradition on its head with Shoku. Barbecues on the beach are typified by sandy butts parked on stones posing as stools, by sausages on spears dripping honey into a charcoal fire. We do see some sand-covered posteriors from the window at Shoku, which is situated at The Pulse with a direct line of view of Repulse Bay Beach, but the whole experience is entirely more elegant, without losing the convivial free-spiritedness that makes the camp-fire experience so enjoyable.
There's still a charcoal fire and food on sticks, but it's a central binchotan grill around which Shoku is built, characterised by highquality white charcoal made from oak that burns at a high temperature for long periods, releasing little smoke or smell, so you won't be as enveloped in the remnant scent of barbecue when you leave.
More likely, your pores will be releasing the smell of alcohol, because the Yehs know their booze, and aren't afraid to serve it, whether it's a limited-edition Samurai-topped Nikka Gold & Gold blended whisky, the Taiwanese Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique cask-strength single-malt that was named best in the world by the World Whiskies Awards, or a vivid 2007 Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc. Definitely not your typical seaside libations, though there are cocktails that take inspiration from the location: the Kirakira Tayo, which means glittering sun, is Ketel One, sake, plum wine and gold leaf, like a really potent snow globe transferred into a martini glass.
The food, too, is both unexpected and unexpectedly good. A macabre-looking kinki fish is impaled by metal skewer like a sacrifice by the binchotan, but foodies will consider it a worthy immolation upon tasting: flaky and juicy on the inside, crispy-skinned on the outside but without a hard black char.
“A lot of kinki you get on the market is net drawn,” says Elaine. “Just now, when we were watching chef Gavin wash the kinki, he found a hook – so these kinkis are actually line-caught; it's not easy to find them.”
Adds Yeh, “We're already a very big client of key suppliers [because of the fresh-seafood needs at Kishoku], especially for the kinki. So if they do send us sub-par products, they all go back. And if customers want to order more unique items seasonally – so if they want crabs, or if they want a tuna head – that can be done.”
If ingredients speak first and loudest, then on our first visit, it's a ripe scallop on the half shell that's yelling for our attention, and a glistening abalone that will convert those who tend to veer from the sometimes rubbery mollusc. On a subsequent social call, the waiter steers us instead towards juicy surf clam and fat, bulbous oysters. A good rule of thumb: check with the staff before you order.
There's less variation in quality when it comes to the beef, with four cuts served at exceedingly good prices. The Prime Wagyu Flat Iron is the house favourite, known for its beefy taste, but those who like a little more marbling may prefer the rib-eye instead. If you're sharing, then the side portion of Brussels sprouts will almost certainly be gobbled up long before the steak is finished. Order another, before a fight ensues.
It's a testament to the Yehs' attention to all facets of the menu that, besides superlative seafood and a mean slice of steak, the afterthought dishes are as good as, or even better than, the grilled pièces de résistance.
“The kimchi served with binchotan noodles,” Yeh says, “was one of the first things on the menu. It's Korean fusion, because our chef loves to experiment with his own stuff. His core is still Japanese food, but he makes his own kimchi, he's really proud of it and customers have loved it.”
The kimchi is actually served with a choice of three types of noodles: buckwheat soba, Inaniwa udon or binchotan udon, a flattish grey noodle that includes a small presence of charcoal, which provides minerals and helps detoxify the body, in a similar way to activated charcoal. Health benefits, shmealth benefits – you'd want to order the binchotan udon even if it sends you to an early grave. It's all in the texture – firm but simultaneously bouncy and chewy, and when paired with the cold fire of the chef's kimchi and the bite of that shiso-leaf topper, it's an unassuming, but unqualified winner.
The fried chicken is another hero, amply battered and using free-range, hormone-free specimens that truly taste like freedom and good values, and elevated when doused in the sweet, tangy sauce with which it's partnered. By popular demand, a sushi counter is also in the works but, says Yeh, it won't be a duplicate of Kishoku's fare.
“Probably more creative sushi rolls – things we always wanted to do but we couldn't do at Kishoku, because it's just not right – that's the fun of doing this place, where we can be very creative, but still high quality and completely right with the concept. The concept is just so wide, there's just so much we can start creating – that's the fun part,” he says.
Southsiders can rejoice that not only does their part of the island finally have its first Japanese culinary establishment, it's one that promises to deliver an everchanging roster of the country's many subsets of cuisine, backed by a constant of top-quality ingredients. And if the feel, whether you're a tourist or local, is of a high-end neighbourhood restaurant, that's because that is, essentially, what Shoku strives to be. “This is our neighbourhood,” says Elaine. “Both of us grew up around here and we've been waiting to come out to the sea. Waiting for Repulse Bay to liven up again.”