THE TEPPANROOM IS PROBABLY the least creative name you could devise for a space that serves teppanyaki food, but don't let the lack of linguistic artistry turn you away from the latest addition to Grand Hyatt Hong Kong's restaurant line-up. The hotel has always been a dependable stalwart, but hardly a trendsetter, though now – with the Sushi Kuu team having launched Sanka and Inakaya alum Lawrence Mok having just opened IM Teppanyaki – the property's food-and-beverage team may have finally (and possibly unwittingly) happened upon the city's latest cuisine craze.
What diners like is slowly being honed and fine-tuned into an exact recipe across Hong Kong. Although no-reservations policies, farm-to-table sourcing and uncomfortable seating don't quite gel with a high-end hotel, there are still small plates, private dining and tableside prep to get a customer excited – and those are just some of the attributes that have converged at The Teppanroom, whether by coincidence or design. Those aren't the things that make The Teppanroom good, though.
Chef Robert Liu hails from Shanghai, and when I ask him how long he's been flinging metal spatulas in the air as his trade, he tells me to guess. “Ten years?” I consider it a diplomatic response. He laughs. “Two months.”
So unlike teppanyaki performers of the West, who can send sautéed shrimp soaring through the air into a waiting pocket and make a flaming volcano out of stacked onions, or those from Japan, who will expertly but discreetly sizzle and slice a steak as easily as they'd fry an egg, Liu has a much slower, more considered approach to this art.
His previous tenure was just across the hallway, at Grand Hyatt Steakhouse, and he's brought some of that top-grade meat – as well as the knowledge of how to cook it – with him to The Teppanroom. Japanese A5 Wagyu tenderloin is one of those specimens, fatty enough to melt in the mouth, meaty enough that there's still a predominant taste of beef. “It's the highest quality; you won't want to eat any other beef afterwards,” Liu promises. “We don't even carry A5 sirloin because it would be too fatty.” But there are sirloin and tenderloin cuts at A3 and A4 quality for those who really wish to challenge his word. The steak is served with a small array of sauces – soy, a sesame paste and what Liu calls a “Mexican” sauce, which is like salsa. Ignore them all. Thou shalt not adulterate such fine meat with the devil's
If you can't lay off the sauce, then go for the Iberico pork loin instead. Actually, order it regardless. It's rare to see pork championed on a teppanyaki grill – in fact, I don't think I've ever ordered it – and this dish both explains and challenges this fact. There's nothing less fun than watching something cook slowly on low heat, and if you buy into that whole watched-pot cliché, nothing more futile. After the initial scorch, this little piggy sits around for some 10 minutes cooking away, and that's not including rest time. In the meantime, a trio of apple rings is butter-fried till crispy, then sprinkled with powdered sugar. When the pork is ready, it's sliced and the rings applied like folder dividers in between each piece. Out from the fridge comes a wasabi-apple purée, spooned lovingly and liberally over it all. The wasabi is like a wake-up call for the tried-and-true apples-and-pork combination, synergistic yet also rising above.
Another familiar pairing is tomato with balsamic, and though your mind screams bloody murder as a Kochi fruit tomato is halved and placed on the heated metal (at least it's the cooler 160-degree side, and not the charring 230-degree part), thank God the specimens are removed before the skin begins to pucker and wrinkle, thanks to the thicker skin specific to Kochi fruit tomatoes. Its bedfellows are pancetta and pine nuts, with balsamic vinegar reduced on the grill. The play on temperatures – the tomato is hot mainly on the outside – makes it something of an intellectual achievement, and the very definition of a kicked-up classic.
Slow and steady is very much the MO here – occasionally that's a curse, like when you're hungry and literally have to watch your food cook in front of you – but mostly it's a boon, because it sets The Teppanroom apart from its peers most distinctively. It's common to see the grill used a little artlessly to stir-fry, but Liu's canvas is so perfectly organised it's almost a little obsessivecompulsive. For a prawn and Hokkaido scallop appetiser, the seafood elements are neatly arrayed in their own areas and painstakingly stacked over a shiso leaf (a brilliant flavour and easy enhancement to any dish, but particularly so here), before being unceremoniously devoured by me. Even dessert – a slice of pineapple flambéed with tequila, then dressed with black pepper and coconut ice cream – is an exact tableside performance, precisely timed and measured. And never have you seen such neatly tossed fried rice. The Teppanroom's version is infused with green-tea powder, and the chef delicately lines up sunny-side-up quail eggs on the grill so each bowl of rice gets its own personal topper.
If your belly isn't grumbling, the song and dance is a delight to witness; for those who don't mind a good rumble in the kitchen, it also provides no shortage of inspiration (I certainly had a few shiso-leaf-motivated brainwaves throughout the meal, as well as a definite eureka moment at first taste of the wasabi-apple purée).
Just as important as the food in this type of environment is the chef interaction – certainly, if you must forgo facing your dining companions to watch Liu at work, he'd better make it worth your while. He does, not only with his concentrated efforts on the grill, but with a quiet humour and genial demeanour, as well as a mean knowledge of ingredients. Quiz him on the fresh produce that lines the shelves in baskets behind the counter, or on the type of salt served, or on the classification methodology used on the cuts of beef in the clear fridge. No true foodie will turn down the opportunity to delve into the provenance and science of the food presented to him or her. I certainly didn't. And while I could share the answers to all those questions here…I'll allow you, dear reader, the pleasure of asking them yourself.