Comedian Jerry Seinfeld always bemoaned being introduced on stage as “the funniest”, the “the best” or “the greatest”, as it set the bar so high that no matter how good he was, his performance would never measure up. With that in mind, we didn’t tell any of our guests about our venue prior to our private dinner. The glittering reviews, the Michelin star and even the restaurant’s name were kept well-guarded secrets when we invited actor, singer and model Andrew Pong, his girlfriend Peggy Ho (teacher by day and occasional model) and Prestige’s very own influencer, photographer and model Jeremy Wong, out for dinner one intermittently rainy night.
In fact, our destination that evening was haloed Kaiseki Den by Saotome, in its latest incarnation on Wan Chai’s Cross Lane. In its previous Sheung Wan location, the establishment was known as Wagyu Kaiseki Den, but this new venue is more intimate – it seats fewer than 25 people – and is more down-to-Earth, and its omakase menu more precise and concise.
What we’ve discerned about kaiseki is that it’s the haute cuisine of Japan’s former imperial capital, Kyoto. An often elaborate and invariably elegant multi-course accompaniment to tea ceremonies that dates back roughly 500 years. It’s also the kind of exquisite and artful exercise that only the Japanese could weave with such mastery around the otherwise mundane act of sitting down for a cuppa.
If you jet to Japan for the experience, sampling kaiseki can be rarefied and costly, with meals at Michelin-starred restaurants – such as the famed Kikunoi – not only breathtaking experientially, but also ruinous financially. Trying to recreate the magic of such multi-sensory feasts in the darkened backstreets of Wan Chai might seem foolhardy, yet here we all are, wowed by the near-universal praise in the press and eager to sample kaiseki ourselves.
We’re seated in a private room (one of two), when Jeremy Wong rushes in, late from a shoot, and announces, “I haven’t eaten all day.” The petite Peggy Lo replies, “Well, I’ve been taking it easy today to make room for my dinner.” Drinks are ordered, the teetotaller picking a juice and the sommelier – who has a foreknowledge of what’s coming – recommending a 2000 Domaine Leroy Bourgogne Rouge.
“I eat everything and I eat a lot,” says Pong, whose album Pages is due for release this month. “I work out a lot for the action movies I do, and I’m well prepared for the stunts that I do myself, so I burn off the calories quite quickly. I need to eat a lot. It’s great – I never have to diet.”
That’s just as well, as 10 courses are heading our way, the maître d’ explaining how each will arrive at our table during the evening and what they will entail, starting with braised abalone and also including mizu-eggplant, melon cucumber and mash broad beans with uma fish broth julienne. Abalone may be an acquired taste for some, but we dive right in before the hot egg custard topped with hairy crabmeat, and sweet corn in Yoshinokawa seaweed sauce yuzu arrive.
If perfection has been plated, garnished and served anywhere on Earth this evening, it’s surely here. Course after course, revelation after revelation – every dish, amuse-bouche and chef’s selection has us salivating.
At one point, we’re told that some of our selections are usually made with lobster, but as every dish is prepared from fresh produce straight from the market, the chef has substituted crab for lobster, whose quality doesn’t meet with his approval. Indeed, as changes due to seasonality and availability are often made, a set-in-granite menu doesn’t exist.
Not that anything is off-key, for every plate comes out looking like art and tasting even better. When the Shiretoko rockfish arrives, doused with Fushimi pepper, bonito flakes and ginger sauce, the spice gives a little kick that’s subsequently assuaged by the shrimp ball with winter melon and summer vegetables in clear soup. The courses flow seamlessly, from light to heavy and mild to wild, the chef anticipating our needs, soothing our palettes and then igniting them as an encore. No surprise that the phone cameras are in constant use throughout the meal.
If the evening can be described musically, it’s a perfect harmony orchestrated with precision as courses ebb and flow. Following a brief interlude, the proceedings reach a crescendo with the arrival of the pièce de résistance, when three waiters place large containers at the centre of the table. Was it sea urchin with truffle rice served with pickles and miso soup, or sea eel with sanshou pepper rice? At this inebriated hour, I’m not sure who picks what, but soon we’re all gleefully patting our overstuffed stomachs.
Before we leave, we ask the chef what makes kaiseki so special. “A traditional multi-course meal, kaiseki is the ultimate expression of Japanese cuisine and pays tribute to all of Japan’s rich culinary traditions and techniques,” he says. “The kaiseki philosophy revolves mainly around the concept of time and place. Therefore, our menu depends on what’s available throughout the season and our ingredients are selected at the peak of freshness, and prepared with the most appropriate method to suit and naturally accentuate their distinctive flavours.
Photography Samantha Sin
Portrait Ricky Lo