There’s an Argentinian thread running through two of the best meals I’ve had in a long time, one last month in San Sebastian, now one last night in Hong Kong’s Ocean Terminal. There’s no coincidence that both chefs, Agustin Balbi and Paulo Airaudo, are good friends. Whatever is being taught in culinary schools and restaurants in Buenos Aires needs to be exported globally, because both meals show moments of true greatness.
This review looks at Haku in Ocean Terminal, TST. In that huge mall there are no shortage of places to eat, but Haku which officially opens this week is a refuge, a place to hide from the impossibly-bright lights and noise of the other dining options. The discrete doorway is modest, in true Japanese style. The name above the door is Hideaki Matsuo of the three Michelin starred Kashiwaya in Osaka.
In Hong Kong, he has entrusted his brand and reputation to Agustin, most recently chef at the underrated but out-of-the-way Ocean in Repulse Bay. He has chosen well. From the amuse all the way through to the petit four, this was one of the best debut meals I can remember in Hong Kong.
The interior is definitively Japanese, sushi-counter style where you can watch the action, or other tables for a more private tête à tête. It’s soft colours, clean lines and lots of beautiful, expensive-looking wood. There’s also the cleanest kitchen I can recall.
Frankly, a glass of Krug is a good way to start breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s paired at Haku with a beautiful little amuse of a crisp pastry tartlet filled with a duxelles of mushrooms, sweet tiny petit pois and flowers. There’s olive oil with yuzu in there, too. So pretty, so delicate, so delicious. Exactly what you want to start a meal, to amuse both the palate and the bouche.
Another amuse is a beetroot pickle designed as the very heart of a rose. It’s rolled up not unlike fruit leather strips, even if that’s a profoundly unfair comparison to another excellent aesthetic:
Finally a cone of seaweed filled with a sensational with ichiban dashi cream. It’s an umami explosion thanks to the kombu and bonito flakes which form the base of the stock, then turned into a cream. It all makes for a very impressive start. The first dish proper is an enormous plump oyster from Fukuoka in southern Japan, the source of many of the night’s ingredients. It comes under a yuzukosho granita, apple and the sansho pepper leaf which gives a real kick for its size. Top drawer produce, not messed around with.
Likewise the Kyushu tomato composition with shards of jamon de bellota (a favourite topic and ingredient of mine), sharp silver slices of kamasu fish. What looks like breadcrumbs are the leftover residue of sake, mixed with rice flower and baked. But of course it is. The bowl is breathtakingly tasty, so much so that I unsuccessfully try to finish the residue with my chopsticks.
(Incidentally there was a full and faultless vegetarian menu on offer too, far from a given in many Japanese restaurants. To my left, the vegetarian’s cured egg was likened to an eggy gummy bear – in the best possible way – for the second reference of the night to sweets from our youth.)
Things continue to ramp up with a dish we watch being constructed in front of us. Brioche has a roasted eggplant with miso cream weaved across it, before Hokkaido uni is gently slipped on top. It’s served in what looks like a bamboo pergola, not out of place in an afternoon tea set. It was crazy, crazy good.
And then you get served this, as part of the set menu which will come in around $1200. I don’t know how:
Beautiful? Of course. Bling? Ridiculously so. The base is a mix of Polmard beef (here’s my CNN piece on Alexandre Polmard’s extraordinary produce) along with the finest chutoro fatty tuna. Then you top that with Kristal caviar. I mean, really? Words rarely fail me, but this was close. Here’s another look, along with bubbles and rice tuiles:
And Agustin with the tuna:
The savoury crescendo comes with Kagoshima wagyu cooked over binchotan charcoal, imparting a heady woodland smoke. It’s served on a beautiful grey hexagonal plate (all the tableware is beautiful) with pickles, earthy mushrooms scored and seared like squid and tiny wild asparagus. As with many of the dishes, Agustin does the seasoning at the pass, perfectly:
The first of two desserts are tiny crunchy wild strawberries with a lovely tofu ice cream and meringue:
Alongside, a striking Amanatsu orange filled with yoghurt and granita, all the way to the bottom. Light and sharp and delicious and (almost) guilt free.
The final gesture is a petit four of candy floss. That’s it, nothing more. Chef says how it reminds him of his childhood and, although we grew up thousands of miles apart, it does for me too. It’s the smell, like nothing else.
I’ve waxed pretty lyrical about Haku, but it really deserves it. The music is right, one of the chefs has the best hair I’ve ever seen in a Hong Kong kitchen, while even the lady doing the dishes in her golden gloves has a cheeky black lace number on. What didn’t I like? Er, well the water glass was kind of awkward to pick up and green tea was served before ice cream, which seemed odd. But if these are the only criticisms which come to mind, then Haku is doing something very good indeed and joining Épure as another great reason to head to Ocean Terminal.