Hanabi review date: January 12, 2015
Overall score: 8/10
Even though it’s all of twenty minutes away, Knutsford Terrace is never an easy sell for the geographically-challenged Hong Kong islander. Maybe it’s a fear of tunnels or the persistent offers of ‘copy watches’, but it’s never really resonated as a dining destination. On a cold and rainy January day it also wasn’t frankly looking its finest when I turned up for lunch at new Japanese spot Hanabi. But, on the strength of Michael Chan’s cuisine, I’ll be braving the crowds of TST to return.
Chan has serious form behind the counter, most notably honed at Nobu and under sushi master Toshio Matsudo, with his 48 (count’em) years mastering the art. Alongside his flawless technique, Chan has also mastered the crucial ability to warmly and genuinely talk to his guests, a critical element in the success of any small restaurant, especially one where the majority of the eighteen seats are along the counter.
Hanabi means ‘fireworks’ and Chan offers two omakase menus at lunch and dinner, the Tsubomi and the Mankai, both of which feature appetizers, sashimi, soup, and sushi with daily variations. At $800 and $1200 respectively, neither are what you’d call cheap, but then again quality comes at a premium – just ask diners at The Araki in London where the Omakase is 300 pounds – without service charge or drinks. The finest examples of Japanese cuisine can command such prices because the quality of the fish, the years of mastering technique and the presentation are all legendary. As a result, eating at Hanabi genuinely feels like a bargain in comparison.
One common misnomer about sushi and sashimi is that the ‘freshness’ of the fish is the critical factor. If something has just flown into Hong Kong from Tsukiji market, it must have been landed only a few hours prior, right? The reality is that the vast majority of fish served in sushi bars (especially in the US) spends at least 72 hours frozen, to ensure any nasties are killed off. As a result, one of the most important skills a sushi chef can master is the technical knowledge to know exactly when to buy a fish and how to make the most of it once they have, including defrosting it. All of which is a long-winded way of explaining that you can guarantee that the fish served at Hanabi is absolutely as fresh as it gets:
Five small appetizers set the early standard for the beautiful plating which is to follow. Plum tofu, Spinach topped with sesame sauce, pumpkin and Okinawa seaweed with tosatsu sauce and ginger are all delicate little joys, but unsurprisingly the standout for me is the far less healthy but delicious little Burdock root in soy sauce and sugar. (7.5/10)
A small radish wrap with avocadoes and greens comes next, some red snapper sashimi alongside. The plate is as beautiful as what’s on it: (8/10)
The real deal follows, firstly the smoked Hokkaido scallop. I’ve already written about my mind-numbingly good donburi bowl at Nido market in Hokkaido, so suffice to say that Japan’s northernmost island never fails to wow when it comes to the quality of its produce. (7.5/10)
The next dish is an absolute belter and comes with a little bit of theatre. Once the glass dish of scallop is removed (pictured above), the applewood smoke parts, like the start of a Kenny G concert, to reveal Toro beneath (pictured below) nestling in white yuzu miso and topped with caviar. In common with what follows, it’s more like butter or foie gras in the mouth than something which has spent a lifetime swimming. The merest hint of contact with the mouth and it dissipates. Although we’re only in the second week of January, I’m pretty sure this will be one of my standout dishes of the year. (9/10)
The more classically prepared sashimi is next, featuring baby yellowtail, stried jack, semi-fatty tuna and the botan-ebi or pink shrimp. It reminds me that sushi and sashimi is one of those things that should only be eaten occasionally, but when it is, it should be done properly, like here at Hanabi. Give me one meal here over three at Genko sushi any day. (8/10)
The tasting continues, not unlike a flight of fine wines, the cuts getting finer and rarer. I’d failed to note what fish kamasu kombu was and on Googling it only got a lot of sketchy links to the Kamasutra. No matter, as seared tuna and God’s own food, Hokkaido sea urchin, came next. Although it didn’t quite match my Sapporo fish market epiphany, the latter was a timely flashback to the freezing waters of the northern Pacific Ocean: (7.5/10)
The sushi crescendo’d with toro, the slinky and creamy belly of the tuna, a rare treat:
Move aside oysters because this is one sensuous mouthful, lifted even further by the finest shave of Iranian blue salt. You don’t find that in Park N’Shop. (8.5/10)
A good if not hugely memorable Anago (eel) came next before the final flourish with grilled black cod. A Nobu staple if ever there was one, this held that same perfect balance that has made it such a well known and much-copied dish the world over (8/10)
There were other elements I missed noting mentally, including a pleasant little yuzu sorbet to wrap up. One that definitely needs mentioning is the vision of bonito in its dried form, a spectacularly unappetizing and ugly block of fish that looks like footwear worn by a Druid and subsequently left in a peat bog for five millennia. Chan deftly flakes it with a sort of boxed Mandolin called a katsuobushi kezuriki:
Chan is Hanabi, fireworks, blocks of bonito and all. His passion for sharing his craft, produce and new home is tangible, as is the warmth of his hospitality. For this reason alone, even in the depths of Knutsford Terrace, Hanabi is worth your time. (8/10 for ‘experience’)
4/F, 6 Knutsford Terrace, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong KongTel: +852 2723 2568 www.knutsfordbyprivegroup.hk/hanabi //