Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Gigantic Botan Shrimp Sushi and Soybeans at Sushi Kuu in HONG KONG

Rare: Alfonsino, Akamutsu, Salmon Trout

Sushi in Hong Kong...

Many sushi aficionados are probably already well aware of this, but the sushi in Hong Kong is more innovative than the sushi in Japan. I uttered that same sentence just earlier tonight at Iroha of Tokyo, one of Studio City’s many fine sushi restaurants, and the chef vehemently disagreed. He was Japanese.

“I don’t think so,” he said as he shook his head. “I like traditional sushi.”

I pointed to the board behind him on the wall, a dry-erase board with colorful scrawls (and drawings) of their offerings—rolls that featured cream cheese, baked salmon, sauteed king crab—and I replied “I like the crazy Americanized stuff.”

This is not to say I dislike traditional-style sushi. In my previous blog I extolled all the freshness and rare fish that seem to comprise most of the menus in Japan. But sushi in Hong Kong is simply more hip and much more with-it, and based on my experience, sushi bars there abound like fish in the sea, and perhaps more importantly, are easier to locate based on English signage.

I hadn’t expected to like the sushi in Hong Kong all that much. I’d heard rave reviews from people about the Chinese food there (which was also fabulous, for the most part anyway), but never the sushi.

I stumbled upon Sushi Kuu, which shares a building with a nightclub, a billiards hangout, and a couple of boutiques (stacking businesses on top of one another is not an uncommon sight in Hong Kong), when I set off alone to wander about. I had just eaten excellent grub at a fancy Cantonese dim-sum house with my travel buddies, so I wasn’t exactly hungry—BUT!—I could always make more room for more sushi, couldn’t I?

The atmosphere was decidedly high-class, not casual—I could tell by the décor and the attire of the staff. I browsed their menu and quickly asked to speak to the manager. There’s a method to my madness. I explained to the man in the suit: I am a tourist who is here to try as many different types of sushi that is not available in the States as possible (according to their menu, there were quite a few), so I would like permission to order the nigiri one at a time, as opposed to the customary two-piece package deal. He had been acknowledged as one of the powers that be, so just as expected, he agreed. Yes!

First, I was given oversize soybeans I could hardly believe I was seeing. (For the less savvy, the quarter I placed next to the dish is there to show the scale.) Never in my life had I seen anything like this. It was a far cry from those tiny little things called edamame, usually ordered as a side dish but sometimes freely doled out as soon as you plonk down to eat.

Then, through the glass case on the sushi bar, giant prawns called “Botan Shrimp” stared at me with their insidious but dead black eyes, their spiky antennae seeming to jostle for space as they huddled together. They are gargantuan versions of the ama ebi, or sweet shrimp, which can found in most sushi bars in the States; because of their larger size, only one shrimp was needed to construct my single piece of nigiri—unlike with ama ebi, which are so tiny and narrow that two shrimps are required to cover that block of rice. The crustacean’s huge head, which got lopped off and battered and then deep-fried (this is also the normal way in which sweet shrimp are served), appeared later with a slice of lemon and ponzu sauce.

The botan shrimp definitely tastes superior to sweet shrimp (size matters?) and its texture is gooey and glutinous, just like that of ama ebi—unlike the tougher, chewier consistency of regular tiger shrimp.

I ordered more exotic fish—the Alfonsino (an orangey-red fish that seemed a cross between a snapper and a salmon), the Akamutsu (a silky, pink-and-silver number reminiscent of yellowtail), and the Japanese Salmon Trout—all in single-piece formation. Then the grand finale, which could not have been more perfect: a prawn tempura avocado hand roll, laced with Japanese mayonnaise and mixed with smelt fish eggs. Somehow, it was one of the most buttery and satisfying prawn tempura hand rolls I have ever had. It had the properly seasoned rice, the freshness, and certainly, they didn’t ruin it with the filler ingredient of imitation crab and the hyper-sweetening eel sauce, as many sushi joints in the States will do.

After some calculation, I assessed my single-piece botan shrimp cost close to $8, the salmon trout about $6, and the prawn tempura avocado hand roll about $14.


Stop the Car...

After that feast, I hopped into a taxi to head back to the hotel…and just two blocks into the drive, I saw it. A sign that read DOZO!—the word was foreign to me, but I could see through the windows that it was another sushi place. The façade of the place also seemed trendy, fun. (I’ve arrived at a point where I can pretty much tell from looking at a sushi restaurant whether it will be good or not.)

“Stop the car, I’m getting out here instead,” I requested of the confused cabbie. He didn’t care. I had tipped him. I jumped back onto the sidewalk, heavy of stomach, laughing at myself as I rushed right back into yet another heady sushi-binge. I’m an addict, what can I say?

I found out DOZO! essentially means “Here you go” or “Go ahead” in Japanese. So of course it makes a great name for a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant (some call this a “sushi train” restaurant).

One of my travel companions would hardly deign to eat at a place where the sushi had been sitting for a while on a conveyor belt, floating past would-be takers as it wilted. But I had been to countless such dives before, taking what others rejected as it literally passed them by, consuming shrimp tempura rolls that had been revolving round and round for so long that the shrimp was no longer hot…and nothing bad ever happened, I never got sick. So I decided what the hell.

The outcome of this risk was positive, my friends, and how. DOZO! also introduced me to Hong Kong’s penchant for searing sushi with that proverbial propane torch (it seems all the subsequent places after this one used the torch, which I hadn’t seen at Sushi Kuu). First there was the seared salmon sushi with grated Daikon radish and ikura adorning the top, and then the same fish torched with mini wedges of lime, rind and all, reminding me of the Lime Roll at Kushiyu in Tarzana. Then there was the oddly two-toned but tasty yellowtail sushi, garnished with mustard seeds and green onion.

A noteworthy detail: sashimi here sat on ice packs, ensuring its chill and freshness. Perhaps if they put ice packs under the nigiri and maki as well, my friend would make that jump. My total came to HKD $74 plus HKD $7 for the 10% service charge (standard in most if not all Hong Kong restaurants), which made the grand total about $12 U.S. Not bad for the phenomenal vittles.

Prawn Sushi Baked with Sea Urchin Sauce, Mango and Goose Liver Roll

Hanaita Sushi

Hanaita Sushi happened on another day, to everyone’s relief. And this is where I was introduced to the sauciness of Hong Kong, for an entire half-page of the menu was dedicated just to sushi baked with “sea urchin sauce.” I am not a fan of uni, but sea urchin sauce sounded interesting—it certainly looked good in the pictures in the menu, sort of like a burnt-mayonnaise, Dynamite-sauce-looking topping that coated everything. I ordered the Japanese tiger prawn sushi with sea urchin sauce (this was automatically one piece per order), and the colossal crustacean (non-fried head and all) made a perfect picture before making the perfect meal. I nearly swooned when I tasted the amazing sauce. It didn’t have that clammy uni flavor at all; rather, it’s comparable to a well-baked mayonnaise sauce, tinged with a hint of the sea. (Note: I revisited this place during the slow afternoon of another day, and this same dish didn’t taste as good. Perhaps they had a less experienced chef working, since it was during happy hour, when everything was half-price.)

The Mango & Goose Liver Roll may sound overly gamey and weird, but it actually rated pretty high in my book. The tart mango combined rather well with the soft and tender foie gras, which tasted like the fat on a steak, only without the oiliness. The mango sauce gave the dish a nice touch, and it actually overrode the taste of the shallots which sat on top of the roll in slivers.

There were still too many other specialties I didn’t have enough room to try—there was another page of sushi in the “Sauce Roast” category, which listed items such as “Sauce Roast Fish Dorsal” and “Sauce Roast Tuna Neck.” Hand rolls dominated a whole other page in the menu.

Fried Conch with Cheese; Lobster & Mango

Itamae Sushi

Within walking distance of Hanaita, both Itamae Sushi and Ha-Ne Sushi offer their own unique dishes—like DOZO!, they are conveyor-belt sushi places.

The only other place I have ever seen conch sushi was in Florida, and I certainly had never seen a “Fried Conch with Cheese Roll” like I did inside Itamae. I knew that if I really wanted to, I could have ordered a fresh one from the sushi chef, so that the fried conch would not be cold inside the roll after many a revolution on the old train…but it was so chaotically noisy inside, and the chefs were so busy bustling, that I decided to just grab a ready-made one off the “belt.” The roll wasn’t the best, but it wasn’t half bad—sort of like a trailer-trash, fast-food version of overly inventive, extremely evolved sushi with stringy aerosol cheese to boot.

The Lobster & Mango Salad Roll was a misnomer—they should have written “Lobster Salad & Mango Roll”—but I knew what they meant because of the photo. Somehow, mango always marries well with salmon and just about any crustacean in my opinion, and that was the case with this two-piece ensemble. I thought it was interesting that they draped such large slices of mango atop the rolls, as if they were fish wrapping a maki; the black flying fish eggs were also a pretty standard accompaniment with the lobster salad, which had that pungent hint of wasabi mayo just as I’d suspected (I wish they would make a lobster mixture without that wasabi flavor, but for some reason it’s hard to find).

Ha-Ne Sushi: Curry Shrimp & Aburi Kanikama

Ha-Ne Sushi

At Ha-Ne Sushi, the Curry Shrimp Roll delighted me with its strong flavor and unusualness, but the quality was much like the fried conch at Itamae. It’s common sense that fried food should never be left out for a long time, even if it is wrapped in sushi rice; the hot fried batter simply cools down and gets soggy. But just as before, I was too lazy and reluctant to ask for a fresh one. (The conveyor belt, with its freight of sushi-stacked saucers constantly whizzing by you, is simply too convenient. The middle man, although useful, becomes a hassle to deal with at all. It should be just about you and the food, right?).

The complex menu at Ha-Ne Sushi even puts the one at Hanaita to shame. Apparently, the Curry Shrimp Roll falls under the “America Roll” header in the multi-fold menu; other America rolls include the “Bostan Roll” and “Golden Shrimp Roll” (Golden because it’s draped, not drizzled, with yellow cheese). The “Aburimono” section clearly depicts seared sushi, such as “Aburi Kanikama,” or seared imitation crab (which I ordered), and Aburi Tarabagani (seared king crab), which sounded better but didn’t look as good in the photo. There were also Aburi Hirame (seared halibut) and Aburianago (seared sea eel). At some point, I am not sure when, I had to stop. My stomach couldn’t take anymore.

Overall, Hong Kong’s sushi, although seemingly tacky, bursts with flavor and new ideas, and possesses a whacked-out personality you just have to respect. If you wanted traditional-style in Hong Kong, you could order it. But not even Japan could—or would deign to—replicate the madness in Fragrant Harbor.

Next blog: Sushi in Seattle

Friday, May 1, 2009

Raw Horse Sashimi & Bar-Roasted Mackerel

My Journey to Japan

I was always asked why I wanted so badly to travel to Japan. “Because I want to pay homage to the land of sushi,” I would reply. And since I was such a huge fan of Japanese cuisine, the fact that I had still never visited the country began to elicit surprise from my acquaintances. “You haven’t been to Japan? I thought for sure you’ve already been there…” “How can you not have been to Japan…?”

There never seemed to be the right time; there were so many other distant lands to explore, so many other things to do. Soon, both time and excuses seemed to be running out.

The long-awaited trip to Tokyo (as I am ever beckoned by the allure of big cities) finally happened mid-April: an eight-night stay in the Shinjuku district, to be followed by a quick detour to Hong Kong.

I prepared myself for fresh, traditional-style sushi, having heard from friends who've been to Japan that the country actually has none of the sushi-shenanigans seen so often in the States (i.e., crazy sauces, quirky ingredients, creative rolls with even more creative names). In fact, the consensus seemed to be that sushi is still better over here, as we have a greater tendency toward cross-cultural fusion and that good old-fashioned enterprise of competition, both of which result in ever-changing menus and new dishes.

So I surprised myself when I ordered the most unexpected thing for my first meal in Tokyo: raw horse sashimi. I didn’t know which part of that was more shocking: that it was raw, or that it was horse. Oh, but it was there and it dared me to eat it. I thought maybe it was written wrong. Maybe they meant horse mackerel, which I have heard of.

“No, I think it’s actual horse,” said my travel companion, insisting that it wouldn’t make me sick because she has eaten raw chicken before in Japan and it didn’t make her ill. Well, that sounded good enough for me. When the dish arrived, a heap of blood-red yet bloodless slices of meat arranged with minced garlic and raw onions, she said, “That’s all you. I will eat anything but that.”

After tasting it, I didn’t blame her. It was cold, chewy, and too carnal, somehow. Yet it didn’t taste like anything I recognized. Why hadn’t I ordered sushi again? Oh, that’s right. Because I wanted to be adventurous. The garlic and onions didn’t help it by much, they merely overrode the whatever fleshy flavor the baniku provided. But those who know what I’ve eaten in the past shouldn’t flinch too much. With a tad of guilt I admit I’ve ingested raw whale, smoked puffin, kangaroo, rattlesnake-and-rabbit sausages, crocodile, alligator sausage...the list goes on and on.

She finally braved a bite, and said it tasted like raw hamburger meat. I felt queasy afterwards. The cigarette smoke-filled air in the restaurant didn’t help, either. But the other dishes made up for it in taste, if not in healthiness: bacon-wrapped asparagus, deep-fried mini fish with spicy salt and mayonnaise, beef-wrapped enoki mushrooms….

The second restaurant we hopped over to also had a Japanese-only name, which gave it a feel of authenticity even though a reference-point was lost on me (as I didn’t know what to call it). Again, a menu with lots of pictures helped, but everything did have both a Japanese and English description. I chose a cut roll with “Bar-Roasted Mackerel,” which tasted similar to herring but was actually a mackerel superior to all the mackerels I had ever tasted. The black-mottled silver slices, with the thinnest veil of torched fish skin, sat atop large mounds of rice with nothing rolled in them, as if they were nigiri-style with plumped-up bases. The dish cost 780 Yen, which is about $8.50.

The Fish Market: As Fresh As It Gets

Sushi from The Fish Market

The Tsukiji Fish Market, also known as Tokyo Central Wholesale Market, doubles as a bustling tourist attraction whereby sightseers witness the famous tuna auction that takes place at the crack of dawn. Well, I wasn’t planning to get up early for that. It would have been nice to see, but what I really wanted was some super-fresh sushi, which was available in numerous mini-restaurants in the outside market area, where you weren’t so likely to be bulldozed by one of the hundreds of motorized carts being ridden around by somber-looking employees. Amid stalls that sold everything from knives and souvenir shirts to spices and ceramic dinnerware, little eateries offered platters of assorted sushi for as low as 2,100 Yen (about $22.50).

I immediately spotted the names of fish on the menu that are rare in the States: shako (squilla, a gray-colored mantis shrimp), torigai (cockle), aoyagi (round clam). The sushi platter I ordered happened to have the shako, which looked like the body of a giant segmented bug that had shucked its exoskeleton. The chef painted its center with some sweet brown sauce, which tasted like a teriyaki-soy-glaze of some sort. Other sea-creatures that decorated my tray in nigiri form: toro (fatty tuna), kanpachi (premium yellowtail), bright red bonito (a type of tuna), ama ebi (sweet shrimp), gai (clam), and aji (Spanish mackerel).

Hand Rolls at a Spa; Sushi from Matsuya Ginza

Introducing Komochi-Kombu

Some of the tastiest sushi rolls in Japan that I experienced (aside from the bar-roasted mackerel) actually came from the eatery inside the Oedo-Onsen Monogatari, a Japanese bath house and spa. Here, I ordered two hand rolls, one of which was filled with anago (sea eel), tamago (egg omelet), and sweet brown kampyo (gourd); and the other, with Japanese pickles and komochi-kombu, which I had never even heard of till now. It’s described on the menu as “tangle with herring roe,” or a union between herring eggs and dried kombu seaweed. For some reason, I never did like herring sushi—too fishy, or something—but the roe attached to kombu is superb.

And while the sushi at Matsuya Ginza’s Restaurant City (that is, the name of the food court on the eighth floor of a fancy department store called Matsuya Ginza) may look impressive, I didn’t find the crab sushi that I consumed to be so grand. After peeling the plastic wrap off each individual piece, I found the crab to be mediocre, and the rice sort of bland. Deciding on the crab roll had been tough—they vie for your business like nobody’s business on this food-filled floor of the building; vendors hand toothpicks of sample bites to passerby—try our mentaiko, our uni sauce, our deep-fried cheese-ball, they plead. Truly a food lover’s heaven.

Next blog: Sushi in Hong Kong