Maximum delight in a minimalist setting

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 February, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 February, 1993, 12:00am

Kaetsu: M/F Grand Hyatt, 1 Harbour Road, Wan Chai, Hongkong, Tel: 588-1234, ext 7088. Hours: Midday-2.30 pm, 7-11 pm. Decor: High chic with low lighting. Beautifully designed with dark wood, stone, clay and earthy looking textile finishes. Cuisine: Japanese, set lunches from $250, set dinners from $300. Clientele: Mixed bunch of friends, families, tourists and a few business people.

Service: A la Grand Hyatt; waiting team includes the odd familiar face from Grissini. No question is too much trouble to answer. Reservations: Not necessary (yet). Parking: Valet parking available. Cellular phones per table count: None (yet). Smoking policy: No non-smoking section. Overall value for money (out of five): 41/2 bowls here PRETEND you are a Hongkong hotel opening a new food outlet and you've already got one Italian restaurant. Not only that, you've already got a champagne and caviar bar too. What should you do? You take a chance and build a sushi bar.

The Grand Hyatt has gone two further and - in a space that used to be a shop selling clothes with names like Gianni Versace on the labels - created not only the most understated sushi bar in town, but also put it bang in the middle of the ultimately chicJapanese restaurant. One expected to see designers crawling out of the landscaped woodwork to pat each other on the back.

There was barely even a piece of ikebana in sight to detract from the minimalist angles and wooden layered effect. Tables were bare but for a simple white napkin and a pair of long and elegant chopsticks.

Once into the minimalist style of things, it became a bit of a worry that when the food arrived it was going to mar the symmetry. In fact, the place is so chic it probably does look better when everyone's finished dinner and gone home.

It is certainly not for people who might want to write something down or refer to a diary during a meal. It could even be ever so slightly embarrassing doing business in a place where lighting is strictly for mood, designed to flatter the food and leave the face in romantic half-light.

Kaetsu may thus not look or feel like a Tokyo restaurant, but the food is strictly top Tokyo restaurant-style. There are even rare treats for Japanese gourmets who think they have seen it all before, and an astonishing range of sakes to choose from.

Presentation was breathtaking. Melt-in-the-mouth sashimi was served on a bed of crushed ice in a beautiful piece of earthenware: deep-fried silverfish came in a simple wooden sculpted bucket. Stunning presentation did not begin and end with dish shape, but transformed even ordinary ingredients into forms hitherto unwitnessed.

It was remarkable how different salmon sushi tasted when the slice of fish was wrapped right around a rice ball, rather than being laid on top of a hand-squeezed rice base. Even a Japanese gourmet had to set chopsticks to the black heap in a tiny porcelain dish before it became clear it was squid sashimi - dyed black with ink.

Help was needed in identifying eggplant in jelly, mashed up lotus rolled into a ball with raisins stuck in the top, yakitori eel, and crab and scallop tempura wrapped in sheets of seaweed before deep-frying.

Desserts were also like nothing gone before. Fruit and home-made coconut sorbet was served between swirls on a plate large enough to take a fish head; a variation had a fruit sorbet balancing on wafer-thin slices of crispy apple.

Someone once said something to the effect that anyone who has to ask how much it costs cannot afford it. In Kaetsu even the tea smells expensive.