Inn with a shout
An izakaya has to be noisy - it's a casual and informal place where people have fun, talk loudly and drink. So says Takeshi Tong Kwan-mo, head chef of Yagura restaurant in the Eaton Smart hotel in Jordan. True to form, Hong Kong's Japanese izakaya joints are where people go to relax and let off steam over drinks after work.
In Japan an izakaya can be a place for fairly hardcore drinkers, who invariably start with a few beers before moving on to sake. Izakaya patron Chau Yi-yan, who studied in Japan, says the affordable chains attract students because 'they [could] drink crazily until they were quite drunk'. Chau finds Hong Kong's food-driven izakayas quite different from those in Japan, where the drinks list is extensive, the food menu short, and a drink and a plate of food can cost as little as HK$30.
In Japan the choice of drink comes first and the dish second, and there are few pairing rules. The food is not an afterthought but customers expect simple grilled skewers (kushiyaki) and hearty stews. In Hong Kong, patrons are offered a broader range of dishes, including premium sushi and sashimi.
Local foodie and fan of Japanese food, Choi Tsz-tsun, says she enjoys the unstuffy atmosphere of local izakayas, and she and her friends especially like going to places where they can relax on a tatami mat.
Choi also appreciates that the food comes in smaller portions because 'we can order more dishes and try different varieties', she says.
Huang Renjiang, owner of Yi Pai Ya in Causeway Bay, says customers enjoy the 'three elements of time, space and taste'. Yi Pai Ya means 'one cup house' and 42-year-old Huang opened the first of three restaurants in his native Shanghai 10 years ago before exporting his formula to Hong Kong and Sendai. He offers a variety of sakes and plum wines, many brought back from his frequent trips to Japan.
Huang fell in love with izakayas when he studied in Japan and ended up working in a famous robatayaki restaurant in Tokyo for six years.
He is not the only restaurateur to fall in love with the concept. Jareth Chan Chi-ling gave up a career in advertising to pursue his dream of opening an izakaya. As the name of his restaurant implies, Kanton Izakaya in Causeway Bay is a more local version of the Japanese bar but the idea behind it is still to provide food that matches the booze.
'Many people have dinner at one place and move to another venue to have drinks. My idea in opening Kanton Izakaya was to offer a place where you can satisfy the desire for alcohol and have something nice and filling,' Chan says.
Lacking an extensive background in catering, the 41-year-old decided to pair sake with the Cantonese and Taiwanese-influenced dishes he was familiar with. After scanning recipe books, seeking advice from different chefs and plenty of trial and error, Chan arrived at a menu that he and his friends liked.
'They're all appetising sweet and sour dishes that go well with our sweet and not-so-strong sake,' Chan says. Start the night with wine-marinated eggs made using runny duck egg yolks, dried plums, huadiao jiu (Chinese yellow wine) or crunchy chunks of bitter melon with sour plums marinated in wine. There's also foie gras and egg sunny side up over Japanese steamed rice, stir-fried clams with yuzu shu (Japanese citrus sake - a twist on the traditional sake), fried pork flavoured with tangerine peel or salt and peppered duck tongues.
It's all about the tongue at Yi Pai Ya. A long menu features salads, appetisers, sashimi, rice balls and noodles, as well as poultry, meat and seafood skewers, but the star of the show is the grilled ox tongue, Sendai style. The province is famous for its charcoal-grilled tongue, which comes in a special sauce.
Individual Sendai izakayas keep their sauce recipes secret but generally they are sweet and made by seasoning soya sauce with mirin and a dried fish/kombu stock.
Huang allows the tongue to develop its flavour over 48 hours by giving it time to ferment.
Only the tongue root is used to make the izakaya's signature dish, grilled ox tongue toro, with one tongue yielding one or 1? portions at most.
The flavour also comes from cooking the tongue over charcoal. This cooking method requires some dedication in Hong Kong - it took the restaurant over a year and the installation of carbon monoxide detectors and improved ventilation - to gain the required licence.
'We've tried using other methods to do our grilled dishes but the taste is not the same,' Huang says.
The hardwood charcoal heats up to 1,000 degrees Celsius, meaning meat quickly gets a crisp skin but remains juicy inside.
'During the cooking process, the hot charcoal will give out smoke when oil drips on it, which in turn gives the meat a fragrant smokiness,' Huang says.
The result is thick slices of juicy ox tongue or morsels of chicken heart of just the right firmness, skewers of pork belly and chicken wings with juicy, tender meat in a crispy skin. The skewers of chicken liver are moist and creamy, unlike the powder-dry versions on offer at many other places.
It's the range of choices that characterise an izakaya, says Yagura's chef Tong. While many Japanese restaurants specialise in one style of cooking only, be it tempura or sushi and sashimi, the Jordan restaurant offers a wider range that also includes kushiyaki and nigu jaga - a beef, potato and onion stew cooked in lard.
The chef's suggestions include authentic nibbles - the well-known izakaya staple edamame soya bean pods are on a menu that also includes squid mixed with natto, a sticky and pungent soya bean product often seen as an acquired taste to non-Japanese. Another dish that might prove a challenge to some diners is chef Tong's savoury and bitter-sweet squid marinated in its own liver.
Explaining that he wants to show customers the 'real face of Japanese cuisine', chef Tong says the dishes 'are all of very distinct flavour and texture, which stimulates one's taste buds'. The flavour of the food is not diminished by the alcohol consumed with it, he adds.
What alcohol should that be?
Yagura keeps to the traditional formula of beer followed by sake. Beer is seen as a good match for dishes such as tempura, and the batter is refrigerated to make it crisper.
Food at izakayas obviously tends to be beer-friendly, but the pairing can get more interesting than suds and sushi. Tong's pairing principle is to match alcohol strength to the food's flavour intensity. Yagura has a private label sake that he recommends to match lighter flavoured dishes.
'Stronger alcohols such as shochu, on the other hand, balance strongly flavoured dishes. Plum wine is the sweetest and is popular among ladies who love pairing it with sushi and sashimi,' Tong says.
Huang's approach is to offer mostly 'refreshing and easygoing' sakes that are not too sweet or too strong. But Yi Pai Ya's ox tongue gets special treatment. The dish should be paired with a sake called Korezepin, specially developed by a brewery in Sendai to go with ox tongue. The matching brings out the umami in the meat and the sweetness of the sake.
But you don't need to be a master of wine to enjoy the Japanese inn experience. According to Tong there's only rule: 'Don't be shy if you go to an izakaya.'
Aji Bou Izakaya
Address: 1/F, Regal Riverside Hotel, 34-36 Tai Chung Kiu Road, Sha Tin
Tel: 2504 1511
Open: Mon-Sat, 6pm-11pm, Sun & public holiday, noon-2.30pm, 6pm-11pm
Address: Unit 3D, Prosperous Commercial Building, 54 Jardines Bazaar, Causeway Bay
Tel: 2504 1511
Open: Mon-Thurs, 6pm-1am, Fri-Sat, 6pm-2am
Address: 2/F, 2A Leighton Road, Causeway Bay
Tel: 2808 0309
Open: Mon-Sat, 7pm-midnight
Address: 9/F, Evernew House, 485 Lockhart Road, Causeway Bay
Tel: 2980 3312
Open: Mon-Sat, 7pm-midnight
Address: G/F, Eaton Smart hotel, 380 Nathan Road, Jordan
Tel: 2710 1010
Open: Mon-Sun, noon-3pm, 6pm-midnight
Yi Pai Ya
Address: 8/F, Macau Yat Yuen Centre, 525 Hennessy Road, Causeway Bay
Tel: 2891 0815
Open: Mon-Sun, noon-3pm, 6pm-midnight