Some of Hong Kong's top Japanese chefs reveal the secrets behind their signature omakase dishes
Hong Kong boasts a good selection of top-notch Japanese restaurants that serve seasonal dishes using the freshest fish and seafood flown directly from central Tokyo's Tsukiji market. The freshness of the ingredients is key to an incredible dining experience when eating Japanese cuisine - especially for sushi and sashimi lovers - but if you want to see more of the chef's creativity and diversity, go for the omakase menu.
Omakase means "I'll leave it up to you", and it really is up to the chef as to what he serves each day, making it a magical mystery tour for diners who do not know what they'll be eating until it arrives. Fine-dining Japanese restaurants offer seasonal omakase menus, usually consisting of eight to 10 dishes.
Three top chefs in the city who specialise in different styles of Japanese cuisine - kaiseki, sushi/sashimi and fusion - shared their favourite omakase creations.
Chef Hiroyuki Saotome of Wagyu Kaiseki Den, well-known for its traditional kaiseki-style cuisine, serves seasonal dishes in his omakase menu, with some added Western ingredients such as black truffle. "About 16 years ago, I worked at Nobu in London and learned about other types of ingredients besides Japanese," he says. "I learned about risotto and truffles, for example, and brought those ideas back to Japan to use in my dishes."
One of his favourite seasonal omakase dishes right now is bamboo shoots with baby octopus, peas, kinome and miso.
"These seasonal ingredients go well with the herb kinome," says the chef, who has lived in Hong Kong for seven years since the opening of Wagyu Kaiseki Den on the Sheung Wan end of Hollywood Road. "Each year, I will make a dish with bamboo shoots and baby octopus, but I will change the other ingredients."
Saotome also always makes a crabmeat dish this time of year, with slight changes. This year's version of the dish is a refreshing combination of Zuwai crabmeat with sesame julienne in whole yuzu with white shrimp sushi and caviar. "When considering a dish, I think about the presentation," he says. "It has to be beautiful for the customer, and the ingredients are seasonal too, even the flower. I do a crabmeat dish every year but not always with yuzu. Sometimes I do crabmeat in the shell and we always change the sushi.
"Every day I have new ideas," the chef adds. "When I go back to Tokyo, I like to eat in different restaurants, where I also get more ideas to bring back."
Chef Masataka Fujisawa at Rozan is known for his creative sushi dishes. He chops the fish instead of slicing it, which releases the flavours in such a way that makes the sushi taste better. Rozan only serves omakase, and the dishes change frequently depending on seasonal ingredients or if the chef has a new idea. "My menu is not affected by time," says Fujisawa, who has been at the restaurant since it opened three years ago. "I use the best fish and vegetables in season, but if I get a new idea, I will change the dish. I sometimes wake up with a good idea for a dish, so I never know what tomorrow's menu will be."
Fujisawa, who worked in the United States and Singapore before coming to Hong Kong, says the local water can make a huge difference in the taste of sushi. "In Japan, the water is soft, and the water in other countries is hard, so it makes a difference to the taste of the sushi rice," he says. "At first, in Hong Kong, I imported the water from Japan, but it was expensive, so I searched around Hong Kong and found a very good water filter - we have three filters now, and it makes a difference to the rice, which now tastes good."
He says the most important aspects of an omakase menu are the sequence and timing of the dishes. "I must make sure the temperature of the food is perfect."
One of his best omakase dishes is sea urchin, or uni. "It is better to serve the uni cold with the rice a little bit warmer for it to taste really good," the chef says. "This sea urchin is my original style, and I have never seen it in another sushi restaurant." He uses sea kelp but no salt or oil, and marinates the sea urchin for two days.
Another of Fujisawa's signature dishes is thin-sliced fatty tuna sushi, which he says is the best way to present the fish.
Like the other chefs, Sean Mell, executive chef at Nobu InterContinental Hong Kong, says there is a sequence to follow when serving an omakase menu. "We usually start off with lighter flavours. Then we increase the amount of flavour and the amount of texture and increase the richness of the dishes as the courses go along," says Mell, who has worked for the Nobu group for eight years, first in New York and then Hawaii before coming to Hong Kong. "So the first course will be teasing and try to clear your palate; the next one will up the citrus a bit; go into the next one and maybe there will be some creamy sauce."
While Nobu restaurants around the world are known for celebrity chef Nobu Matsuhisa's innovative Peruvian/Japanese cuisine, each location's menu items vary depending on the country. But all outlets include the eight dishes on the signature tasting menu, including yellowtail sashimi with jalapeno and black cod saikyo yaki - a favourite of restaurant partner Robert De Niro.
Mell presents two omakase dishes, one of which is available on Nobu's signature menu - US prime beef with anticucho sauce. "Anticucho is a red Peruvian pepper. It is smoky and mild. And then there is the yellow anticucho sauce - that one is more spicy, but the combination creates a nice balance in flavour," the chef says.
Featured on Nobu's seasonal omakase menu is Chilean sea bass with truffle, ponzu and dashi, a dish created by Mell. "The sea bass is seasoned with salt and a Japanese seasonal pepper," he says. "The dashi is made in-house, and I add a bit of ponzu sauce. It gives it a unique flavour where you get citrus, acid and smokiness from the dashi. It goes really good with the truffle flavour."