A sign that you're in a quality sushi-ya :)
A sign that your delicious meal is coming to an end ;(
Last week, I went to a sushi restaurant in Central that two "in the know" friends (one of whom is part of the Japanese bar and restaurant owners circle, another of whom knows a number of food writers) told me had recently opened. When I tried to look it up online, I found that it had neither website nor an entry on Openrice, a restaurant guide widely utilized here in Hong Kong. And although it has a Facebook page, the information there is on the sparse side. Among other things, while its address and phone number is listed, there's no menu that you can peruse -- and, consequently, no small amount of uncertainty regarding its price range.
Based on the pricing at a couple of sister sushi-ya, however, I figured that one would have to shell out quite a bit of dough if one went there for dinner. Consequently, a fellow sushi enthusiast friend and I decided to err on the side of caution and go there for lunch (which tends to be cheaper as well as more casual) rather than for an evening meal.
The day before we were due to go there, the restaurant called my friend to confirm our booking and told her that there was just a choice of a sushi set (of around HK$690 (i.e., US$89)) or omakase (for around HK$1700 (~US$219)). It's worth noting that these prices don't include an effectively mandatory 10% service charge -- and, since we both have the mindset that we need to drink sake when eating sushi (or sashimi), we figured our bill would go up to around HK$1,000 (~US$129) at the very least (i.e., if we "just" went for the cheaper option).
And so it proved, and yet I think I can safely say that we both agreed post the experience that our lunch that day had been worth the price! What might seem even more astonishing to some people (I'm thinking here of non-foodies but also sushi fans who have yet to dine at a seriously high quality sushi-ya!) is that seconds after I stepped into the restaurant, I felt pretty assured that I'd be having the kind of meal that my tastebuds didn't want to ever end even while my stomach got so full that I ended up not feeling able to have dinner that day until around 9.30pm!
The first sign of guaranteed quality for me was the existence at the counter of a shark skin grater for what I knew would be fresh as well as real wasabi. The second was that the entire restaurant had just 10 seats (all of them at the counter). The third was that my friend and I had been placed right in front of the head chef (rather than his assistant at the counter). And of course the bonus on top of all this is that that particular individual is a sushi chef who's already made a name for himself here in Hong Kong post coming from his hometown of Sapporo, and already has more than 25 years of sushi-cheffing experience.
Yet another sign that this would be a meal to cherish and remember was that despite my friend and I having the sushi set rather than the omakase option, we still were served individual pieces of sushi straight from the hand of the (head) sushi chef rather than all at once and/or via a third party such as a waitress (who, instead, only served us the non-sushi dishes, such as the chawan mushi and miso soup, and alcohol). Oh, and although we were free to use chopsticks if we so wished, a wetted cloth had been placed in front of us to indicate that the preferred method of picking up the sushi involved our using our fingers.
Unusually for Hong Kong, the chef was confident enough to begin the sushi part of our meal with unfancy ika (squid) rather than bombastic o-toro (fatty tuna) (which was reserved for later on). Another unconventional decision to my mind involved the serving of miso soup midway through the meal; a step that actually induced mild panic in me as I got to thinking -- thankfully mistakenly, as it turned out -- that our lunch was over at that point!
Instead, the way I knew that the non-dessert part of the meal had come to a close was when a sublime piece of soft anago (saltwater eel) sushi and a piece of tamago (Japanese-style grilled egg that tastes like a sweet omelette) was placed in front of us. At which I found myself inadvertently letting out a sigh that actually was an improbable mix of disappointment and contentment!
At one point during the meal, I asked the chef about this new restaurant and he openly stated that this actually was the preferred one of the two dining establishments that now bear his name. Additionally, in response to my query regarding the lack of a website and such for it, he straightforwardly stated that it's the kind of place where he'd prefer only regulars to eat at -- and since seating was so limited, it'd be better if it wasn't easy for non-serious folks to hear about and find!
Upon hearing this, my friend, who had lived for some years in Japan, murmured something about this arrangement being fairly usual for good restaurants in the chef's home country. At which point, we all smiled at one another; me in part at feeling privileged for having found out about this place and included in this particular circle, and also because my knowledge had allowed my friend and I to have had a thoroughly satisfying -- even if pricey -- meal there. :)