Saturday, 4 June 2016

Gin Sai - tempura does not get better

What's with the obsession with Japanese food in Hong Kong?

With a plethora of amazing Japanese restaurants opening across Hong Kong, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was the predominant Asian cuisine.

One of my all time favourite meals in Hong Kong comes from Wagyu Takumi (see post here), the two Michelin Starred restaurant located on the fringes of Wan Chai.  So when the girl suggested we do a double date with some mates at Gin Sai, it was easy to say yes.  After all Gin Sai is the sister restaurant to Wagyu Takumi and is located right next door.

A late bout of food poisoning (not related) to one of our dining companions meant that instead of a double date, it was just the two of us for our Gin Sai experience.  Which was amusing since we'd been booked into a private dining room by the girl's mate, whom just happened to be cousins with one of the head chefs, Chef Eric!

So we arrived for our dinner and were taken to an amazing looking private dining area that could easily have taken twelve.  It was one of the more spacious table settings we'd had!

It was weird, sectioned off in a cocoon like environment while the thriving Gin Sai restaurant was just on the other side of the traditional Japanese sliding doors.  When the door was opened, we had glimpses of the open kitchen area with chefs busily preparing the restaurant's specialty of tempura and oden.  However, when the doors closed, the contemporary and modern dining area just faded away and we could have been anywhere.

We didn't even open the Gin Sai menus, instead opting to allow Chef Eric to surprise us with a selection of his favourite items.  It seemed as if we were in for a voyage of discovery, and I was excited!

Our first course was presented on a clear glass plate with three distinct sections, each with a delicious looking yet almost unidentifiable small bite.  With instructions to eat from left to right, the first section contained an incredibly lightly cooked slice of beef, served with sautéed onions and a ponzu jelly covered in seaweed.  Explosions of flavour from the beef and ponzu, always a perfect combination, confirmed that we were in for a special meal.  It was followed by lightly smoked scallop with asparagus and uni, finished with a sweet jelly.  Impossibly, it was even tastier than the beef.  The last of our trio of starters was the best of all three, crab meat in a sweet sauce that lingered on the palate long after the dish had been consumed.

A stunning looking plate of sashimi followed, made all the more striking by the large orange prawn head sitting in a cobalt blue ramekin.  With an unusual list of fish, the sashimi plate included Barracuda, Goldband Snapper as well as the more usual species of Yellowtail, Salmon and fatty tuna. Oh, of course there was the fresh prawn too.  While I loved the strong flavours of the Barracuda and the clean flavours of the Yellowtail, it was the fatty tuna that took my breath away. The creamy texture and taste of the fatty tuna was almost too much for me to bear, it was sensational and I'd have died a happy man if that was my last meal on this earth.

Even though our friends had bailed on the night, I think we were still treated like family by BY's cousin chef Eric, and we really felt the love in our next round of courses.  Chef Eric was in charge of the tempura section, our next rounds of courses.

I say rounds, as we were served each of the tempura bites as individual courses, a far cry from every other tempura restaurant I'd been to where all all were delivered at once.

It was a bit disconcerting to begin with, but we quickly fell into the rhythm of the kitchen.

First out was a solitary prawn and it's disconnected head sitting aside.  Both had been cooked in the light tempura and looked great on the plate.  I'd normally not eat a prawn head, but once I put aside my natural aversion to prawn heads, I was pleasantly surprised by the strong flavour and crunchy texture.  There was no doubting the tempura prawn though, it was sweet and delicious, with the tempura holding its crunch well.

No sooner had we finished our prawns before the sliding doors to the private dining room opened and the tempura white fish was deposited on our plates.  It was immediately clear to me the benefit of eating tempura this way, each dish coming on its own ensured the maximum level of freshness and guaranteed that the tempura would hold its texture and consistency.  The white fish was gone in two quick bites, the sweetness of the flesh lingering on the palate.

We were convinced there was a camera in the room observing us, simply due to the fact that again the sliding doors opened and our next tempura of abalone was presented.  Abalone is a funny ingredient, luxurious and expensive but at the same time, very easy to ruin if not prepared well.  Thankfully, the Gin Sai version was expertly cooked, with a slight chewiness that allowed us to bite into the flesh quite easily.

Perhaps the best of the tempura bites we experienced was the next round of crab meat with fresh uni sitting atop.  Presented in a large and stylish looking spoon, we put aside our chopsticks for a moment and slid the sweet crab meat into our mouths in one bite.  The saltiness from the uni combined in complete harmony with the sweet crab meat, that was held together by the light batter.

Chef Eric started to get a little cocky with his next round, which was a large flat green leaf (sorry, not sure what it was) that was topped with a scoop of prawn flavoured granita.  I particularly loved the presentation, with the tempura coming out on a bright red plate that contrasted against the green of the leaf and orange of the granita.  It was incredibly light but packed a powerful punch thanks to the ingenuity of the prawn granita.

My camera failed me for the next round, which was an interesting combination of the largest oyster you could imagine wrapped in a tempura capsicum.  I've never been a fan of capsicum, but gave the dish a try anyway, and was thankful I did.  The harsh bite of the capsicum had been cooked out and the lightly poached oyster ensured there was a good texture contrast between the creamy oyster and the crunchy capsicum.  I really liked the combo and would gladly have had another round!

I'd never have thought it possible, but Chef Eric again proved his skills in the kitchen by sending us a tempura fig!  This was quite the flavour sensation, the texture and flavours of the fig were wonderful, enhanced by the light batter that was only covering the back of the fig, allowing that spectacular view of the fig itself.  A bit genius really!

Our culinary tour of Japan continued when our next course demonstrated Gin Sai's yakitori options, firstly with some chicken thigh presented on thick skewers, followed by thin slices of wagyu beef served with a light mustard.  It was quite the departure from the tempura and totally unexpected.  My favourite was the beef, which had a strong meaty flavour and a lovely texture that gave my jaws a workout after the softer tempura that has proceeded.

We were definitely beginning to fill up and thought that the meal was coming to a close, but we were wrong!  It was time for sukiyaki and what was better, it was being prepared in our room that had secret compartments with wok burners.  We watched in fascination as the chef cooked the onion first, then added a heap of stock and tomato before lightly stewing thin strips of pork and beef.  We were given bowls with poached egg as a sauce to dip our fatty meat into, which added a richness to combine with the fat to provide a taste explosion in our mouths.

Served with the sukiyaki was a large bowl of noodles, which unfortunately proved too much for me, I was left defeated and only ate half of my bowl.

We weren't done yet though, Chef Eric said that we needed to finish the meal with something sweet, and we worried that we were in for a heavy Japanese dessert that we may have wasted. Perhaps sensing that we needed something light, our dessert consisted of a simple slice of rock melon on ice.  I have to tell you, a piece of melon never tasted so sweet - it was the perfect way to finish off our monster of a meal.

From start to finish, our meal at Gin Sai was quite spectacular.  Not in the way a fancy French fine dining restaurant is spectacular, but in a much more simpler and precise way.  There was a synergy to the meal that told a story from beginning to end.  I was particularly impressed with the delivery of our tempura, and in hindsight it's a wonder why all Japanese restaurants don't serve their tempura one at a time!

In fact, that's probably what makes an amazing Japanese restaurant such as Gin Sai and Wagyu Takumi so special.  Its the zen like obsession to providing something special, and obsession that is totally and uniquely Japanese.

Yeah, I can understand why Hong Kong has an obsession with Japanese food.  It's an obsession borne out of understanding you're in for an unforgettable meal.

Our private dining room had warm tea to greet us
Beautiful presentation of the sashimi
Preparation of our sukiyaki
Oh that fatty, fatty meat!
A glimpse outside our private dining room!  Hi Chef Eric :)
Open kitchen - a must in my mind in a Japanese restaurant
I just liked this imagery 
Get into Gin Sai

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