Sunday, 4 September 2016

Ippoh - tempura perfection from a 5th generation chef

You really do need to stop and look  at what's behind the curtain.

For over twelve months I walked down Aberdeen Street in SoHo, wandering by a little yellow restaurant that had it's door partially obscured by a heavy curtain.  Sure, I knew that it was a Japanese restaurant, the name gave it away.  A little research may have piqued my interest much sooner, but the name of that little restaurant really meant nothing to me.

Boy has that changed!

It wasn't until a workmate, lets call her Zoe, wanted to help me celebrate my recent birthday with a special lunch time treat.  She'd been telling me for a long time that her favourite Japanese restaurant in Hong Kong was Ippoh, and wanted to see if I agreed; so we made our way through Central to SoHo and our midday booking.

It was a lightbulb moment for me.

Finally the curtain was pulled back and we entered the tiny little tempura style restaurant, and seated at one of the eight spots available at the bar style dining room.  All eight seats put diners right in the action where the Ippoh head chef (I never did get his name!) was busy preparing the tasty morsels that would be lightly tempura and fried right before out eyes.

There were a couple of options for lunch, the YUKI course which consisted of eight pieces of tempura or the OMAKASE lunch, which was a much more comprehensive journey.  No prizes for guessing which we chose.

Ippoh has been in Hong Kong for only a couple of years, opening in it's Aberdeen Street location in 2014, but there is a much longer and richer history to the little Japanese tempura restaurant.  With a history that spans over a hundred years, the original Ippoh is located in Osaka and is one of the most respected tempura restaurants in Japan.

The fact that our chef for the day was a fifth generation tempura chef spoke volumes about how seriously Ippoh is about presenting the very finest quality produce, where is imported fresh each morning from Tokyo's Tsukiji market.

Very shortly after being seated, we were presented with all of the dining equipment that we'd need for our meal; I loved the seriousness and ceremony with which our setting was presented.  As I played with the chopsticks, waiting for the meal to commence, our waitress complimented me on my technique.  I have to say, I was pleased that she'd noticed and commented....

A beautiful little bowl was first to arrive, filled not with tempura but a sliver of incredibly fresh halibut wrapped around spring vegetables and bathing in a pool of ponzu sauce.  The simple freshness of the fish was sublime with the ponzu, which gave enough of a bite to perfectly balance the halibut. 

It was almost mesmerising as we watched our chef prepare our tempura pieces, the first of which just about redefined my concept of fresh and delicious.  A large prawn had been presented along with a green pepper, the tempura batter on each golden and almost translucent.  Each was given an order and instructions about which accompaniment to use, the salt or the radish infused tempura sauce.

The first bite of my prawn left me dumbfounded.  I'd had amazing produce before, many times in fact, but the light sweetness of the prawn, combined with the tempura and just a touch of salt was so incredibly well balanced that I was rendered speechless.  I just closed my eyes and savoured the sweetness and the lightness.  My second bite actually finished off the prawn and I was let saddened for a moment that it was gone.

I was apprehensive about the green pepper, I'm usually not a fan, but I needn't have worried, there was no bitterness or harshness from the pepper, it was just sweet and crunchy from the tempura.

Chef watched us carefully as we ate each exquisite bite, informing us of the best way to devour the tempura, and often the careful backstory of each piece.

Kisu, a variant of whiting from Japan was next, specially flown in from Japan that morning. It was ridiculously light and just as divine to eat as the prawn.  Miatake mushroom followed, also known as hen-of-wood, the rich earthy flavour of the mushroom was particularly spectacular once shallow fried in the tempura.  

I've never been a fan of sweet potato and once I learned that the golden wedge in placed in front of me was in fact sweet potato, I prepared myself for a distasteful experience.  Again I was dumbfounded, the sweet potato tempura was delicious; I couldn't let it rest, and our chef explained that the sweet potato had been steamed for half an hour making it soft and luxurious.

Calamari was next, not a small thin strip like you'd see elsewhere, but a large chunk of squid that had the potential to be rubbery.  But by now I had complete trust in the chef, and after a squeeze of lemon and a small dip in salt, the large piece of calamari easily yielded to my bite and, far from being chewy, was tender and sweet and oh-so-more(ish).

Understanding how delicious that first prawn was, chef provided us another prawn, this time wrapped in sisho.  The slight bitterness of the sisho leaf was a superb contrast of that sweet prawn flesh, the bitterness not so overwhelming and again showing a deft hand by the chef.

Probably the only tempura that I didn't enjoy was the eggplant, I guess even a fifth generation tempura chef with mad skills was not enough to overcome the fact that I hate eggplant!

I was amazed at the presentation of the uni, which had been wrapped in seaweed and tempura so perfectly that only the outside of the seaweed seemed to have been dipped in the tempura.  The strong flavour of the uni was accompanied by a heavy dose of miso, which certainly packed a punch for my palate, but was still nicely balanced.

The tasty bites kept coming with Hokkaido scallop providing a lovely hit of sweetness.  I'm a huge fan of scallops, the plump soft flesh especially wonderful with that light golden covering of tempura.

Sweet corn was next, a long flat section of the corn was presented and provided a new level of flavour, the corn beautiful and sweet, the tempura crunchy, the overall effect perfection.

Without doubt, the tempura from Ippoh was the best I'd ever encountered and if that was all I'd devoured on the day, I 'd have though the meal perfect.  But, there were elements that were just too much for my western palate!  A red miso soup came, presented in a lovely red container, but it was just too powerful for me, I didn't like the smell and the flavour was not to my liking.

A bowl of rice was topped with the Japanese version of bubble and squeak, leftover vegetables and some sweet fish.  The tempura was nice, but I didn't really eat the rice.

It had been a huge meal, with almost too much to eat, I probably would have been happy without the last two dishes, feeling happy and sated just with the tempura.  The meal finished simply with some Yuzu sorbet and Japanese plum grapes; simple and refreshing.

There was much to love about Ippoh, without doubt one of the best Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong; the tempura was second to none and watching our chef prepare and explain our course in an interactive way was wonderful.  It's no wonder it can often take months to book a spot in one of the eight seats.

It's a solid reminder that there are so many amazing places in Hong Kong that you can just so easily walk by and never know how close you've come to greatness.  Ippoh continues the Japanese tradition of taking every day actions and taking them to an extreme art form.  The humble tempura will never be the same, my expectations now at stratospheric levels.

Thanks Zoe, for bringing me to your favourite Japanese restaurant!

I will be back real soon to visit Ippoh again.  Well, SC has declared that I must take her back soon, I was raving so much about the meal.


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