There’s no shortage of small, authentic Japanese restaurants in Hong Kong, but many have no interest in expanding beyond their Japanese client. The underlying worry is: more gaijin, less traditional Nikkei customers.
Chef Ito Katsuhiro has no such aversion. Working in Hong Kong for over 20 years, he was previously head chef at Sagano in Hotel Nikko and long time Jaffe Road favourite Tensho. Now, he’s bringing his Hokkaido cuisine to the recently opened Youka.
The name means ‘eighth day’, a poetic reference to a Japanese story imagining how a cicada that usually survives only a week would see the world if it lived another day free from the chirping noise of his kind. It also hints at the Genesis story after God finished creating the world and man takes over.
The reliance on nature’s goodness is reflected in Chef Ito-san’s demand for fresh produce from Japan everyday. As a native of the Northern island of Hokkaido, his flavours draw heavily from the region, although he will also import spectacular ingredients from the other end of Japan in Kyushu.
Considering the traffic and grime outside on Johnston Road, Youka’s interior offers an immediate calm and intimate oasis until someone opens the sliding door to go in and out.
Almost every variety of Japanese dish is available, which is surprising given the small preparation space. But fresh fish – and not just, sushi and sashimi – are chef Ito-san’s speciality. Our first appetiser immediately sets the tone. Tuna Intestines with Cream Cheese and Crackers (HK$90) might scare the uninitiated, but the salty, fishy, wet brown innards with the rich smooth cheese is a fabulous combination. Equally enjoyable was the other snack, Minced Fatty Tuna with Spring Onion on Tofu (HK$90).
A lavish sashimi platter (HK$780) hosted the day’s fresh supply of seabream (kurodai), sea urchin (uni), Botan shrimp, jumbo scallop, Chu toro, yellow tail (hamachi), and big mackerel. A fairly standard selection but the Botan ebi shrimps were gigantic and scallops very sweet. Some in-season Hokkaido trout in sashimi form (HK$180) followed. The fish, with a rich taste but not oily texture, is not found regularly in Hong Kong fish counters.
Two different sushi (HK$250) followed, a marinated Bonito and the big mackerel again. The deep maroon coloured bonito was intense in its fishiness and umami depth, so it works much better in sushi form than sashimi.
Chef Ito-san reveals a slightly heavier hand in the cooked dishes. The Grilled Kurobuta Pork with Marinated Rice Yeast (HK$150) along with the Grilled Eggplant with Miso Paste (HK$120), which includes a few small shrimps, are ideal wintertime food – hearty, nourishing and designed to be belly-warmers. The pork is rich enough that we are suggested to eat it with slivers with raw onions to offset the savouriness. The yakitori grilled slices of Ox-Tongue with Black Pepper (HK$90) bites back with tendon-like texture and peppery spiciness.
The popular dish, Grilled Cod Marinated in Miso (HK$180) is served here slightly blackened so the skin has a crispier texture while the miso is not as sweet as other Japanese restaurant’s. I’m not sure if that is a Hokkaido thing but it is not a criticism.
Dessert choices at Youka include the standard green tea ice cream or home made yuzu sorbet, but in season now are fresh Hokkaido melons. A generous slice proved unbeatable when the weather is this humid.
Shop 1D, 35-45 Johnston Road