October 2021 update:
We returned recently to CENSU to get a taste of Chef Shun Sato’s eagerly awaited additions to the menu. On the drink side, now that they have their liquor licence, there are some great highballs, sakes and natural wines. We loved the lemon sour ($88), available in both classic and ginger styles. A lemon sour is a traditional Japanese shochu-based cocktail, with CENSU’s version sweetened lightly with the Japanese soda Ramune.
All the dishes we tried were creative triumphs, from the green salad ($108) of lettuce and celtuce with garlic mousse and Vietnamese nước chấm to the sweet ending of peach granita ($108), also featuring Japanese peach slices and oolong tea ice cream. But if we had to pick our top 5, we’d go with:
The flathead lobster ($238) is pure decadence, showcasing a tender, smoky charcoal-grilled lobster bathed in an earthy, buttery miso-yuzu hollandaise sauce. The bed of kombu butter adds to the umami, and the caramelised lemon lifts the dish.
The sauce in which the mussels in buerre blanc ($288) are steamed is heavenly, a perfect vehicle for the thick slices of Hokkaido milk bread served on the side. These Australian mussels are an off-menu seasonal special, and the complex East-meets-West sauce includes sake, onion, cream, Chardonnay reduction, kombu, fennel and yuzu.
Just about the best “burger” we’ve ever had, the Wagyu mince katsu sando ($168) is comfort-food eating at its finest. The Wagyu patty is literally overflowing with juiciness, and to really take it over the top, it’s accented with Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tontaksu sauce and – gulp – bacon fat. Incidentally, CENSU is open post-dinner till late, and we think this sando would make for THE BEST late-night nosh alongside a few rounds of the eatery’s new highballs.
If you’re a fan of shirako (read: the milt, or sperm sacs, of male cod), you’ll be rewarded in two seasonal dishes that place the spotlight on this unique Japanese ingredient. The shirako tempura ($268) is a lovely contrast between the very creamy shirako and the lightly fried tempura shell, complemented by a moreish sphere of daikon braised in dashi and a smear of mustard for mixing in. Shirako has a mild, slightly salty flavour and a pleasant, custard-like texture, so don’t be put off if you’re a newcomer to this delicacy!
A seasonal version of CENSU’s signature unigiri dish – a riff on the Japanese word onigiri – the shirako unigiri ($258) sees the crunchy, golden brown rice ball topped with a heap of shirako coils and shiso leaves, which impart a bright, herbal flavour. Like the original unigiri topped with sea urchin (see below), this version is meant to be broken up and mixed in the abalone dashi at the table, resembling a risotto.
Chef Sato keeps giving us more delicious reasons to return to CENSU!
Opening review published in July 2021:
CENSU has been gaining quite a bit of momentum with loyal fans familiar with Chef Shun Sato’s repertoire. The energetic, creative chef was most recently at the helm of Fukuro with Black Sheep Restaurants and was previously at Ho Lee Fook, BELON, Armani/Aqua and a host of other restaurants outside Hong Kong.
CENSU is Chef Shun’s passion project, stepping out on his own alongside fellow Fukuro and Ho Lee Fook veteran Keaton Lai as the eatery’s general manager. The 40-seater on NoHo’s Gough Street pays homage to the chef’s father’s nostalgic izakaya flavours, with a swish of refined finesse from his own experiences working at prestigious fine-dining establishments.
The interior, inspired by the chef’s grandmother’s house in Sendai, Japan, follows the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, which finds beauty in imperfection and simplicity. Designed by Jamo Associates, with design direction by Shigenobu Yamaoka from TRUNK (HOTEL), the interior is veneered in rustic wood tones and neutral accents. A large split-walnut table dominates the centre of the room, with more intimate seating along the wall and bar counter.
We were lucky to snag a spot before the restaurant’s opening, which also means we dined before their liquor licence came into effect, so unfortunately we aren’t able to share any insights on the cocktails. A great excuse to make another visit!
We whet our appetite with plump oysters ($78 each or $458/6) served with a tangy yuzu sanbaizu (bonito rice vinegar). The citrusy yuzu aroma highlights the sweetness of the juicy shellfish.
The snapper ($168), plated beautifully with shredded snow peas and accented with zesty yuzu kosho, is vibrantly flavoured and refreshing. A perfect summer dish.
The squid white kimchi ($148), made with succulent, sweet squid sashimi prepared ika somen style, is interwoven with pungent white kimchi made with green apple and daikon. This dish shows the glossy sheen of fine dining, yet the flavours are down to earth and delicious.
The salmon ($178), cured with sakura, is another refreshing, summery dish. The richness of the fatty salmon is balanced by vinegary nanban sauce. Most people associate nanban sauce with fried chicken, when the sauce actually refers to “savages from the south”, which originally was a reference to the Portuguese. Many Portuguese dishes showcase vinegary accents, hence the name of the sauce commemorates this flavour profile.
The grilled hamachi collar ($188) is scented with bonito, and the fattiness of the fish is balanced by refreshing apple ponzu.
Somewhat of a fusion dish (but in the best sense of the word), the unagi paella ($348) arrived with tender, caramelised eel over a bed of ribboned tamago. We particularly enjoyed the zing of wasabi against the al-dente rice.
A heavy hitter on the gluttony front, the Wagyu beef short rib ($338), smoked with nori soy and slow-cooked for hours to juicy, tender perfection, is nestled under an earthy blanket of mushrooms. The well-marbled, juicy beef pairs well with the meatiness of the mushrooms.
Potato salad ($108), a popular izakaya staple, is given some pizzazz with egg confit and a crown of crispy potato chips. We particularly enjoyed the addition of dill, which really uplifts this starchy yet comforting dish.
Not your average fry-up, the zucchini flower tempura ($178) is filled with a creamy scallop-prawn mousse before being flash-fried to crispy perfection. The aromatic truffle purée accompaniment is made with shiitake, Madeira and truffle.
No izakaya is complete without fried chicken, and CENSU’s chicken karaage ($128), served with a raw egg yolk, has addictive crunch and a juicy, flavourful interior.
The unigiri ($238) is a play on the word onigiri, a Japanese rice ball. CENSU’s version comes with a crunchy, toasted exterior and is topped with creamy, sweet sea urchin and fragrant shiso. Nestled in a light abalone dashi, the dish takes on a risotto-like consistency once mixed together.
The simple menu description of udon ($238) doesn’t do justice to the plethora of flavours in this dish. A headliner at Fukuro and now at CENSU, the chewy, starchy noodles are topped with crab miso, sweet snow crab and, for the ultimate indulgence, a golden egg yolk.
The house dango ($58), a skewer of chewy rice mochi, is blanketed in a pillowy duvet of creamy mascarpone alongside matcha crumble and kuromitsu. We suggest rolling the mochi in the black sugar syrup before digging in (the mochi itself is devoid of much flavour and is more a textural component).
The miso ice cream ($88) is hidden between shards of green tea and yuzu tuiles. This is another dish that leans towards a fine-dining presentation.
CENSU is not your average izakaya. Although the minimalist, rustic look of the interior and flavours speak to comfort eating, the presentation and execution have the finesse of fine dining. We envision this becoming a very popular spot in the Central dining scene, so get in there fast with your bookings.
This write-up is based on a complimentary media tasting provided in exchange for an honest review and no monetary compensation. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s.
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