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In a city where (and this isn’t necessarily a complaint) many restaurants find some way or another of shoehorning a bit of Japanese into their non-Japanese menus, it’s refreshing to find a place that flips this around.
Honjo, part of the established and respected Pirata Group, is committed to delivering the group’s promise of quality food with great service within the affordable price-point sector of the dining-out market. This is casual-dining country, and Honjo fits into this space more than comfortably.
The restaurant’s own literature is littered with some big clues about what to expect from the experience, interweaving words like “dreamy”, “reimagined”, “dynamic” and “provocative” into the brand tapestry. Bold commitments indeed, but the smart move here, which allows the eatery to deliver on these visions, is that Honjo’s dishes absorb inspiration from other cultures. The breadth of creativity is thereby blown right open.
On my visit on a Sunday evening, the place was quite full, a good percentage of the 118 covers occupied across the variety of seating formats. Self-contained, semi-private date nights were going swimmingly in the booth seating, and communal tables allowed small groups to come within touching distance of lairy revelry.
Before our first mouthfuls though, it was clear from the decor that this was going to be a twisted Japanese experience, passing as we did miniature toys and tin robots, samurai costumes and swords, as well as some masks and artworks alluding to the African continent. Intriguing.
But this isn’t an interior-design piece – it’s about the food – and to capture the best of Honjo’s secrets, we simply plunged headlong into ordering The Dreamer menu ($680/person), complete with sake pairing ($380/person), and the restaurant’s special ops quickly set about their business.
Soon after, we were presented with a taste of things to come with the layout of a sturdy, ice-cold tumbler, neatly shaved crescent of grapefruit peel and mini carafe of Fever Tree tonic.
Enter the sake diva herself (saké, actually, in this case) as a tall, glowing waif of a bottle of Four Fox Saké joined us, the protagonist in Honjo’s playful cocktail experiment. This is the bar scene’s go-to sake, and its credentials are high, with a 50% Junmai Daiginjo classification and Niigata schooling, Japan’s third-largest brewing prefecture. The bottle’s label extols the Four Fox brand heritage, which has some serious parallels to Honjo’s own legendary sword backstory. The dovetailing of the narrative did not go unnoticed – clever stuff.
Tropical fruit flavours, typical of Ginjo-grade sake, came through as we sipped the cocktail, albeit somewhat tamed by the tonic, but all in all, this was a fun kick-off to the evening and a gentle entry point for the palate to the night’s proceedings.
The Dreamer menu changes seasonally, and our version was three weeks in and began boldly with pork belly, supported by a generously sea-salt-seasoned bowl of edamame. Added briskly to the feast was skilfully sliced hamachi, evenly spaced the length of a serving dish amidst a striking miso brown-sauce puddle, perhaps the first peek at “exciting“, hinted at in the A WORD ABOUT HONJO blurb above.
So edamame, pork and hamachi. What’s the link? Well, I think that’s the point. There isn’t meant to be one, and this segment of the menu is all the stronger because of it. The dishes in their combination bring a balance of earthy goodness (edamame), fatty richness and sweetness (pork, apple purée, honey-ponzu glaze) and clean ‘n’ fresh, salty-sour spiciness (hamachi, miso-lime dressing, ginger-chilli pickle).
It’s pretty much the spectrum of Asian food all in one spread, and it felt far better to bounce around the plates rather than tackle them one after the other. This is sharing food after all, as the Honjo tin robot seemed to be telling us, and I quickly believed him.
Tumblers emptied, it was a refreshing change to see that the next sake up was something less Hong Kong, but in my view still an excellent choice. This quickly broke up the typical high-end Ginjo procession of sake that often gets paraded out for customers.
The Honjozo classification sits in a more lowly position than Ginjo and Daiginjo, but it can display some terrific aromas nonetheless. Here, we have a special designation Tokubetsu Honjozo – Tokubetsu owing to its uncharacteristically low polishing rate of 58%, so it’s somewhat punching above its weight – produced by Rihaku Brewery.
Its home, Shimane Prefecture, lies a lot further south-west in Japan and, speaking broadly, this tends to generate a gutsier, richer typicity than the north-eastern areas. Being a Nigori (cloudy) sake too, those flavours are more pronounced. Bottom line to all this preamble is simply that Honjo has rolled out, very prudently, a refined yet big-boned contender to work with the significant characteristics of the dishes it’s up against: Wagyu and otoro.
Nigori sake tends to have more of a coating mouthfeel, noticeable structure and body that allows it to cope well with spice, heat and richness. Just as well, the Wagyu comes with swathes of chorizo oil, pungent with paprika heat, and tosazu, a sharp, vinegar-based dressing. Onion notes from the chives give further background warmth and the crispy quinoa some fun crunch. That’s a lot to deal with, but the Nigori is up to the task, with its nutty notes working well with the nuttiness of the quinoa.
This dish is warming, oily and fatty, but not cloying. The meat we tried was tender and almost sweet in comparison to the earthiness of the other elements, and the Spanish twist is a familiar flavour, comforting and entirely at home within this Japanese tapas dish.
The surf to the turf of this section of The Dreamer is the otoro, the most desirable part from the inside of the tuna’s belly.
Kyoto’s bubu arare, the famous tiny glutinous rice crackers (“Basically posh Rice Krispies,” explained Dominic as he served us), do a similar job to the Wagyu’s quinoa, leaving basil, red onion and a yuzu-soy dressing to meld with the tuna. Is this a very clever play on Italy’s much-loved vitello tonnato, as my wife suggested so astutely?
Soy becomes a seasoning, leaving the Mediterranean favourites of basil and red onion to buddy up with the tuna, itself softening texturally in the acidity of the yuzu (think Amalfi lemon). This is really not so far from the tonnato experience, and it was all becoming rather fun.
Stealing the show is Osaka’s brilliant Daimon 35 Junmai Daiginjo, top-drawer sophistication, but still coming into its own with food.
An elaborate bowl of sashimi and sushi (ikame tuna, hamachi and salmon) shaped like a fune (boat) had its precious cargo despatched quickly, with plenty of sake swilling in between. Daimon 35 borders on off-dry, which works very well with the natural sweetness of the fish.
A generous platter of Japanese mushroom tempura followed, as did much crunching. There are more games at play here with a selection of self-seasoning options: seven-spice shichimi togarashi, matcha salt and Himalayan pink salt. It’s a very brown dish, but the great shapes and randomness of it all made you feel like you were deconstructing and consuming a spindly coral reef.
Alongside the mushrooms, an M7 USDA Prime rib-eye landed on the table amidst a duet of respectful noises of appreciation. It was well rested, no blood making a bid for freedom, and a great char on the meat wafted across the table.
The M7 truly is a showstopper, but it’s elevated by the star of the show: a small bowl of humble Asian chimichurri. Hand-cut, the bits and pieces of garlic and chilli are irregular in size but plentiful. It’s brilliant, packing in so much oomph in such a shallow puddle of fish sauce and lime juice, cleansing the palate, slapping it back into action and sending a bolt of freshness through everything.
Let’s not forget the last dish, takana fried rice, with sweetcorn, garlic, chilli and egg. Carbs are needed, and this delivers a chilli punch that is met admirably by the next sake, from Takeno Sake Brewing Co.
The sake uses kamenoo (“turtle tail”) rice, which is actually a table rice, but it’s put to even better use in this sake from Kyoto Prefecture. It’s rustic and easy drinking. A small fizz leads you to some simple but umami-driven flavours of mushroom stock, a solid foundation onto which these dishes can stamp their true flavour potential.
The fried rice seems more Chinese than Japanese, being full of heat and spice.
The sake copes with all this, and it’s a master stroke to pair something so humble with so much else going on around it. There’s a minerality to the sake that seems on a par with the iron salinity of the rib-eye.
Last up was dessert. Luckily, we were spared anything too heavy or glutinous, being presented with a hot bowl, fresh from the combi oven, of matcha. Matcha lava, that is, with vanilla ice cream and a cracking, literally, soba tuile.
The lava is a brilliant green and flows out of a matcha fissure when the crust of the structure is broken. It’s nicely bitter but sufficiently tempered by the soothing ice cream, doused by a mellow slug of Manzairaku Kaga Umeshu, a plum liqueur from the foothills of the Mount Haku volcano.
The cool thing is, in this last bit of Honjo dreamery, the lava keeps on cooking gently in the residual heat of the bowl, becoming an equally delicious lava cake, with some moreish crusty bits around the edges.
A last clink from the whopper iceberg in my tumbler of umeshu and we’re done – happy, full and entertained.
Almost half of Honjo’s guests head for the tasting menus, and I can see why. They provide a hassle-free exploration of the restaurant through cold and hot, traditional and tweaked, bold and delicate Japanese dishes.
Put your trust in Dominic and the team, go for a booth with your significant other and let the chefs play with your senses. Honjo has the quality and artistry demanded by Japanese cuisine, without some of the airs and graces that can interfere with a casual dining experience.
Better still, Honjo follows Pirata Group’s form, offering prices that represent truly good value in this city. So come raise a glass to that if nothing else – kanpai!
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.
About the author:
A certified sake sommelier, Will Jarvis is the owner and founder of Sake Matters, consulting for a variety of clients in Hong Kong and around the world. He has over 20 years’ experience working in the F&B industry in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, is a trained chef and holds a diploma in hospitality. For more information, please visit www.sakematters.com.
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