Not since Sushi Saito have Japanese food lovers so hotly anticipated the opening of a new omakase counter than with The Araki, newly opened in Hong Kong this December. It’s with good reason that sushi connoisseurs are waiting with bated breath to see if the eponymous omakase restaurant from the legendary chef Mitsuhiro Araki will live up to its reputation: the restaurant was awarded three Michelin stars first in Tokyo and then again in London, shooting Araki to global culinary fame as the only Japanese chef in the world with this distinction.
Of course, what’s unique about the Hong Kong opening (as opposed to say, Sushi Saito) is that chef Araki — who himself trained under the tutelage of the venerable “Emperor of Sushi”, Niitsu Takeaki — has relocated here personally as the resident head chef, bucking the trend of celebrity chefs who helicopter in to brand a new restaurant with their name, only to fly off and leave the day-to-day operations in the hands of a trainee or sous chef. It would seem, also, that The Araki’s excellence is inextricably linked with its founder’s prowess and not the brand or concept, with the London restaurant (quite abruptly and shockingly) losing its stars this year following chef Araki’s departure to Hong Kong.
That said, the legendary sushi master will be fighting something of an uphill battle in Hong Kong: competing in a city already littered with ubiquitous omakase restaurants, challenging himself in unfamiliar territory and with new ingredients, and striving to give The Araki in Hong Kong an exclusive sense of place while adhering to the traditional Edomae-style approach to sushi making.
So why did the cerebrally minded culinarian choose Hong Kong as the site of his newest outpost? “After I got the three stars in London, I started thinking about where to go for my next challenge so when the opportunity came up to take up a residency at House 1881, I thought it was perfect as I love meeting people from all over the world and learning about new cultures and ingredients,” he tells us when we visited recently as one of the first to try the menu. “I met so many different people on my previous trips to Hong Kong and tried so many different ingredients that I wanted to make it my next challenge.”
One of his greatest challenges, it turns out, is sourcing, finding, and educating diners on the use of non-Japanese fish in his omakase menu: “The ocean is connected, no one body of water is better than another” is a key guiding principal Araki reiterates to us throughout a 3-hour-long marathon tasting — one of the defining characteristics of Araki’s omakase menu and a key differentiator from other Hong Kong restaurants. Deploying a revolutionary new approach, chef Araki makes his top-tier sushi from both Japanese and local fish, often incorporating a surprise Chinese ingredient here or there — think dried abalone, fish maw and bird’s nest — as another link to the local terroir. It’s an approach he employed in London as well, with The Araki in Mayfair utilising European ingredients such as Cornish squid, langoustine and salmon.
Our tasting of The Araki’s menu was punctuated with such delights: from local ebi shrimp softened in sake and mirin, evoking a slight sweetness to offset the subtle tang in the rice (the precise calibration of seasonings is, as you would expect, flawless across the menu); to a palate-whetter of thinly sliced sea bream bearing a deep-pink fringe, rolled around unctuous sea urchin from Kyushu with a dash of soy and a nose-clearing hit of wasabi.
“Anything can be amazing with the right technique,” chef Araki muses as he prepares a piece of lightly poached local mantis shrimp, the white-and-grey striped flesh (anointed with nothing but a brush of soy) boasting a firm chew and succulent sweetness — banishing in our minds any thoughts of Japan harbouring superior shrimp. It’s not as easy, chef assures us, of picking up the best local seafood at the markets: Araki’s diligent and holistic approach to the menu involves a fair bit of education, as he visits daily with local fishermen to teach them best practices for catching, preparing and storing different types of seafood in order to ensure optimum quality and taste. With these personal relationships, local fishermen function as an extension of the restaurant, developing a keen eye for what to deliver with their daily catch.
While Araki’s approach to ingredients may be unorthodox, his methods adhere closely to the best practices of preparing Edomae sushi originated centuries ago. The laser focus on taste and technique; precise application of seasonings from vinegar to soy to wasabi; and mastery of time-honoured methods — simmering, salting and curing — form the foundation of the menu. The result? An eye-opening degustation that’s sure to leave an impression on even the most sophisticated sushi aficionados in Hong Kong. Below, we chat further with chef Araki about his method and unique approach to an age-old art form.
How would you best describe the philosophy of The Araki, and what do you aim to achieve with the new restaurant?
- I want to change the perception that you have to use Japanese ingredients to have the best sushi. My philosophy is to apply Edomae traditions and techniques to ingredients which have never been used in sushi. I also want to end the notion that only Japanese people can make good sushi and that is why I have always employed non-Japanese chefs in my restaurants. I personally want to serve every customer at The Araki so that I can educate them about the history and basics of Edomae sushi and how it can evolve.
- The customer for us is the final destination. They are who experiences all of our hard work, they decide our destiny and faith. My goal is to make sure that every customer has the best experience possible at The Araki.
Why do you think The Araki in London has resonated so strongly with diners?
- Honestly, I think I am just very lucky. When I first started in London, I had to experiment a lot with new ingredients and sometimes it was hard to make something up to my own standard but the fantastic European ingredients gave me an opportunity to create something unique and with time, people started to understand what I was trying to do. As we were such a small restaurant, I was also able to personally serve all my guests to provide an unforgettable chef’s table experience.
How will Araki in Hong Kong compare to the UK? Tell us more about the new ingredients and dishes we can expect.
- The difference is in the ingredients. In the UK, all of our produce were locally sourced or from parts of Europe. We only imported the rice, soy and yellowtail. In Hong Kong, we will keep the same philosophy of using the best local produce. There are only a very few items that we can’t source like uni and tuna which will come from the best Japanese suppliers who we have been working with for a long time and they know exactly the quality I expect in terms of produce.
- I have also been trying lots of restaurants in Hong Kong and learning about the popular ingredients in high end Chinese cuisine. I want to incorporate these familiar ingredients into my cuisine by creating something different using Edomae traditions and techniques. The idea of Japanese chefs only using Japanese fish exclusively doesn’t make sense for me, then they might as well stay in Japan – I want to show people that you can use any type of seafood, as long as the freshness is there, my technique will cover the rest. We are in the process of drying our own abalone as well to incorporate into our experience.
Hong Kong is well known for the high quality of omakase restaurants here. How do you think The Araki will stand out from the crowd?
- By showing our guests that you can use quality local ingredients to create sublime sushi as long as you have the right experience and skill set. When I first tell people I will be using local ingredients, they don’t understand why, but I want to educate people that the ocean is one body of water, the only thing that is different is how the fishermen catch the fish and bring it back to shore. I have been working closely with the local fishermen to teach them better fishing practices – how to catch certain seafood in order to best preserve the quality and taste, and how to store it prior to using it. Every day, my team and I personally go to meet the fishermen and choose what we will be using that day, I think our guests will be surprised when they come to try the Araki experience.
The Araki will be officially open for dinner Monday to Saturday starting from 19 December, 2019; Advanced booking is available by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org with full payment (HK$4,000 for omakase dinner) required at time of booking.
The Araki, G/F, Stable Block, House 1881, 2A Canton Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Hong Kong, +852 3988 0000