It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, for some chefs in the modern digital age, pandering to Instagram — perhaps today’s most indispensable marketing tool — is starting to become just as important as making delicious food (consider the curious case of the social media sensation known as ‘Salt Bae’). With more and more restaurants purposely doubling as impromptu photo studios — a brightly lit dining room (no flickering fluorescent bulbs, please), plenty of table space for obsessing over #flatlays, and waiters whose training includes waiting until cameraphones are whipped out before pouring that bright green consommé over today’s fish of the day — the modern-day dining experience almost begs the question: If you haven’t Instagrammed your food, did you really eat it at all?
More and more, we’ve been picking up on these cues at new restaurants around town and we’re divided: on one hand, social media performs a worthwhile service in letting chefs connect closer with their customers (plus, you’ll never hear a food journalist complain about bad lighting); on the other, is it a slippery slope we’re headed down when playing up to the camera somehow trumps a chef’s better instincts to serve the palate before the plating?
At the newest sushi temple to open in Tsim Sha Tsui, the first Hong Kong branch of two-Michelin-starred Sushiyoshi in Osaka, dinner theatre and Instagrammable moments play a definitive role over the 20-some-course progression of the night. But does the meal fall into focus beyond the camera lens? We snagged an early reservation during the restaurant’s soft-opening period to find out.
Several months after what most consider to be this year’s most high-profile Japanese restaurant opening, Sushi Saito at Four Seasons (where reservations are still near-impossible to come by) — Sushiyoshi has opened to far less fanfare in the modest Otto Hotel on Cameron Road, just outside of TST station, Exit B2. To the untrained foodie, this land of cheap eats and curry houses may seem like an odd location for a sushi restaurant of this calibre to set up shop; in reality, real sushi aficionados already have their favourites from the surprising number of fine-dining sushi-yas scattered in walk-ups and alleyways around TST. Boasting impressive credentials, Sushiyoshi is boldly throwing its hat in the ring and jostling for its own share in a saturated local scene.
Through the narrow entrance to the hotel — blink and you’ll miss it — and up the elevator on your right, you’ll find this unassuming sushi den. At first glance, it’s virtually indistinguishable from every other fine-dining sushi restaurant in the area — clean, minimalist lines designed to lure you into a zen-like state — but look closer and there’s refinement in the details, including the elongated sushi counter made of 200-year-old hinoki (Japanese cypress wood). Take a seat at the counter and you won’t be able to help brushing your fingers against the centuries-old tabletop, sanded to immaculate smoothness — the first sensory memory you’ll have of the evening.
Food & Drink
As we’re still marvelling at the counter, the first few bites arrive courtesy of chef-owner Nakanoue Hiroki himself, who’s in town to oversee the launch of the restaurant. (When he heads back to Osaka, the reigns will be handed over to head chef Sugawara.) His enthusiasm is palpable, and we can’t help but be uplifted by his cheery demeanour even before the meal starts.
His first gift to us is a crispy Japanese wafer, its clam-shaped mouth hiding a mixture of subtly sweet chopped scallop tartare, pure and clean with a burst of briny caviar. It’s followed by a shot glass filled with slippery strands of seaweed; chef Hiroki instructs us to take it like a tequila shot, chasing the burst of oceanic funk with a bite of mouth-puckering lime. It’s the first clue that we’re meant to loosen up and have a bit of fun with the experience.
Next we’re presented with a spoonful of glistening scallops, a sweet mouthful doctored up with a dab of freshly grated wasabi and expertly seasoned vinegar rice. Our final bite to herald the start of the evening is a strip of white-fleshed sashimi, buried under shavings of nori with the unexpected addition of Parmesan cheese to amp up the umami factor. Chef Hiroki deploys the ingredient almost mischievously, as if he knows he’s bending the rules here.
As we’re still lingering on the curious pairing of cold sashimi with peppery Parmesan, a spark catches the corner of our eye: A fire has started to burn from a pit of dry hay, protected by a glass-walled enclave at the end of the counter. And here comes the sous chef, precariously balancing a log of hot binchotan charcoal between a pair of metal tongs. As he approaches the counter in plain view of the diners — who have turned into a gang of paparazzi angling for the best shot — Hiroki picks up a piece of buttery otoro tuna, lightly touching just the edges on the piece of hot charcoal until fumes of smoke start to unfurl into the air and the dizzying scent of searing fat fills the room.
The show continues as the fish is carefully folded onto a silver spoon, while the sous-chef fusses over a pinky-sized quenelle of caviar, a perfect dot of wasabi and, finally, shavings of black truffle that come from a fist-sized tuber that’s been planted on the counter. We snap the final frame before popping the whole thing into our mouths. The bite is pure gustatory bliss, the earthy pungency of the truffle melting into a clean burst of fat from the otoro, with a bracing note of vinegar from the pearly rice to cut through the richness.
Our cameras keep clicking for the next dish, one that fans of the original Sushiyoshi in Osaka may recognise: sea bream carpaccio pounded into a thin square of translucent white marbled with pinkish streaks and decorated with edible flowers. We’re instructed to squeeze lime over the salt and swipe the raw meat through our advice: squeeze more lime than you think you need). The flavours are a little light for our liking, and we’re more interested in what comes on the side: a small scoop of prawn brains that bursts with umami and funk — proving again the tremendous amount of flavour to be extracted from the heads of shellfish.
To partake in an omakase meal is to leave your plate — and fate — entirely in the hands of the chef, where he’ll read your expressions and visual cues to decide the order, progression and finale of the night. Omakase is meant to be a discourse between chef and diner, and Sushiyoshi’s is no exception, albeit one that’s non-linear in fashion, with the 17–21 courses arriving in no particular order (as we experienced when some of our fellow guests were served one of our first courses towards the end of their meal). Rather than focusing on the logical narrative of dishes, our takeaways were the few truly creative — and visually arresting — dishes that implanted themselves in our memory.
One such exemplar is the bonito tuna; in Osaka, guests are invited to accompany the chef out back, where the fish is seared in the alley over a bucket of burning coal and hay in a true breakdown of barrier between chef and diner. In Hong Kong, restaurant norms prevail, and we remain in our seats on the customer side of the counter as the chef prepares the fish in another snap-worthy spectacle. The monstrous slab of tuna is skewered with five metal spikes, balanced between the knuckles and hoisted over the now-crackling fire. When every inch of the surface has been singed to a deep charcoal black, chef Hiroki slices into the fish like butter, offering us each a palm-sized portion with the flame-kissed crust still singing of smoke and hay. The meat is gloriously soft, and one of the best versions of bonito we’ve had — although we’re not a big fan of the wasabi mousse, which is rather overbearing on the palate.
From the towering flames which seem to lick the roof of the ceiling each time more hay is piled on, to the sweetly wrapped parcels of sasa-zushi (nigiri deposited in bamboo leaves) that come presented in a branded basket — the food is as presentable for the camera as it is pleasing on the palate. At moments throughout the meal, the chefs almost dare you not to take a photo: leaving in front of our plates an unattended box of pristinely fresh uni, about 40–50 bright orange lobes of sea urchin folded neatly in perfect rows. Click goes our camera. At another moment, a giant steamed abalone comes whizzing by, cut into meaty quarters. We’re told to grab one each, savouring the chewy, delicate flavours of the expensive mollusk.
In a grand gesture that’s equal parts show and generosity, chef Hiroki instructs us to hold out our hands in a fist, this time plopping down a giant spoonful of abalone liver covered with a mound of fresh sea urchin. It’s a juggling act to get your hand to your mouth without dropping the precious load, but the resulting mouthful is utter bliss: The deep umami flavour of the liver coats sticky rice grains, tempered by the cool and briny uni. If Sushiyoshi sold this rice, we’d buy it by the buckets.
As the meal draws to a close, we’re presented with yet another theatrical preparation: a clam and fish soup arriving in a laboratory vial, like a bizarre culinary-science experiment. Placed over a burner, the broth begins to bubble before it’s sucked up by the contraption to the container of giant clams suspended above. The clams get cooked in the broth, and the whole thing poured into a soup bowl for our enjoyment. Although we’re not entirely sure the purpose beyond pure theatre — perhaps to concentrate the shellfish flavour? — the broth is clear and comforting, a reassuring tonic to wipe the palate clean before the final act.
Stomachs bursting, chef Hiroki presents us with perhaps the single most Instagrammable dish of the night: a waffle cone filled with roasted marshmallow in place of ice cream, gratuitously topped with more shaved truffle slices. We polish it off along with a scoop of icy cilantro sorbet before heading out into the night, some three-and-a-half hours later.
From chefs who fuss meticulously over the photographic details of a dish — and spend hours after scrolling through comments on social media — to foodies and bloggers who obsess to equal degree over nabbing the perfect shot to boost their feed, there’s no denying the paramount shift in the modern-day dining experience bred by social media. As with anything, there are pros and there are cons. The phenomenon of channelling food around the world through digital media has led to a more connected and creative-minded global chef community; on the other hand, what you’re sometimes left with is a plate of cold food punctuated by unappetising flavour combinations.
Japanese is one of those cuisines that’s fundamentally photographable — a cuisine as much rooted in aesthetics as it is in the integrity of ingredients. A truly great omakase meal is meant to be a transcendent experience in every way, and there are quite a few moments at Sushiyoshi that hit the mark, where a fleeting bite gives way to a powerful, lasting impression. Although the rigours of Hong Kong’s restaurant scene and the provenance of ingredients mean you’ll be paying top dollar for it — the dinner omakase starts at HK$1,980 per head — we’ll gladly induct Sushiyoshi into the upper ranks of our city’s Japanese fine dining fraternity. And if the kitchen panders to cameras to get a few more paying customers through the doors, well, hats off to them for straddling both sides of the divide with cleverness and confidence.
Opening Hours: Mon–Sun, noon–3pm and 6–10:30pm
Recommended Dishes: Omakase or chef’s choosing.
Price: Starting from HK$680 for lunch and HK$1,980 for dinner.
Noise Level: Mild but unrestrained.
Service: Like dining in a friend’s home.