Hong Kong’s omakase temples are widespread and abundant, yet the local appetite for sushi appears to be insatiable, with the anticipated list of new openings each month inevitably including one or two new Japanese restaurants thrown into the mix. One of the newer entrants to the market has arrived courtesy of the West Coast: Sushi Zo, which popped up in Tai Kwun last month.
Founded by Osaka-born-and-trained chef Keizo Seiki back in 2006, Sushi Zo has the distinction of being one of the first omakase-only sushi spots to open in Los Angeles; since then, it’s popped up in key global food capitals including Tokyo, Bangkok, London and New York. Hong Kong’s outlet is the seventh Sushi Zo in the world, led by chef Fumio Azumi who recently relocated from the LA flagship.
While the original Sushi Zo is a humble affair set in a sub-district strip mall, a cross-continental trip to Hong Kong has done wonders for the upgrade in décor: Mirroring the zen sushi temples dotted around Japan, Sushi Zo in Tai Kwun sports the familiar smoothly sanded wooden sushi counter, seating 14 in comfortably upholstered high chairs, with the space bathed in a cheery, sanguine glow. Ornamentals are sparse, save for a mounted backdrop of trailing gold-plated leaves, a few bucket stands for Champagne lining the back wall, and heavy curtains pulled back to offer a peek of the building across the Tai Kwun courtyard.
It’s worth mentioning that Sushi Zo boasts an adjoining bar, Gishiki Lounge, which remains a hidden gem compared to more well-known Tai Kwun watering holes such as Bar at Armoury and Dragonfly. This makes it an excellent place to duck into for a cocktail before moving on to your seating at Sushi Zo; or, to cap off your night with a digestif. The Japanese-inspired cocktails (18 in total), while not always hitting the mark, win points solely on ambition and creativity, with lead mixologist Billy Lau experimenting with flavoured ice blocks and siphon-brewed spirits served over dry ice. His technique-driven cocktails make every attempt to tie into the theme next door: While the Hattatsu (HK$158, shiitake mushroom infused buffalo trace, white miso, fat-washed campari) drank too much like a savoury soup for our liking, the Takara (HK$138) was a lip-smacking dessert in liquid form, the kick from tonka bean-infused spiced rum tempered by coffee shochu and salted caramel liqueur.
Food & Drink
Sushi Zo offers reservations for two seatings: 6–8pm, and 8:30–10:30pm. Settling in on a recent Saturday night, we found ourselves the only two diners for the earlier sitting — a circumstance that could perhaps be chalked up to a combination of the current cautious climate for dining out in Hong Kong, and the restaurant’s delayed (and relatively quiet) opening. Regardless, we counted our blessings to have chef Azumi all to ourselves, our evening punctuated with delightful anecdotes of his time spent catering to celebrity clientele in LA, who he admits, with a slight twinkle in his eye, are “much less adventurous than Hong Kong diners.”
In fact, much of the joy of dining at Sushi Zo can be attributed to the careful orchestration and easy-going attitude of chef Azumi, who slices, garnishes and converses with the ease of someone who’s comfortable navigating (or dispelling altogether) the perceived barrier between chef and diner — eschewing the meditative and sometimes silent demeanour of some other disciples of his craft. This West Coast-inspired style of service brings a lively ambience to Sushi Zo — even if you find yourselves as the only two diners for the evening.
That’s not to say there’s any less focus or discipline that goes into his handling of the fish: our 18-course omakase meal (the only option offered at Sushi Zo, priced at HK$2,500 per person) was filled with noteworthy moments, illustrating both the idiosyncratic house style of Sushi Zo and Azumi’s practised skill in his arena. Standing behind a collection of colourful ceramic pots more often seen at kaiseki restaurants, Azumi paced the meal effortlessly over the course of two hours, with just the right amount of interaction without becoming obtrusive.
The most remarkable difference that you may find at Sushi Zo as compared to its sister outlets around the world is ready access to Japanese produce, featuring ingredients such as akagai (surf clams) and akamatsu (sea perch), which you’ll rarely find on the menu in Los Angeles. On the West Coast they may use Santa Barbara sea urchin; here, chef Azumi presents a black slate dotted with three different types of Japanese uni, offering a thrilling study in the nuances of textures and flavours between aka (red), bafun (orange) and murasaki (purple) sea urchin. (“I’m so happy to make the fish in Hong Kong, to be closer to the source,” proclaims chef Azumi at one point, with clear elation.)
The second thing you might notice is the size and temperature of the rice: the first is smaller, focusing the lens on the fish itself; and the second warmer, served at body temperature, the few degrees making an ocean of difference in sensation and mouthfeel. Finally, in the Sushi Zo style (deemed ‘Ittai-kan’), the rice is also served with a softer texture (“some refer to it as risotto,” says Azumi) which amplifies the buttery, melt-worthy texture in some of the softer fish, while emphasising contrast in ingredients such as surf clams or Kuruma prawns.
In recent years, the lines between kaiseki and omakase have become increasingly blurred; sushi omakase menus can often include several hot dishes, variations on tempura or vegetable sides, while showcasing a range of techniques across simmered, fried and steamed dishes. Sushi Zo, in contrast, caters to those who eagerly await the nigiri potion of the meal, usually wedged between the cold and hot dishes, when the focus becomes thrillingly pared down to rice, fish and technique.
That means you may not find the same innovation as say, a sushi restaurant that offers creative hand rolls or fish bone ramen, but the narrowed focus on nigiri means that Sushi Zo can offer a greater variety of fish while perfecting its craft in this single subset of omakase. Temperature, knife-work and seasonings are consistent across the board. The snow crab is a gift from the sea, the succulent sweet meat elevated by a dot of grated yuzu. Thick-cut jumbo scallops are draped luxuriously around a small quenelle of rice, blanketing each grain like a goose down comforter with a daub of soy to draw out the sweetness. Squid is scored lightly and yields a subtle milkiness, simple and elegant. And the akagai red clam, intensely sweet and briny, showcases the kitchen’s zealous commitment to seasonality.
Before the trio of uni, we’re treated to a small ceramic bowl of dashi-marinated salmon roe — the bed of orange orbs topped with a bit of caviar and served with a small wooden spoon. Through a feat of sheer culinary wizardry — involving a labour-intensive process of washing the roe with sake, mirin and soy three times over — the umami has been amplified to the power of 10, the brine and oceanic flavour hitting our palate like a tidal wave.
Halfway through the meal our sake is switched out for one a bit more robust and well-rounded, a pre-cursor to the line-up of more full-flavoured, oily cuts. At this point, the wooden bucket of rice is also removed, replaced with rice that’s been seasoned with red vinegar, or akazu. Indeed, the deep rich flavour proves to be a more harmonious base to the fattier, more oily fishes: the in-season pike mackerel, anointed simply with micro-chopped chives; golden eye snapper, the blush pink slab lightly torched to release its fatty oils; and king mackerel, which benefits from accoutrements of ginger, onion and a light brush of soy. The otoro is, well, otoro — fatty, fresh and boasting the texture of buttery foie gras.
Akamatsu is one of the highlights of the meal: caught off the tiny island of Tsushima, chef tells us its superlative to other sea perch that swim the globe, with a full, lush flavour brilliantly offset by the slight tang in the red vinegar rice. The meal concludes with a palate-cleanser of house-made desserts: a scoop of black sesame ice cream in a glass globe, fresh fruit and a riff on crème brûlée bearing toasty notes of caramel.
Sushi can largely be subjective to individual palates, and this style of nigiri (warmer temperature, softer texture) won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but given the entirety of the experience, it’s hard not to see Sushi Zo as a solid new addition to our city’s omakase scene. After all, the pleasure of sushi largely derives from condensing one pure moment of gustatory bliss into a single, ephemeral bite — a product of a relentless pursuit of sushi masters to perfect their craft and expand their knowledge pool of ingredients and seasonality. While not the most boundary-breaking omakase in town, at Sushi Zo, there are more than enough of these heightened moments scattered throughout to warrant a return visit from us. Perhaps next time, word will have spread.