Most people can’t fly somewhere on a whim at present—but the fish sure can. I sit down for a polished meal at Sushi Yonjugo, one of the city’s most talked-about openings of the summer.
Besides Tokyo, Hong Kong indubitably has some of the best high-end Edomae sushi on the planet. With travel out of the question, we still have the good karma to experience quality omakase in town. A recessed wooden door on Staunton Street lets you into Sushi Yonjugo, helmed by chef Milton Lau, who has 36 years of experience behind the counter at Kenjo and Kyubey. It’s one of the newest, most premium and unique sushi bars to pop up in Soho.
As per the omakase style, there’s really no ordering at Yonjugo – you’re in the capable hands of chef Lau and each night may be a bit different. He only prepares for nine lucky people every day. “There’s definitely going to be sea urchin and fatty tuna, but the catch on Monday may be from Kyushu, Kagoshima and Okinawa,” he says. “On Tuesdays, the seafood from Hokkaido arrives.”
See also: Sushi Yonjugo: Central’s Latest Edomae-Style Omakase
Bottles of umeshu with diners’ names on labels line the walls. They’re going through a second fermentation, Italian-style, so we couldn’t try any yet, but the chef assures us that we can have a taste the next time we visit. Ume is erroneously referred to as “plum” by just about everyone; in actuality, Prunus mume is an apricot. Extremely sour and astringent, it’s usually salted to make pickled umeboshi or steeped in alcohol to make deliciously fruity umeshu.
We begin our tour through Japan’s waters with sea bream sashimi from Shikoku. Fighting the fast currents of the Naruto whirlpools, they’re chewy and full of flavour. Farmed and fed with yuzu, the fish exhibit a faint hint of citrus upon first bite. Fat, full-bodied iwakaki rock oysters from Mie, topped with tangy Tosa vinegar jelly and plump salmon roe, slide into our mouths next. Then comes slivers of crunchy Hokkaido conch with charcoal and shavings of black truffle.
Chef Lau hands me the next oceanic delicacy personally and introduces it as “sea tofu”. It’s deep-fried and wrapped in seaweed. I ponder for a second and ask if it’s shirako—creamy cod sperm sacs. He acknowledges that I’ve guessed correctly, and I bite rapturously into the briny, wobbly white milt.
The ensuing dish is a genuine treat for lovers of oily fish—fresh saba from Saga, Kyushu, which is served raw, brushed with tare, then torched ever so briefly. March to July is the best season for mackerel, as they tend to be rather fishy when they’re getting ready for their summer mating season. Topped with refreshing slivers of minty myōga ginger and nestled on a mound of soy-dressed seaweed, the chef remarks that Hong Kong does prefer oilier fish and his mackerel isn’t fishy at all—just briny unctuousness.
Then comes akamutsu (rosy seabass), one of the top ten sashimi fish of Japan. Caught 400 metres below sea level, it’s a deep-sea dweller that takes six years to mature and presents high fat content. Smoked with sakura wood theatrically under a glass cloche and topped with a sprig of hojiso (tiny perilla flowers), the chef lets us take a whiff of the fragrant fumes from the cloche before serving us the fish. Following this, the hot dish comes in the simple form of a single prawn tempura, fried to filigree perfection. I pop the crisp head directly into my mouth—antioxidant umami-laden brains, crunchy antennae and all.
“When I was in Japan, I cultivated relationships with fishermen and seafood suppliers. They would send what I wanted from fish markets all over Japan to Tokyo or Kyushu for me. Then it comes to Hong Kong,” explains chef Lau. “I speak to them at four every morning to make sure the highest-quality ingredients will be at our doorstep by ten, or at the latest at around five in the afternoon. The fish arrives at the same time as Tokyo, or even faster than the guy from Tsukiji [now Toyosu Market] who walks or bikes over to Ginza at five or six.” People can’t readily fly these days, but the fish still can.
Just as I’m marvelling at the flow of this immaculate omakase, the chef announces that it’s time for sushi. The sequence of the dishes has been so exquisite that I had forgotten all about the nigiri. The first sushi comes deconstructed. It’s a small, tender abalone from Ise, famed for its grand shrines and shellfish, and is served pre-sliced, with a rice ball on the side drenched in a subtle sauce of the abalone’s own liver.
On the counter, chef Lau places a slab of pickled ginger onto my ceramic plate, signalling the start of the sushi, together with a chequered square of buttery cheese and sweet persimmon to pair with a Hakurakusei Junmai Daiginjo. It’s an elegant sake, not too dry, with herbal notes from the heirloom Omachi rice that has been milled to 40 percent. Produced by the Niizawa Sake Brewery, founded in 1873, the flavours are firmly rooted in the local area of Miyagi, and match the rich-tasting seafood flawlessly.
Sake does have regional flavours and terroir—not quite as much as wine, but more along the lines of a microbrewery. Yonjugo only serves 720mL bottles, including a premium Juyondai selection, and features mostly sake with low sugar content, keeping food pairings in mind. For champagnes, one can pick a Dom Pérignon 2010 or a Krug Grande Cuvée to start.
A three-tiered shrimp gunkan warship appears, with tiny dried sakura shrimp on top for umami, shiraebi (white shrimp) for the texture, and amaebi (sweet shrimp) for the sweetness. Its rich prawn flavours flood our senses.
Then, chef Lau places what looks like a slab of dull jade on our ceramic plates. Apparently it’s a cactus leaf from a greenhouse in Chiba, serving as a palate cleanser after the robust taste of the triple-threat crustacean gunkan. “The snacks in-between are an important part of meal,” he reminds us. It works like magic. With a lemon-like tartness, the leaf removes residual flavours from the tongue, allowing access to new aromas. The chef found out about these succulents when he went strawberry tasting in Chiba every week while working in Japan at the legendary Kyubey.
In 2007, he had the opportunity to apprentice at the honten (head branch) of Kyubey in Ginza. Sushi aficionados will ooh and aah whenever Kyubey is mentioned. Founded in 1935 by Hisaji Imada, who effectively invented the gunkan soon after the Second World War as a vessel to serve slippery and newly popular neta like salmon roe and sea urchin, Kyubey is the go-to sushi institution favoured by both Tokyoites and tourists. For three years, chef Lau was on the second-floor kitchen in the VIP room. With just a four-day work week, he spent the rest of his time exploring Tokyo, surfing and tasting fruit grown in Chiba.
Chef Lau begins to assemble an obscenely tall gunkan, with white sea urchin on top for the texture and Hokkaido bafun uni (red sea urchin) for the more pronounced sweetness and unrivalled creaminess. The spectacular result is a very balanced flavour profile and a stupefying mouthfeel.
The chef asks us if we want a hand roll of fatty tuna to finish—and who would object? The toro is so soft, it’s puréed with a press of his knife. Black sesame, finely chopped leek, and shiso are mixed into the paste thoroughly. Everybody at the nine-seater bar eats in silent gratitude before moans of fulfilment.
I ask chef Lau about his old-school training. “My master definitely hit me. I remember he whacked me on the head with a rice bucket because I cooked the rice wrong,” he recalls. “I understand why he did that now—because I’ll always remember how to get the rice right! A sushi chef should only be pressing for three to five seconds, so the rice still has ki [meaning it’s airy, with space in-between the grains]. A diner should be able to pick up the fish without the rice falling off. That’s the basic standard. But not everyone can do it. I’m just maintaining that standard, just as a client should meet the standard of eating the piece of sushi within eight seconds after I’ve placed it on their plate.”
Dessert rounds things out with a super-juicy Shizuoka crown melon, which isn’t overly saccharine and features a natural honeydew sweetness, unlike the artificial Frankenstein flavours that most Japanese fruits exhibit.
For Japanese haute cuisine like Sushi Yonjugo’s premium sushi omakase experience, the ingredients and the chef are shown great respect – and with that in mind, I exit and endeavour to bow at a perfect 45-degree angle.
Sushi Yonjugo, G/F, 35B Staunton St, Central