Restaurant Review: Japanese Newcomer Honjo Brings All The Glamour With None Of The Stuffiness
Arriving early to the restaurant, I texted my companions to let them know that I was already downstairs, at our table. When they turned up, they were suitably puzzled—Honjo is actually on the first floor of a building on Queen’s Road West in Sheung Wan, not the basement. I was disoriented by the journey from street to restaurant, via a small welcome area and sleek private elevator, as it ejected me into a world entirely removed from the rest of Hong Kong—the spot-lit interiors, drawn curtains and low wood panel ceilings mimicking a glamorous underground member’s club rather than a first floor restaurant.
Meandering through the generous space, you’ll get the impression that a lot of effort has been placed in the design and layout of the room—or rooms, as there are distinctly different sections that are characterised by paraphernalia ranging from kendo armour to vintage paintings. It’s not outwardly “Japanese” in the way that feels derivative, no lapsing into tired tropes and iconography; the space has the old-time glamour of the Orient Express, combined with the tasteful conservatism of the 1950s. The "club lite" music, however, pitched on the louder side, brings you right back to the present.
The premise of Honjo is modernised Japanese food combining traditional techniques with unexpected ingredients and flavours. Like other Pirata Group restaurants, the team have curated two ‘greatest hits’ omakase offerings, The Dreamer at HK$680 per person and The Traveller at HK$980 per person; both have optional wine and sake pairings. The rest of the menu is divided into small, raw and hot plates, tempura, sushi and sashimi, sides and desserts. Sharing is encouraged.
We started with the (deboned) chicken wings that our friendly waitress strongly encouraged we order, and we were glad she did so. The generously proportioned wings were are battered, fried and glazed with Okinawa black sugar and garlic for a sweet-and-salty crunch, with sesame seeds and freshly sliced chilli (not outrageously hot) sprinkled on top. Juicy, hot and tender, these wings would go perfectly with either a pint of ice-cold beer or a flask of Honjo’s own-label junmai daiginjo sake, brewed in Nagano. Cocktails are recommended as well (and a bar located near the front of the restaurant is a comfortable waiting room if you arrive before your companions), with expected concoctions with names like Geisha Manhattan (Suntory the Chita whisky, Geisha vermouth, yuzu bitters) and Sakura Blossom (Honjo sake, Charles Heidiesk Brut champagne, green chartreuse, peach, tonka syrup and lemon juice).
From hot we go to cool, with the signature fruit tomato cloaked with Arbequina olive oil, yuzu gelee and hojiso (shiso flowers) a small but satisfying dish to cleanse the palate. The raw selection presents a range of ingredients served with punchy accoutrements, from rare wagyu anointed with chorizo oil, Asahi tosazu, crisp quinoa and chives to oysters topped with herbaceous shiso mignonette and ponzu jelly. This section really is a showcase of very bold flavours, rather than one that highlights the quality of the base ingredient. The oiliness of hamachi works well with its trio of rocket butter, white soy and yukari (a shiso furikake that is used to coat one side of the fish slices); Iberico pork, served pink, swims in a punchy pool of soy tinged with Sichuan peppercorn oil and a ginger scallion salsa that brings to mind the flavour profiles of Cantonese steamed fish.
Speaking of, we also order the whole seabass that is presented at the table freed from its swaddle of thick, briny kombu. The fish is served whole, heads and tails, but helpfully deboned, its cavity stuffed with a zingy scallion pesto. There’s a dish of “teriyaki” sauce served on the side, but it’s too many flavours at once and we’re content with picking at the pearlescent meat swabbed with the pesto, eating mouthfuls with the fresh mizuna leaves piled on the side.
From the tempura section, the Boston lobster comes with wasabi aioli as well as a trio of salts for dipping. The shellfish is obviously fresh and springy, but it’s let down by the heavy coating that feels more akin to a golden fish and chip batter than the light, airy exterior of masterfully executed Japanese tempura. We’ll file this one under “needs improvement’, particularly given the HK$420 price tag.
Dessert offers four simple options, with kuromitsu cheesecake with pineapple cinnamon sorbet; cherry and umeboshi curd with vanilla ice cream; red bean almond cake with green tea ice cream; and “Too Much Chocolate”, which we opt for. We’re bemused to see the old trick of presenting a chocolate sphere over which a hot caramel sauce is poured—an overdone cliché that should surely go the way of chocolate fondants—and the unfortunate part was that the sauce was not hot enough to melt away the top layer of chocolate. Once excavated, the raspberry sorbet was the best part of the dessert.
Despite some shortcomings, the restaurant is buoyed by its front of house team who are accommodating and knowledgeable about the concept, food and drink. Despite being located further from the fringes of prime restaurant territory in Central, the venue was packed midweek with tables of friends and couples looking like they’re having a grand old time. Hidden from the realities of the world outside, Honjo offers a throwback with its unique mix of vintage glamour and modern food and drink, with just enough intrigue to make you consider returning for more.
A meal for two with one beverage and service: around HK$800
How we rate
Each of our reviewers score restaurants based on four main criteria: setting, food, service, and drinks, taking into account more than 35 different points of reference including manners of staff, usefulness of the wine list, and whether or not the restaurant makes an effort to be environmentally aware. 5/5 indicates an exceptional experience; 4-4.5/5 is excellent; 3-3.5/5 is good to very good; and 2.5/5 or lower is average to below average. Before visiting a restaurant, the reviewers will book using a pseudonym and do not make themselves known to restaurant staff, in order to experience the venue as a regular guest—if this is not possible, or if we are recognised, we will indicate this in the review.