Review: At Uoharu, Fire And Theatrics Take Centre Stage
The Japanese commitment to quality yields some of the finest produce in the world, with demand for the most pristine and the most delicious ingredients consistently on the rise, and the best specimens going under the hammer for unspeakable amounts. Chefs and restaurateurs, eager to get their dishes off to the best start, will clamour for the superlative: a perfectly ripe and unblemished peach, a plump and shimmering mackerel with weight in the flesh and clarity in the eyes, sweet baby carrots that appear to come straight out of the idyllic pages of an illustrated Beatrix Potter book.
As a result, there is the uncomfortable truth that many perfectly good ingredients that don’t meet stringent benchmarks are considered unsellable, with a large portion often ending up in landfill. It’s worth noting that this practice is not exclusive to Japan, or even Asia, and is regrettably common the world over; what the Japanese d have exclusively is the term “mottainai”, to define this sense of exasperation towards generating unnecessary waste.
The original Uoharu is not your average izakaya precisely because it got the conversation going in Tokyo around food waste by actively purchasing produce from Tsukiji Market (and, now, Toyosu Market) that was considered “irregular” or with cosmetic imperfections—fish that are undersized or oversized, scallops with scratched or discoloured shells, crabs with missing limbs—and turning them into delicious izakaya fare nevertheless. The idea behind mottainai is to look beyond the surface, appreciate the ingredients (after all, the term ‘itadakimasu’ murmured at the beginning of every meal means ‘I humbly receive’) and minimise waste in the process.
While the Hong Kong branch of Uoharu is not yet participating in the same initiative, we’re told that there are plans in place to mimic the Tokyo model once the feasibility of doing so makes logistical sense. Perhaps there are reservations over whether or not such a concept would fly in a notoriously picky market like Hong Kong, where most restaurants—as a minimum—boast of the fact that they source the highest quality ingredients daily from Japan. It’s a challenging narrative to peddle “unwanted” foods (even if the quality is there), but if the execution is done well, we’re hoping it’s a project that will take flight eventually.
Located in the M88 building in Central, Uoharu Hong Kong is nicely placed for a casual meal—in true izakaya fashion, it’s best to come in a small group to share the menu of small plates and larger robata-grilled fish while knocking back chilled glasses of keenly priced draught Suntory beer, Roku gin cocktails or whisky highballs. The illustrated menu is a nice touch, and a sheet of daily specials are hand-drawn and placed on each table, boasting of fresh catches such as kinmedai (golden eye snapper), tsubugai (whelk) and baby scallops.
Start the meal with the daily fresh vegetable crudites served with their housemade bagna cauda, which has the intense anchovy funk you’re looking for in this Italian classic. Likewise, a generous plate of pickled vegetables is great for both whetting the appetite and cleansing the palate between bites; a smoky, soy-marinated radish pickle is particularly moreish and excellent with a crisp sake.
Staff are enthusiastic, and our waiter has an encyclopaedic knowledge of of the menu and the daily specials, taking time to explain the hero dishes, cooking techniques and flavour profiles. It can be overwhelming if you’re just looking to order a few dishes here and there, and most dishes do seem self-explanatory. We follow the recommendation and order a few things from the robatayaki section, as this is the heart of what Uohara does. Hokkigai are grilled in their shells with a slosh of sake and fine seaweed, but there’s not a lot of natural umami from the shellfish or the seaweed, and the resulting broth is a touch on the bitter side.
Kochi, or flathead fish, comes attractively scored and burnished from its time in the flames of the robata grill. It’s a hearty portion of dense, flaky meat and crisp skin, and we delight in picking morsels to be eaten with a mixture of ponzu and finely chopped (rather than grated) radish that adds a cooling touch. The sections towards the tail are overcooked, but the meatier flesh near the head is just right.
You can order more luxurious items, such as the signature seafood chawanmushi that comes topped with a highly photogenic layer of sea urchin, crabmeat and salmon roe, or little twists on classic Japanese drinking food, such as grilled fishcakes stuffed with cheese (sadly not available on our visit). We were excited to try the Hokkaido Danshaku potato with butter and fermented raw squid (the northern region is known for their tubers, dairy and seafood) but found the dish off balance in texture and flavour; the potato was cooked dry, and the squid had a slightly bitter aftertaste.
Tsukune is another house specialty, where chicken thigh, cartilage and onion are minced together to form a delicious little meatball that is then served in a portion of crisp green pepper that had been soaked in ice water beforehand. Green pepper haters may dislike the grassy undertone, but I enjoyed the contrast between the fatty (if overly gristly) chicken meatball and the fresh crunch of the pepper.
You can tell that the restaurant tries hard to entertain and engage customers, from the switched-on service to the robatayaki theatrics that, at one point, requires all lights in the restaurant be turned off—we won’t ruin the surprise, but what we can say is that at the end of it each table receives a free morsel of freshly flamed fish and a few highly Instagrammable videos or photos to remember the experience by. It seemed to put the room in a good mood, which is half the challenge of creating a good restaurant experience. While the food still needs some tweaking, Uoharu has the potential to become a regular haunt for a few glasses of cold beer, grilled snacks and hot gossip.
A meal for two with drinks and service: around HK$1,100