Date of review: February 20, 2013 | Reviewed by: Elaine Wong
Gin Sai is one of the trio of fine dining Japanese restaurants that occupy the ground floor of The OakHill serviced apartment on Wood Road. Although it’s just a few steps away from the hustle and bustle of Wan Chai, this part of the neighbourhood is quaint and fairly quiet at night. Wrapped around by stonewall façades, the restaurant entrance adorned with wine cabinets is impossible to miss. The décor is upscale with muted lightings and dark woods; tables are spaciously arranged and mostly cater for groups of four, and are equipped with a grill for serving hot pot. A long marble-topped bar table accents the dining room with an open kitchen at the back. Diners sitting along here will either be facing the tempura station, the robata grill, the oden tray or an aquarium with abalone and some rather moribund shrimps. The good thing is that you can interact with the chefs, watch them preparing the food, and enjoy food straight off the pass, which makes a difference especially for the tempura dishes. There is a rectangular communal table situated at the rear of the restaurant, and the area can be partitioned into a private room. There are three other private rooms accessible by the staircases near the entrance, but we found these hexahedron-shaped spaces rather claustrophobic and there are no windows, just like the rest of the restaurant.
Gin Sai has a pretty ambitious menu that covers everything from tempura, yakitori and robatayaki to shabu shabu and sukiyaki. There are also some lesser seen specialities including seiro steamer dishes (which are prepared in a bamboo steamer and presented like Chinese dim sum) and oden (a traditional Japanese snack to combat cold-weather, consisting of ingredients simmered in a soy-flavoured dashi broth). The best way to get a glimpse of the kitchen’s expertise is to order omakase, the tasting menu of chef’s selections comprised of sashimi, oden, tempura, yakitori and steamed dishes, offering five to six items from each category. Three dainty and delicately presented appetisers gave a good impression and we love the melting texture of sea urchin with steamed beancurd sheet. To follow were three selections of sashimi served to the right temperature. We particularly enjoyed the sweetness and firm texture of the sweet shrimp. Unfortunately, like most Japanese restaurants in town, Gin Sai still serves the endangered bluefin tuna. We were left a tad disappointed by the signature oden The golden, clear soup base flavoured with chicken stock and soy sauce was as expected, delightfully fragrant and sweet. We were offered five simmered items, but not all were successful. The cabbage roll stuffed with fish paste is delicious; deep-fried fish cake and squid rolled with fish cake were rather monotonous; the steamed meatball dumpling was overly soft and mushy; the sweet and juicy piece of radish was one saving grace. Gin Sai prides itself on tempura, but comparing to other top-notch tempura we’ve encountered, the batter of Gin Sai’s versions is light but in a way we couldn’t feel the crispiness, and slightly more oily. Among the five items, we recommend the prawn with its flavoursome head served on the side, and the succulent sillaginoid. The rest may require the accompanying sea salt and curry salt to kick it up a bit. Next up we had six yakitori plates arriving at the table, which are sadly nothing to write home about. The chicken wing lacks crispy skin, and there are admittedly better versions of tsukune (minced chicken) out there. Our favourite of the night was A4 wagyu with vegetables neatly presented in a bamboo box steamer. We were suggested to DIY and roll up the translucent beef slices with vegetables, and dip in the sesame sauce. We were unable to resist the fatty slices of beef with intense marbling, and the refreshing combination of the vegetables that have absorbed the beef’s juices while steaming. A low point of the evening was our side order of sukiyaki because of its intolerably salty broth. Be careful if you didn’t specify which type of beef to order, you’d likely to end up paying HK$780 for two pieces of premium A5 wagyu beef, and a full pot of vegetables infused with the broth, which are barely edible. Our dessert from the omakase menu were cherry cream puffs. The fruit and the thick, creamy vanilla custard filling were enjoyable, but the puff pastry is a tad dry and unremarkable.
The Lafite bottles displayed at the entrance hint towards a stunning wine list, and it is, especially for a Japanese restaurant. There is a wide geographical representation and many interesting selections including some unusual vintages. There are ultimate splurge for the fine wine connoisseur as well as eight options by the glass and served half a dozen of red and white wines by half bottle. Japanese wine is no less impressive, with everything from a premium junmai daiginjyo at HK$16,800 (720ml) to small carafe of shochu or sake priced from HK$350.
The staff were polite and inviting at first, but were lacking in both knowledge of the menu and the discreet elegance of traditional Japanese service. Dishes were explained partially only when we asked, and the chef who was answering our enquiry was called away for chores in the middle of our conversation. But as a whole, the service is jovial and eager to please.
Gin Sai clearly puts itself amongst the fine dining Japanese equivalents in town thus the price isn’t cheap. We suggest ordering the omakase menu that offers good varieties and substantial items, which is priced at HK$1,280 per person. This is much better value than ordering from a la carte, as a sukiyaki consisting of only two slices of beef plus another two seafood tempura would easily come to the same amount.