When I check out a new restaurant, normally there’s a little excitement; I mean, who doesn’t like checking out new shit!
But when it’s a buddy opening that restaurant, there’s a mix of trepidation and excitement in equal parts; will it be successful? will it be good?
I first came across Haku Executive Chef Agustin Balbi when I first dined at The Ocean, over at Repulse Bay (see post here). It’s fair to say that my post garnered some interesting responses, mainly because I was mixed about what I’d thought. To his credit, Agustin contacted me about my post, with a genuine interest in the feedback and a complete desire to provide an impeccable dining experience.
You kind of expect that from a guy who’s worked in some of the best restaurants in the world, including perennial #worlds50best restaurant Le Bernadin and Tokyo’s iconic RyuGin, the latter really shaping the talented chef and helping carve out his styling and philosophy around food. His time in Japan also saw him represent Japan at the San Pellegrino young chefs award in 2015, and while he didn’t win, he did pick up the HK Tatler best new chef.
Located over on the dark side of the harbour, Haku is in the Ocean Terminal at Harbour City; and, truth be told, it’s a little hard to find the first time you look! Like many Japanese restaurants, Haku is hidden behind a curtain that once pulled aside leads you down a short path to a very open style restaurant. The majority of the bar style seats get you up close and personal with Chef Agustin and his team.
My second visit to Haku saw me braving the steamy heat that makes up a Hong Kong summer for a solo lunch session. I was sweaty and a little out of sorts by the time I got to Harbour City, but once I walked through the distinctive curtain and sat at my place around the bar; the tranquility and calmness of the dining area soon had me settled (nice air-conditioning helped too!)
While there is an a la carte section available upon request, Haku is all about the journey, so it’s a wise choice to run with the (normally) eight course tasting menu. On the day of my lunch, I was surprised with a menu that was almost completely blank; the words ‘Chef’s Choice’ opened up a world of possibilities for my meal.
With little preamble, we kicked off a quartet of little bites that were as tasty as they were beautiful. My first bite was a tart filled with confit duck leg and topped with kernels of sweet Japanese corn; the salty duck superb against the sweetness and crunch of the kernels. A nori cornet cone was filled with cream and topped with a ‘scoop’ of clams, providing a sensuous sweet hit against the natural cream and crunchy cone.
Ayu River Fish, otherwise known as sweetfish, was skewered and then cooked with a lovely Japanese panko crumb. The small river fish providing a super sweet hit that went wonderfully against the crunch of the panko. Lastly, I plucked the tightly wrapped tsukemono pickled apple, sprinkled with beetroot powder that was ‘hidden’ amongst rose petals.
The first round of small bites was delicious, and it was hard to pick a favourite; however, I think with the addition of a sweet corn puree to add a little moisture to the tart, it would easily have taken that mantle.
The level of attention to detail was on show for the first major dish of the menu; a mix of Japanese tomatoes was the focal point for the dish, however, it was the addition of a sake kasu, produced from leftover sake, that elevated the dish to legendary status. Sprinkled over at the last moment, it added a salty cheesy flavour that was amazing. It also didn’t hurt that there were strips of bellota ham and kamasu fish filets to provide both texture and additional layer of flavours. However spectacular the additions were, there was no doubt that the sweet tomato slices, bathed in olive oil were the highlight!
I can only describe the next dish as intricate. Well, I tell a lie, that’s how I’d start off by describing the smoked Isaki fish surrounded by thinly sliced strips of ponzu pickled cucumber, then topped with dozens of tiny sorrel leaves before being topped with West Australian truffle. A drizzling of olive oil added a peppery hint to the smokey fish and the ponzu infused cucumber; further hints of pepper came from the sorrel which were chased by umami hints from the truffle. It was both a beautiful dish, as well as being fresh on the palate.
Given the last couple of dishes had been drizzled in olive oil, I asked Agustin about the sexy looking container the oil came in. Importantly, the olive oil was produced from a single origin olive, which added to the uniquely peppery flavour.
It was fun watching Agustin putting the dishes together, each intricate dish having infinite care with their preparation, huge kitchen tweezers placing each ingredient in the exact spot.
The tweezers were put to full use when placing the ingredients on my next plate; prawn stuffed chicken wings carefully placed on top of a mushroom sauce. Thin slices of champignon mushroom placed delicately between crispy chicken pieces, then topped with equally thin slices of cured karasuma mullet and kinome leaf. The flavours were strong, bold and individually overpowering; but magic happened when you combined the ingredients; that perfect moment of harmony! The mushroom sauce was superb, way too good to go to waste on the plate; so the inclusion of a warm brioche roll to ‘mop up’ the remaining sauce was a stroke of genius.
Just about every menu in Hong Kong has foie gras on offer, but very few versions are worthy of elite status; not so with the creamy foie gras topped with a gel made from a duck consume. Beautifully presented in a cherry blossom bowl, textures of black cherry and cherry gel added a nice astringent hit to the sweet creamy foie gras. It was good on it’s own, but the addition of squid ink tempura lotus root added the texture and flavour hit that elevated to iconic status. I simply couldn’t get enough of the wonderfully sweet concoction on that crunchy lotus root; it was just freaking yummy!
And while we are talking about iconic dishes…. The absolute highlight of the meal was the Chutoro with 6th generation Polmard beef, topped with Kristal caviar and gold leaf. The philosophy behind the dish was to get the very best ingredients and let them sing in perfect harmony together. The dish is without doubt something special, the flavours on the palate coming together to simply blow me away. The beef was added to the fatty tuna to improve the texture, but the contrasting sweet flavours combine amazingly with the salty caviar.
This is a dish that will make every bucket list for foodies in Hong Kong.
Last main for lunch was another super blend of textures and flavours. A4 Kagoshima beef was cooked over binchotan charcoal then sliced and combined with white asparagus, eryngii mushroom and textures of turnip. A truffle sauce is the final addition to a dish that packs a punch and is eminently more(ish). The medium rare beef had just enough fatty deposits to help with the natural sweetness, then there was an astringent hit from the asparagus, while the turnips helped level the dish with their earthiness.
Dessert was a seasonal affair. My first visit to Haku during the testing phase of the restaurant saw a Yuzu based dessert; but I was surprised by the change to a Japanese peach version. Hollowed out, the peach was filled with Hokkaido creamed milk jelly, along with white peach then topped with a white peach granita. It was essentially a killer version of peaches and cream; delicious for sure and over way too quickly.
The final part to the symphony was a celebratory reminder of my youth; the sweet cotton candy stirring all sorts of childhood memories that were all good. It was light and gone very quickly, but the memories remained for some time.
Haku is a collaboration between Chef Agustin and legendary Japanese chef Hideaki Matsu of three Michelin-starred Kashiwaya. That Agustin has partnered with such a legend shows the high regard for the young chef; a regard that is well earned.
I always thought that Agustin had been too limited while working at The Ocean; with little creative control, it was hard for him to show his true talent and vision. Haku has been that opportunity he has craved, with total creative control, the restaurant will live and die by Agustin’s decisions.
I may be a little biased, but I have to say that my dining experience at Haku was the equal of any of my meals this year; and definitely near the top of my list. Given that I’ve eaten at twelve of the top 100 restaurants this year, it’s high praise indeed. Every element of my experience, from the friendly and attentive wait staff to the engaging and entertaining team of chefs, was perfect.
If Haku doesn’t pick up a Michelin Star in the next twelve months, I’d be very very surprised.
Well done Agustin, well done!