I apologize to Chef Santaro Li, who joined Hinoki two months ago; I’ve failed him. Every dish was stunning and delectable, yet my photos didn’t capture the essence of beauty in one of the best meals I have this year.
Chef Li, or Li-san, has a colorful background. At a young age, he worked on a farm, ploughing lands, winnowing grains, the rice so fresh, harvested yesterday, cooked today, so sweet that we could never taste it in the city. When the poor village needed sugar, they made it by squeezing sugar cane; when they needed salt, they distilled sea water. I jested, “Hey, sea salt is very expensive these days.” He rolled his eyes. Hahaha.
At 18, he swam 8 hours from Shenzhen to Hong Kong in the shark-infested sea to escape abject poverty. If he was spotted by the Communists, he would be shot to death in the sea. He said, “I had a 30% chance of survival, living in poor China, and a 50% chance if I swam to Hong Kong.” Risk-taker, this one.
He worked for a year as a handyman and car mechanic before landing a job at a Japanese restaurant, Kanetanaka, a branch of the famous ryotei (traditional restaurant) in Ginza, Tokyo. When asked why he picked to go into Japanese cuisine, he said, “Because it pays well!” Haha, so honest!
Starters: Ika Shiokara (salted squid intestines marinated 2-3 days by chef); salmon mentai with a surprise shellful of shredded hirame flounder; hotate ponzu (scallops in citrus-base soy sauce).
After learning from Japan’s first Iron Chef Michiba Rokusaburo, Li-san worked at Ritz Carlton Hong Kong, Fort Canning Country Club and Nogawa, before opening his own restaurant Santaro. He has fed, and became friends with, luminaries like famous Hong Kong food critic Cao Lan, late President Ong Teng Cheong and PM Lee Hsien Loong who said to Li-san, “Your food is even better than those I tasted in Japan!” Being obedient Singaporeans, we don’t disagree with our PM.
We were very, very fortunate to be able to eat Li-san’s food. He has 40 years of experience, acquiring the status of masterchef (also known as ryori-jin), perfected in all areas of Japanese cuisine, from sushi to grilling and stewing. To be honest, we didn’t care about his masterchef status, what we wanted to know before the tasting was whether his food was ho-chiak or bo ho-chiak, delicious or not. And ah! his food had given us two hours of pure bliss and joy.
Extremely fresh sashimi: salmon belly; ikura roe with a dash of yuzu; otoro tuna belly; hirame (flounder); amaebi (sweet shrimp); akagai (arc shell)
The restaurant uses seasonal ingredients and seafood airflown directly from Tsukiji Market twice a week. (TIP: Always eat at Japanese restaurants on Tuesdays and Fridays for freshest seafood.) The restaurant caters to a wide range of prices from bento sets starting from $28+ and 8-course set lunch ($42+) to 7-course kaiseki meals ($85+) and omakase ($138+ onwards). We had kappo ryori, which is omakase from a wide range of Japanese gastronomy.
Seasonal: Katsuo (more commonly known as bonito)
Every dish was a delight and also a surprise. For example, the starter’s salmon mentai came in a shell and when we dug in further, past the intensely and beautifully smoky surface, we arrived at flakes of moist flounder–a tasty combination of two different flavors of fish. Even the sashimi ($110 for two persons) had a surprise. The least eyecatching ikura was drizzled with yuzu, giving it a limey foretaste before bursting into bubbles of joy. My eating companion couldn’t get enough of it.
A must-order was late President Ong Teng Cheong’s must-order. He ordered the fukahire chawanmushi ($28) every time. It was topped with yuzu zest, mushrooms, bits of crabmeat, fizz of ikura and sharks’ fin. The steamed egg dissolved in the mouth but there were varying textures from the ingredients, making a traditional and boring dish exciting. There was a fantastic smoky aftertaste–all good chawanmushi have this aftertaste–and something more, something magical. Not to mention very good value.
Another must-order was the seabass cheeks fried in truffle oil, speckled with kombu (seaweed). When we were eating this dish, we stopped talking. We were in the zone, in the moment of enjoying the fish so much, moist inside, crispy outside, that we didn’t want to talk.
If you have to pick between the sashimi and the sushi (12 pcs of maki, 16 sushi $110+ for two), go for the sushi. The searing of kajiki (swordfish) sushi teased out the intense fattiness–so delicious! The other sushi that we loved was the unique maguro (tuna) sushi, marinated with soy sauce and a hint of ginger. According to Li-san, this method has been done for 1, 200 years. It tasted a little like xiao long bao!
From the beginning to the end, the meal was a masterpiece, a symphony. Even the homemade sesame ice cream with bits of sesame was perfect, not too sweet. I’m going to undersell this restaurant: This is one of the best meals I have in 2013.
Rating: 4.112/5 stars
ps: Thank you, Jolene and Li-san, for the tasting.
Written by A. Nathanael Ho.