Header image courtesy of Yu-en
Situated on the narrow incline that cuts through First, Second, Third, and High Streets in Sai Ying Pun, Yu-en is hidden behind shōji doors (障子; papered screens) that tantalise with soft light beams, hinting at the bustle within. Specialising in aged sushi, Yu-en is an omakase restaurant like no other—the first of its kind, in fact.
Chef-owner Takeshi Tong has worked behind the sushi counter for more than two decades, and has honed his craft in Sendai, Japan, as well as in Bern, Switzerland, before settling in his hometown of Hong Kong to open his own concept. Here are some highlights of our meal at this exciting new restaurant, which might just tickle your fancy and tingle your taste buds.
The space is clad in blonde wood, with just ten counter seats along the wrap-around sushi bar. The counter table is made from an exquisite block of Japanese cypress heartwood, sourced from the Nara prefecture. This high-quality timber is usually reserved for palaces, temples, and shrines, touted for their antibacterial properties, moisture resistance, and clean fragrance—a soft, warm, and mildly citrusy scent that permeates the space with an undercurrent of calm.
To the right of the entrance stands the dry-ager, with glass doors that allow diners to look upon the slabs of wild tuna slowly cultivating more flavours. At first glance, one might even mistake the deep burgundy and marbled pink to be of the bovine variety.
The menu is simple, with just one option: the omakase course. At $2,000 per person, the dining experience consists of sampling cuts of fish that have been aged at varying degrees, ranging from maguro (tuna), sayori (needlefish), kawahagi (filefish), and other seasonal varieties. The full menu includes appetisers, tsumami (つまみ; drinking snacks), around ten pieces of sushi, several cooked dishes, and seasonal fruit to finish.
The sushi rice is made with akazu (red vinegar), which lends a smoother and more delicate flavour than the customary white vinegar. Served slightly above body temperature, the warm rice is designed to complement and highlight the complex flavours of the aged fish. The wasabi is grated fresh tableside, which makes for a finer paste with a creamier texture, as well as a more delicate flavour. You can pair your meal with sake—take your pick from the array of cups handpicked in Japan by the owner throughout the years.
We started with the 12-day-aged mikandai, which is sea bream from Ehime that has been fed with mandarin orange peel—the main export for the Ehime prefecture. Their unique diet gives their flesh a subtle citrus flavour that makes for an excellent appetiser, and the slight ageing process intensifies the sweetness of the white fish.
Next we had buri, aged slightly longer for 22 days. Also known as yellowtail or Japanese amberjack, this firm and fatty fish hails from the frigid waters of Hokkaido. After ageing, the buri develops an intense nutty and buttery flavour that is best enjoyed with a simple dash of soy sauce.
Tuna, in its various iterations, cannot be excluded from any sushi meal. As we come around to the jewel of the crown, we ask Chef Takeshi about his two-step ageing process, which is used specifically for the maguro. The tuna is first freezing-point aged at -0.8 degrees Celsius to tenderise the tougher parts, then dry aged to lower the water content and concentrate the flavours. The fats within the fish will take on a sweet and nutty flavour, with an intense umami aftertaste. The dry ager also has a built-in UVC system that is able to maintain a sterile environment for the fish as it ages for months on end, so the finished product is as fresh and ready to eat as when it was first put in.
We first sample the otoro, the rich belly cut of the tuna, which has been aged for 52 days. This was a delightful mouthful of richness that does not overwhelm, delightfully tender and with notes of vanilla. Served next was the Chutoro—the second fattiest part of the tuna—which was first marinated in soy sauce and then aged for 52 days. The flavours of the soy sauce had completely seeped into the fish—the darker edges chart the delicious journey through the sinews and later on, the dance on our tongues. At once savoury, umami, and sweet, this was a chapter on its own.
The next course is a divisive one—some love it, some grimace at the sight of it. Ankimo (monkfish liver) is a delicacy also known as foie gras of the sea. The fresh liver is first soaked in cold water, during which all the blood vessels are removed, then slow-cooked in sake and homemade dashi (だし; stock). Served warm, each bite is gloriously creamy, but still light and tender.
The meal ends with a steaming bowl of Inaniwa udon in fish stock, made from the bones of all the fish served in the restaurant. The result is an intensely rich cream-coloured broth that warms the stomach, finely paired with silky udon. We’re not sure what transpired, but when we came to all our bowls were clean and we’re left with a sense of ennui.
Yu-en dishes up something new for patrons, which is no mean feat for a city that is stuffed to the gills with restaurants of all kinds. Omakase is nothing new, but omakase at Yu-en is able to bring surprises to the table. The sushi has great flavour, with more complexity than your usual Japanese meal. Cooked dishes are equally superb, and round off your experience nicely. The simple but convivial setting makes for a great date night spot or occasion meal, where you can enjoy your meal with a side of lively conversation. With only a handful of seats, this intimate joint is sure to be booked out for weeks in advance, so get your spot as soon as you can!