Haku is a new culinary concept that sees two master chefs from very different backgrounds coming together to form a greater whole. The two men in question are Hideaki Matsuo – of the three Michelin-starred Kashiwaya and a Relais & Chateaux grand chef from Japan – and Agustin Balbi, a 30-year-old Argentinian who was voted ‘Best New Chef of 2016’ by Hong Kong Tatler.
Opened in July, 2017, Haku was also included in Tatler‘s ‘Top New Openings’ of that same year and earned a place in the magazine’s ‘Top 20 Best Restaurants in Hong Kong’ listing.
Haku is the first word of the Japanese phrase “hakurai hin” which literally translates as “things from abroad” and which perfectly sums up the two chefs’ intentions to provide a restaurant with a Japanese heart that is open to influences from around the world.
Where is it?
Haku is situated on the ground floor of the Ocean Terminal in Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsui. If you’re going on foot then the most pleasant way to get there is on the Star Ferry. When you exit, head to your left and into the Ocean Terminal building on the ground floor. Haku is ahead and to your right as you enter the building.
The closest MTR station is Tsim Sha Tsui. From there, head south on Nathan Road then turn right onto Salisbury Road. At the end of this road you’ll see the Ocean Terminal building on your right.
Entering Haku through a black curtain embossed with the strikingly simply logo of a white triangle, your eyes need to adjust to the darkness in the short walkway that leads to the restaurant itself. It’s effectively a walkway between two worlds and the contrast between the bustling, noisy crowds in the Ocean Terminal shopping mall and the peace, quiet, and tranquility of Haku is marked.
Once you’ve made this transition, you have three seating options: you can either sit on one of the 12 low stools directly in front of the open kitchen and food preparation area and watch a bit of culinary theatre (most popular option – book ahead), opt for a table in the much darker and more relaxed side of the restaurant (which sits 22), or hire the private dining room which caters for up to eight people.
If there is a criticism of Haku, it’s the location. A shopping mall doesn’t really add to the romance or match the elegance of the food on offer. And having to leave the restaurant to use the public toilets in the mall, should you be caught short, also feels a little bit odd.
Sometimes it feels wrong to eat food. Sometimes food is so meticulously, delicately, and lovingly prepared that to then actually consume it feels like eating art. To watch executive chef Agustin Balbi at work is to watch a master at the top of his game, and his creations are so aesthetically pleasing that they really could be displayed as works of art.
But hunger will always prevail, and so it’s fortunate that Balbi’s food tastes as good as it looks. As he serves the first of the eight delicate dishes on the taster menu (HK$1,380 plus 10% per person – drinks are extra) he explains how an Argentinian boy ended up becoming one of Japan’s top ten young chefs in 2015 – and the only foreigner on the list. “Like most Argentinian boys I wanted to be a football player but my mother didn’t exactly encourage me in this!” he laughs. “I was bored one weekend when I was about 14 years old so I went to a restaurant and got a job. I was really surprised to find the same kind of teamwork in a kitchen that you get in a football team. Everybody has their own position yet everybody works together towards the same goal. The adrenaline rush is the same too when things get busy! I liked it so much I decided to study cooking when I left high school.”
After working in the US, Balbi then trained in Japan under the country’s best masters so it’s fair to say he knows a thing or two about Japanese food. The menu created by Balbi and Matsuo-San is an innovative and eclectic take on Japanese Kappo cuisine – traditional Japanese ceremonial dishes. Balbi uses seasonal Japanese ingredients (which are flown in daily on chef Matsuo’s recommendations) and cooking methods, but also employs a mix of modern European techniques and even Argentinian techniques in their preparation – a methodology inspired by the cultural melting pot that is Hong Kong.
The taster menu take you on a culinary tour of Japan; king crab from the north west of the island, working right down to tomatoes grown in the south (the pear, yoghurt foam, and granita dessert that ends the culinary tour is served in a scooped-out tomato which, as Balbi points out, is a fruit after all).
The opening dish is sashimi. That’s because it’s considered the finest dish in Japanese formal dining and must be eaten before any strong flavours so that your pallet can appreciate the purity of each delicate ingredient. Do not expect the usual soy sauce, pickled ginger, and wasabi paste here though – chef Balbi flavours each piece individually so there’s simply no need for the traditional accompaniments.
Instead, you can concentrate on opening whichever of the eight covered bowls (presented in a very pretty wooden tray complete with pebbles) in front of you to see what treasures lie inside – like an Easter egg hunt with fish.
The Hon Maguro tuna, Kristal caviar, and Polmard beef combination is a work of wonder and another example of the astonishing detail that goes into every Haku creation. Contrary to what most people might assume, the tuna which is flown in every day, or every second day, from Japan is not consumed immediately for maximum freshness. ‘We let it sit for a few days to age – a process which increases the umami flavour of the fish’ Balbi explains.
The dish is also a prefect example of the way Balbi has brought international flavours to bear on traditional Japanese cuisine. While the tuna is from Japan, the Polmard beef (the most expensive cut of meat in the world) and the Kaviar are both sourced from France. And to top off this dish fit for an emperor, is a sprinkling of edible gold flakes. Once again, it feels like a crime to eat such a creation – like waking into the Louvre and taking a bite-sized chunk out of the Mona Lisa.
Each dish on the menu has its own story to tell and with the Hokkaido king crab and Koshihikari rice it’s a personal one, inspired by a comfort dish cooked by chef Balbi’s grandmother, Lola, back in Argentina.
“Food” and “comfort” are words that are inextricably linked for Balbi. “I work with memories because all food is about memories” he explains. “When you smell certain foods you remember a place or a time or a person. Ultimately, it’s not about the technique, it’s not about the ingredients, it’s about the feeling – good food should feel like a big hug.”
Agustin Balbi is a big bear of a man. He hugs well. You’ll still feel the embrace of his food long after you’ve left the serene and peaceful space that is Haku – surely one of Hong Kong’s finest restaurants.
There are more than 60 wines on offer, ranging from sparkling, full-bodied white wines to silky-smooth reds, each selected to perfectly compliment chef Balbi’s exotic creations. You can also choose from ten different brands of sake.
A super light, delicate and fragrant Josmeyer, Alsace ‘Fleur de Lotus (2014) proved the ideal accompaniment for the the sashimi dishes while Haku’s own-branded house red was every bit as good a pairing for the more robust flavour of the smoked duck (female of course – they taste better), celeriac and olive dish.
Discretion is key at Haku. The staff are quietly spoken and unfailingly polite and the CIA-style earpieces are a clue to the slick communications taking place between chefs and sommeliers. You may even spot some of the waiters sporting a single silk glove, Michael Jackson-style, on the hand that delivers your plates. It’s a small venue so attracting attention is easy and, if you choose to sit in front of the food preparation area, you can simply ask for anything you require or quiz the chefs about the food they’re preparing. If you’re really lucky, you may even persuade chef Balbi to part with some of his gastronomic secrets.
You can’t really lose when you’re in the hands of a chef as highly-rated as Agustin Balbi who is, in turn, under the guidance of master chef Hideaki Matsuo. The quality of the food is a given, but the real delight of Haku is in the originality of the menu and the sheer creativity behind each dish. Adding to the experience is the theatricality of the food preparation which provides a talking point and another level of entertainment on a night out. You may think you know your Japanese food but unless you’ve eaten at Haku, you don’t know the exciting new direction it’s being taken in by the unlikely combination of a Japanese culinary sorcerer and his young Argentinian apprentice.
Words: Stuart Barker
Opening hours: Daily: 12pm-2.30pm and 6pm-10pm