Fresh from Beijing, Max Levy’s Japanese-influenced restaurant lands in Sai Ying Pun.
Text by Tiffany Chan, photos by Cherry Li
*Featured in Crave’s May 2016 issue
Chef Max Levy is already hard at work behind the bar when we walk in at 6pm on a Tuesday (Daniel, his chef de cuisine, is off sick today, he says, but he’ll manage). A dozen stools are lined up at the bar, with several standing tables against the back. The room fills up quickly, and the music is so loud we can barely hear Levy speak.
“It’s a really, really good playlist,” he says over the booming soundtrack as he fillets fish with swift, meticulous strokes, tasting the end cut. A pan starts to sizzle and he turns his attention to his cooking. Soon a wonderful smell fills the room.
Levy opened Okra 1949 in Beijing in 2013, and has since been hailed as one of the city’s finest Japanese restaurants. Its Hong Kong branch soft-opened in February and is said to be more casual and intimate.
Why Hong Kong? “I’ve been in Beijing for 10 years. It was challenging, that’s why I stayed so long. You’re working against the government, against the environment, against the weather. The political situation between Japan and China years ago makes it hard to for us to get quality ingredients from Japan,” he says. “Hong Kong is a break from that, but a challenge in itself.”
The menu is divided into A-sides and B-sides – the first are small plates, the last “bigger and bolder” and an extensive sake list that will not disappoint. Levy’s inventive Japanese-influenced dishes display a fastidious level of attention to detail to quality, seasonal ingredients, especially seafood. The flavours are bold, although they can seem incoherent at first glance, such as barbecued eel with honey miso foie gras, or salty anchovies with sweet, briny uni. But to label his food simply as “Japanese” is to over-simplify it.
Originally from New Orleans, Levy is by no means the only American to have mastered the nuances of Japanese cuisine. He learned his craft at New York’s illustrious Sushi Yasuda, where he was the first non-Japanese chef. For Levy, Japanese is not so different from the Creole food he grew up with.
“Japanese food is one of the few cuisines outside New Orleans where they absorb other cultures and create their own thing. I was really attracted to that. The culture, the ingredients – rice, fish, soybeans for me, it wasn’t so different.”
Bafuni and Smoked Anchovies
Uni and anchovies are an unlikely combination and we were convinced the salty anchovies would overwhelm the sweetness of the uni. Levy uses bafun uni from Dalian, which is not as sweet as Japanese varieties, but is said to have more flavour. Eaten with smoked Valencian anchovies, the uni was not the star of the dish. Instead of filling the mouth with briny, creamy goodness, the uni imparted a subtle, profound flavour.
Carabinero Prawn Soup
Simple dishes can surprise with their apparently effortless deliciousness. Our favourite dish of the evening, Carabinero prawn comes halved and raw with a pouring of warm dashi that poaches it ever so slightly. We loved the lightly cooked robust prawn and found the dashi delicious: smoky and stronger than most we’ve tried, with shiso and smoked, salted Buddhist hand. Ideally, we would have preferred the broth to be hotter, but that would change the prawn completely.
A round of silver-striped herring or kibinago is topped with a heaping twirl of kombu and wakame seaweed from northern Sicily studded with dashi jelly jewels. The herring is oily, sweet and slightly shy, complemented by mildly salty dashi jelly and seaweed. While simple, the dish is an amalgamation of textures – crunchy fish, slimy seaweed, soft jelly – and holistic flavours that feels like eating the ocean.
Unakyu Foie Gras
Another unlikely combination, Josper-grilled barbecue unagi is paired with duck foie gras, steamed in honeyed miso. Seated steps away from the kitchen, we watched with anticipation as the eel cooked on the grill. It fell apart in the mouth, beautifully tender and oozing with caramelised sweetness. The dense, creamy foie gras brings softness to the dish, but its natural richness was slightly overwhelmed by the eel. A side of rolled cucumber slices nicely cut through the richness.
Dry-Aged Baby Tuna
Levy dry-ages baby tuna loins in a freezer for three to seven days, depending on the thickness of the fish, wraps it in shiso and then lightly fries it. Served with a pinch of ume (salted plum), salt and a brush of ume ketchup, the tuna is tender, if slightly dry. For us, it lacked the satisfaction of fried meat, but we enjoyed it with the salty, sour ume ketchup, a condiment as clever as it is necessary.
Okra Hong Kong
110 Queen’s Road West, Sai Ying Pun
Tel: 2806 1038