With his new Japanese joint in cosy hipster enclave Sai Ying Pun, Beijing stalwart Max Levy introduces Hong Kongers to the seafood sourcing equivalent of the farm to table movement. Let’s call it ‘ocean to table’. Okra is a sake bar with an a la carte menu focused on everything seafood. From the custom Kumamoto ceramic clay plate-ware (they are fired like porcelain), to the carefully curated craft sake menu (all are unpasteurized and unfiltered, unlike commercial sake) to the sparse yet cosy decor, and the attentive service, no detail has been left to chance. And that seems to be just how Levy likes it: as a restauranteur, he is conscientious to a fault.
In our many years of experience as shameless gastronomic gluttons, very rarely has a chef managed to wow us to such an extent on the subject, and provenance, of ingredients. Not since we were first introduced to the world of fine dining had we tried so many hitherto unknown foods. We were treated to the ne plus ultra of fish and seafood. We had the good fortune of sitting at the bar, directly in front of Levy and his sous-chef Daniel, and the meal unfolded into a domino-effect dinner of discovery, each bite made all the better for its quality AND the story behind it. Obsessive food nerds that we are, we were completely won over.
We started our meal with Spanish warm water wild-caught bright red Carabinero prawns (a deep sea species that hails from the Mediterranean and is highly coveted in the culinary world) in a smoked fish dashi infused with smoked buddha’s hand (a type of Asian citrus fruit) and shiso.
Next came smoked anchovies under a creamy layer of uni from Hokkaido topped with finely sliced yuba skin (tofu) and more smoked buddha’s hand and shiso. If we were pressed for any critiques at all, it would be that the latter was perhaps overused throughout our meal- a great many of the dishes we tasted featured this addition.
Okra’s menu is heavy on smoked dishes, all done in-house using their trusty Josper natural hardwood charcoal smoker. This specialty piece of chef equipment from Barcelona combines an oven and a grill, allowing for smoking, searing and grilling to happen simultaneously, the result of which is an exquisite concentration of flavours.
What followed was a Sicilian seaweed medley and daikon dashi jelly atop lightly cured Japanese anchovies from Kyushu, this was our first time tasting these absolutely stunning fish with their dark blue center stripes and they were delectable- quite different than their Mediterranean counterpart. Then, a clever ‘sea’ take on fried chicken: mature yellowtail coated in a crisp pepper layer on a bed of crushed daikon in a ponzu and chilli sauce- an unexpected twist that was totally scrumptious.
We also tried the roasted monkfish liver with uzu zest on purple sweet potato slices in bubbling yellow chicken broth and the dry-aged baby tuna in a fried panko crust served with ume plum ketchup.
The sashimi tasting was a gorgeous selection of chu toro (tuna shoulder), aged blackfin tuna cheek (almost like Wagyu), Japanese rockfish, seki saba (famously known as the Moet of mackerel) and sweet shrimp- every piece was cut to perfection and as fresh as can be.
Also on the menu: steamed tongue sole in magnolia leaves accompanied by diced water chestnuts flavoured with salted lime zest; kanzuri (Japanese fermented chilli paste) pastrami and honey miso foie gras with housemade shiso black sesame unagi (eel).
The meal’s piece de resistance was the grilled ebisu-tai fish head (Japanese sea bream, known as the king of fish) served alongside vegetables cooked with Huizhou bacon (a specialty from China that involves 5 days of smoking and one year of curing), pork blood sausage with crisped rice and smoked anchovy salt. A porcine & poisson tour de force!
We concluded our evening with a dessert of smoked banana ‘custard’ and Okra’s version of a highball: Suntory whisky with Buddha’s hand and shiso, a clever take on the usual minty/citrus cocktails that grace most drinks menus. We enjoyed a delightful variety of sakes throughout, including our favourite, a smooth and slightly effervescent aged Junmai Koshu sake.
Levy’s passion for his ingredients is second to none. This is a man who can talk at length about the difference between a fish swimming upstream versus downstream or the superiority of one island coast over another when sourcing a species of fish, and their effect on taste and texture. His ability to tantalize your tastebuds with his fresh, modern take on Japanese cuisine and its love affair with seafood is impressive. Levy is surely one to watch.
Okra Bar, 110 Queen’s Road West, Sai Ying Pun. Open for dinner & drinks from 6pm onwards. No reservations. For more info, email firstname.lastname@example.org
All images courtesy of Green Queen.