Sukiyaki, Japan's version of hotpot, is a seasonal offer at one of Beijing's coziest and most authentic outposts of Japanese cuisine.
Being the only diners in a restaurant with attentive staff made us nervous and curious. We began to wonder: Is this the place that boasts having amazing Japanese cuisine for common people's wallets?
It turned out we were too fretful. In less than an hour, the restaurant was overflowing with customers. We had arrived too early.
Seafood Sukiyaki at Hagaki ... enough to feed up to three or four people. Provided to China Daily
Named after the Japanese word for postcards, the restaurant Hagaki has a cozy atmosphere with wooden walls painted with Japanese art and postmarks, just as intimate as postcards from close friends.
One of the highlights of the menu here is the seafood sukiyaki.
Sukiyaki is a popular Japanese style hotpot dish. The word suki means to "slice thinly", while yaki means to grill or saute in Japanese. Originally, sukiyaki's main ingredient was thinly sliced beef, which is to be simmered in soy sauce-based soup in a hot skillet.
The seafood sukiyaki at Hagaki has a lot more variations. The broth is really rich, and good choice for a warm-up in the winter. Cooked chicken is in it, ready to eat or to be dropped into the broth with seafood and vegetables. The chicken, as a base ingredient, is tangy and tasty, as it has been marinated before cooking for 20 minutes with onion and ginger, soybean sauce, shichimi, sake and mirin, says Wang Zhanguo, Hagaki sous chef.
The seafood sukiyaki platter is a generous array of seafood including salmon fish head, lobster and shellfish. It is also filled with mixed vegetables, including Chinese cabbage and a variety of mushrooms.
What we liked most in the sukiyaki is the salmon fish head, which is first bathed in sake and then blanched with hot water to remove its fishy smell. So the fish head doesn't need to be cooked for a long time: It can even be eaten half-raw, or be scalded in the boiling broth for a few seconds; then the tender texture of the skin, the cheek, and the wealth of collagen in the head will surely ignite your taste buds.
Dipping sauce for the seafood sukiyaki is blended with mizkan, lemon, and chili paste - another fusion of Japanese and Korean flavors.
The seafood sukiyaki, available until the end of March, is 338 yuan plus 15 percent service charge, but it's enough to feed up to three to four people.
Hagaki also boasts a lively sushi bar, where diners see how their food is made and enjoy the process with the chefs. But since we'd come for sukiyaki as well, we chose to sit at a table rather than the sushi counter to have more space.
The prawn and vegetable tempura (68 yuan) at Hagaki is one of the best I've tasted. It was crispy, light, and not greasy, even after we had let the last pieces get cold. The sauce for the tempura was just right, neither too sweet nor too salty.
Beautifully presented, the salmon and scallop sashimi is sliced thick and meaty, and the result is pleasingly fresh and tender. Shrimp sashimi is so fresh that it takes on a very sweet texture. Ginger slices, displayed into a flower-like shape, help balance the cool effect in your body as you eat up more raw meat.
The sushi at Hagaki gets very innovative, and it's no surprise to learn that the kitchen staff here was originally trained by Max Levy, who brought sushi skills he'd honed in New York and Japan to Hagaki's parent company, Swire Properties, several years ago when he was executive chef at Opposite House.
Some food historians say the California roll was invented in the late 1970s in California, where local sushi chefs used avocado as a substitute for raw fish in sushi. They felt the avocado was well-known to Californians and also provided the same mouthfeel of the luscious, oily raw fish in the Japanese cuisine.
Hagaki is located near Wangjing, a hub of the Korean community in Beijing, and so we encountered another local adaptation. We were served a fusion of sushi devised by the restaurant chefs: the Wangjing roll, which is made of marinated tuna with Korean chili sauce and kimchi, topped with tuna and tobiko. It is an interesting combination, a bit spicy, finishing really fresh in the mouth.
The relaxed ambiance at Hagaki is accented by welcoming staff. The server for our table was very attentive even though the restaurant was packed with other dinners. Our rice tea and seafood sukiyaki broth were both refilled regularly throughout the meal.
If you are not a fan of seafood, consider a great All-You-Can-Eat promotion called Cook to Order at Hagaki, available every Saturday and Sunday all day. Paying only 238 yuan with 15 percent service charge per person, you could order as much as you like.
And if you don't feel like sitting down, and prefer take-away, it can also be fast and fun, with bento boxes on offer.
Besides its higher-end mains and sashimi, Hakagi offers an extensive selection of small plates, rice, noodles, salad, nigiri, hand rolls, classic maki, and desserts. For example, fried udon with sauteed vegetables and pork (35 yuan) can be a good choice for a fast lunch on workdays.
From left: Sashimi plate at Hagaki; eel maki roll at Hagaki; the dining area at Hagaki - the relaxed ambiance at the restaurant is ascented by welcoming staff. Photos provided to China Daily