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Stepping into Unkai’s sleek, dimly lit interiors on the third floor of the Sheraton Hotel is akin to walking through a magical portal that instantly transports you to Japan. The restaurant deliniates its three distinct concepts through design – the private rooms are set in contemporary neutral-toned furnishings to enjoy exquisite kaiseki meals in intimate surroundings. Meanwhile, the minimal sushi bar is clad in light, natural oak, where one can savour an omakase menu prepared by one of the sushi chefs on hand or order sashimi, rolls and sushi a la carte. We pull up two comfortable seats in front of the tepanyaki station at the centre of the restaurant, which is staged in dark, handsome hardwoods with spotlights cast on our aptly skilled chef expertly prepares our multi-course meal on the gleaming stainless steel grill.
When it comes to a comprehensive menu of Japanese favourites, Unkai certainly wins in terms of the sheer breadth of choices available. We’re overwhelmed by the selection, not to mention the multitude of courses for each of the tasting menus surrounding the kaiseki, omakase or tepanyaki themes. When making a reservation, you’re asked to preselect your preference ahead of time because what you order dictates where you sit (if you’re keen on omakase sushi, you’ll need to be by the sushi bar). As we were sat in the tepanyaki area, we shared their Seasonal Kaiseki tasting menu ($1,350) and Akasaka Tepanyaki set dinner ($1,150), which turned out to be a finely timed and orchestrated meal for two – if you have three hours to spare that is, as each set menu has 10 courses. We were taken on a whirlwind journey of flavours – first with a trio of dainty appetizers beautifully presented from the kaiseki menu, to a forgettable miso soup and salad duo that came with the teppanyaki set. Both dinner sets also had a sashimi course, and we were particularly taken aback by the kaiseki dinner’s selection of fish, particularly the delicate pieces of hamachi that didn’t exude the slightest briny taste, but instead was fresh and mildly sweet in flavour – not requiring a single drop of soy sauce or wasabi. Other memorable moments from the kaiseki meal were the soft, fleshy hunks of braised kagoshima wagyu beef with turnips soaked in the sweet soy base, for a heartier note to our meal. Contrasting with the meat and grilled seafood course was a vinegar-based pickled eel and cucumber course, which uplifted our palates towards the end of the memorable meal. While our teppanyaki dishes were on a whole positive – especially the tender morsels of perfectly cooked medium rare USDA prime beef and grilled green lobster – our chef missed one course from the set: the Tasmanian abalone. We only noticed upon reviewing the menu whilst writing this review.
Similar to the restaurant’s menu, the wine and alcohol list is an encyclopedic tome that covers varieties from around the world with options available by the glass, as well as small- and full-sized bottles of sake that run the gamut of price categories. With the help of the sake sommelier on hand, we chose a small bottle of mildly fruity Dassai 50 Junmai Daiginjo over its drier counterparts and were happy to find that it paired well with both the more delicate seafood dishes, yet still stood up to our savoury grilled meats. We couldn’t help but also request a taste test of the Manotsuru Junmai Ginjo, simply because our curiosity was piqued by its description as having a “mild silky taste like snowfall” – but we’d recommend sticking to our initial choice. We were also impressed by the sake presentation – we were asked to select a glass design, and then our small bottle of sake was poured into a transparent glass sake pot with a separate compartment for ice to keep it cool without diluting our drink throughout the course of the meal.
Our dedicated server was confident in his knowledge of both drink (being a certified sake sommelier) and food, introducing every dish from its ingredients to cooking method with finesse. There was a lull in service somewhere between our umpteenth course, but the server was quick to check in on us and chat during our much-appreciated repos between courses. One hiccup was that we missed one course from our tepanyaki set dinner – the Tasmanian abalone – which might’ve been a highlight. But after such an extensive tasting experience, we only missed it in hindsight when reviewing the menu.
The total bill including two set dinners, sake, plus tip and a $3 charitable donation to Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation came in at over $3,000. For a 10-course dinner that offers a bounty of fresh seafood and quality cuts of meat, we found the value of the restaurant to be at par with other similar Japanese establishments in town. The hotel-level service and knowledgeable staff, even in spite of the error, made the difference.