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Set amongst car repair shops and chi-chi cafés in rapidly gentrifying Tai Hang, Zanzo is at once conspicuous and unsurprising. Perched on a corner site on School Street, we envision that this self-billed contemporary izakaya will be a good bet on balmy spring and summer evenings, when the lattice-wood shutters are swung out and the neighbourhood’s trussed-up trend-followers prop up the windowsill bar tables. It’s not a large place but just enough to lay a few tables out for small groups, the U-shaped bar the centrepiece of a place where booze and nibbles plays its role, rather than a full meal. The music choices – a mix of dance tunes and light house – are a little cheesy, but it’s not difficult to hear your dining companions over the background noise.
A single sheet lists out a range of small plates, focusing on grilled skewers and creative bites, but make sure to ask the staff for the daily specials, which may include market-fresh cuttlefish (which we wish was served hotter) or juicy slabs of ox tongue. We wouldn’t recommend coming here expecting a full meal, as the focus is on drink and snacks to line the stomach; there are none of the usual fillers such as noodles or rice for those with a more voracious appetite. From the cold appetisers list we like the aji tataki (though our fish arrives pretty much as sashimi, rather than being lightly seared), mixed with ginger, spring onion, edible flower petals and Okinawan sea grapes. The flavoursome mouthfuls are served on fragrant shiso leaves and make a good start. Snapper sashimi, however, is overwhelmed by its tart ponzu dressing and spiced oroshi (grated radish) – we would have preferred to taste more of the fish’s natural sweetness. There are a few flashes of South American flair, as in the barbecued Australian wagyu salad with chimichurri dressing, or wasabi prawns with mango salsa. We wait an age for our order of “charcoal” vegetables, which are described to us as comprising a squid ink-infused tempura batter, and when it finally arrives we wonder if the chef had trouble delivering what was promised – the “tempura” batter is thin and barely discernable if not for the jet-black crust on the vibrant Japanese purple yams and yellow pumpkins, and the squid ink flavour is somewhat lost. There’s certainly ambition in the kitchen, and it shows most in a dessert of homemade hot silken tofu served with Okinawan black sugar syrup. Be forewarned though, as we waited the best part of half an hour for this dish to arrive – it isn’t indicated on the menu, but this dessert is actually made to order. For a quicker fix, the fragrant yuzu sorbet with (a single petal of) salted cherry blossom is smooth and tart.
The menu is small but well-curated, with care given to most areas of alcohol expected in an izakaya – the beer selection includes Hitachino Nest, Yebisu and Suntory along with the usual Kirin and Asahi, and there’s Sapporo on draught. Zanzo also features its own-brand sake sourced from Hokkaido’s Otaru brewery, and an enjoyable selection of Japanese shochu and fruit liqueurs. Naturally, the cocktail menu makes the most of these, with creations such as the Zanzito – a refreshing but not very alcoholic concoction – which comprises sake, mint, lime, and Ramune soda.
Zanzo has been open for over a month now, and the service varies between professional and green. There were a few long waits between dishes, and when we finished our cocktails halfway through the meal, the empty glasses remained on the table until we left, with no offer of a fresh drink to see us through. Although there can be improvements made, we can’t deny that they try hard to please.
A filling meal for two with a few drinks can add up, costing around HK$800 for two. For a beer and a quick bite, you can get out for less.