Taste is of the essence when choosing Chinese in Ginza


Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on March 2009

Courtesy of Higankaku

Courtesy of Higankaku

Sally Albright could learn a thing or two from us. Meg Ryan’s character in the 1986 film When Harry Met Sally made it acceptable for diners to order half their meal “on the side.” But during a recent dinner at Higankaku in Ginza, our companion turned fussy eating—or “health and ethics,” as she calls it—into an art.

The chef must have rued the moment the restaurant’s PR manager emailed us to check for any dietary needs. “Here’s what I don’t eat,” replied Mrs. Vega. “Pork products of any kind (ham, bacon included), or lamb, or beef. I do eat chicken (not feet, etc.) and eggs. No unethical foods, such as shark’s fin or tuna. Other fish, prawns, scallops and lobster OK.

“Sorry!” she added sheepishly.

Higankaku is owned by a Japanese-Chinese couple who also have a dim-sum factory in Ikebukuro. Their handmade dumplings and condiments are used by some of Tokyo’s best Chinese restaurants, and Higankaku is a showcase for their products, including mango juice (¥1,050) and 10-year aged shokoshu rice wine (¥8,400).

It’s also a labor of love, the decor chosen personally by the owners. And love, as they say, knows many colors: gold-spotted fabrics, an emerald carpet, vivid Meissen ceramics, sparkly stone walls and glass partitions etched with swans. It feels like a theme bar, Shanghai ’85.

(The Meissens are quite a draw, apparently. During our visit, some diners even posed for a group photo in front of one particularly unforgettable piece.)

But if the interior wasn’t to everyone’s tastes, the food was. The service from the delightful English-speaking “concierge” was also superlative, and the entire restaurant is smoke free.

Course menus at Higankaku start at ¥10,500 and go as high as ¥50,000. Mains range from approximately ¥3,000 for items such as braised barbecued Satsuma pork with fried tofu to ¥39,000 for abalone steak.

Our eight-course press meal started with a smorgasbord of nine appetizers. They included pickled mushroom, tofu noodles, Chinese yuba and 1,000-year-old egg, all as colorful as the ceramics and much more palatable.
From then on, the eight-course menu diverged to accommodate our respective dietary requirements. (For the record, Mr. Vega, happily unhealthy and embarrassingly unethical, will try anything once.)

Courtesy of Higankaku

Courtesy of Higankaku

My standout was the succulent smoked duck with orange sauce, hers the scallops with asparagus. King shrimp in fruit salad with sweet mayonnaise was something we could enjoy together. Bacon and egg fried rice was so textured and juicy it resembled risotto. The house specialty, xiaolongbao dumplings, were filled with a rich soup that we sucked out before swallowing them whole.

By the time the tapioca and mango dessert arrived, even our own Sally Albright was satisfied, and very grateful to the chef for being so accommodating. And she retained grace and poise despite the unexpected presence of a juicy piece of foie gras—one of the least healthy, least ethical animal organs imaginable.

Meg Ryan, eat your heart out.