April 13, 2008

Island flavors

Part One

(Hama, where Mongkok used to be.)

WITH the summer vacation officially on, no doubt Boracay Island will be one of the favorite destinations.

On a recent visit, the gang stumbled on two new restaurants that are sure to excite the palates of this season’s crop of bakasyonistas.

First off, Hama is the latest venture owned by business partners Juan Elizalde and Paolo Occhionero, both of Aria and Café de Sol fame. With wunderkind chef Robby Goco and partner Raymond Palmez as consultants, the restaurant also relies on a veteran, chef Jimmy Cuenca, who has trained under the most demanding chefs in various prefectures in Japan.

Fresh ingredients, sauces from scratch

Hama was a surprise. Before we even knew that Goco had an inspiring hand in the creation of its menu, the restaurant already wowed us with its distinctly savory dishes, reasonable prices and generous servings. Part of the secret must be the top quality and freshness of most of its main ingredients, such as the seafood and vegetables, and high-grade meats such as the steaks. No doubt it can rival the best Japanese restaurants in Manila.

So we had really fat shrimps coated in the thinnest of batter, which gave a perfect crisp and volume to the ebi tempura. The salmon sashimi was a bright orange and of the fleshiest cuts. The Wagyu Strip Steak was perfectly tender and juicy. (I only objected to the sweet heavy sauce—made from Italian vinegar and teriyaki sauce—which smothered the meat. I suggested to chef Jimmy that the sauce be served on the side next time. Another friend suggested to Goco that maybe the diner should be asked how he wanted his steak done, as he had received his steak too well-done.)

(Salmon 3-way Salad...succulent, refreshing, crispy.)

Another noteworthy aspect in the creation of each dish is that most of the sauces or dressings are made from scratch. Nothing comes from a bottle except the oil and basic condiments of soy sauce and vinegar. So expect that the mayonnaise it uses, for example, won’t be your garden variety kewpie in the clear plastic-squeeze bottle that most restaurants, even the high-end ones in Manila, uses, but actually homemade with egg yolks, salad oil, rice vinegar and salt.

“I would describe Hama’s food as a combination of authentic Japanese cuisine and some original dishes with a unique, modern twist,” said Elizalde in an interview with the BusinessMirror. “It should not be mistaken as a ‘fusion’ restaurant, however, as we still use the basic ingredients found in authentic Japanese cuisine even for our original dishes. The Hama menu is designed for everybody who loves Japanese cuisine and should appeal to a broad range of customers with its varied menu selection. To be honest, all the dishes on the menu are truly delicious, and I’m very pleased with their outcome.”

(Love those mochis!)

We were, too. One of my favorites was the Salmon Three-Ways Salad, which was an interesting combination of succulence (from the salmon meat), crunch (from the crispy skin) and saltiness (from the salmon roe). It was obviously another creation from the mischievous mind of Goco, who strives to impart umami (the elusive fifth taste) in the dishes he creates, be they Japanese, Greek, or Mexican. (Goco is also the brains behind Cyma and, in another lifetime, Tequila Joe’s.)

Of the versatile Goco and his team, Elizalde said, “Jimmy is a very knowledgeable chef in authentic Japanese cuisine due to his extensive work experience abroad and locally for Japanese expats. When Robby and Raymond were developing the Hama menu, they tapped Jimmy’s experience in creating many of the authentic Japanese dishes, but also combined their talents together to create new dishes with a slightly modern approach. This is why our Hama menu has an interesting mix of both authentic Japanese dishes and those with a unique and modern twist.”

(Chef Robby Goco is pleased with his Hama meal.)

Unfortunately, Elizalde doesn’t have any plans of putting up a branch in the metropolis. “At this point, the restaurant is still too new to make plans to expand Hama outside of Boracay, but the intention is there.” Now, that is certainly something to hope for.

***Hama is located at Phase 2, D’Mall, Station 2, barangay Balabag, Boracay Island. Call (036) 288-5978. The restaurant also accepts take-out orders.

(This story appeared in BusinessMirror, April 11, 2008. Next week, my take on Courtyard Bistro.)

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