Wed, 15 Mar 2000

Newly opened Honzen allures with pricey Japanese cuisine

Honzen is the newly opened upmarket Japanese restaurant right in the middle of the central business district on Jl. Sudirman. It is located on the lower ground floor of the Kempinski Hotel, directly opposite the hallway from the Umenadori.

The noreng, a four-paneled cotton cloth with the restaurant's name elegantly written in Japanese characters, hangs at the entrance to the restaurant. As we pushed aside the noreng to enter, we were conveyed into another domain. Japan. Kimono-ed staff moved around gracefully attending to the needs of the guests. They greeted us in Japanese and with a bow.

Immediately at the entrance on the right, is a large marble slab on a pedestal, like a rostrum. This reception area is very rustic, with artificial trees and sand. If not for the couple of phone sets on the rostrum, we might have thought we were in ancient Japan.

The setting before us was quite enchanting. The designers successfully created a traditional Japanese tearoom, with unplastered mud walls with wooden wall panels and simple wooden furniture. The sushi bar on the right was separated from the main dining area by glass blocks. Inside the lighted blocks were sheaves of rice stalks.

On the left was a splendid tatami room, which opened on three sides. On the far side, the door opened onto a garden of sand and artificial kicho plants. The other door opened into the tearoom, which consists of a couple of elegant rectangular tables with four chairs each. Beyond the tearoom were another three tatami rooms that seat four to 10 people.

We were ushered into a tatami room that had three tatamis, or seats, prepared. Normally, only cushions are used but these were seats with backs, but no legs. There was a well beneath the table so that we could put down our legs while sitting comfortably at ground level, instead of sitting on our knees as the Japanese customarily do.

Honzen specializes in sushi and sashimi, so we started lunch with an order of Futomaki (Rp 98,000 for eight substantial pieces) -- seafood and vegetables in vinegared rice and rolled in nori (seaweed) -- and California roll (Rp 80,000 for two rolls), consisting of crab, avocado and crunchy vegetables in vinegared rice and presented in a nori cone. The nori was very crisp and added bite and flavor to the rolls. There was free flow of O-cha (Japanese green tea).

The waitresses were attentive and helpful with an otherwise foreign menu. They knew their stuff and were able to explain clearly to us what some of the items were made of and how they were prepared.

Sushi was followed by miso siru, a full-bodied soup made from fermented soy paste, and steamed egg or chawanmusi. I missed the white tofu cubes I normally find in my miso soup but my disappointment was made up by itafu (dried soy bean) strips and lots of wakame (another kind of seaweed). The chawanmusi was perfect in consistency, wobbling as it should. It was enriched with bits of meat and seafood, slices of black mushroom and one ginkgo nut. The mituba leaf and two tiny strips of lemon peel added a zesty flavor to the rich appetizer.

Lunch sets are good value for money. Tekka Don, comprising raw tuna on vinegared rice, soup, egg pudding and cold buckwheat noodles, costs Rp 50,000 while Unagi Kabayaki -- eel in teriyaki sauce served with similar side dishes -- costs Rp 120,000.

For our main course we continued with sushi and sashimi. Sashimi Santen Mori (Rp 180,000) was an assortment of very fresh raw fish and seafood slices such as flounder, snapper, octopus, squid, prime tuna, salmon, mackerel, sea urchin and abalone, resting on beds of shredded radish. An interesting item on the plate was akame, which was to be mixed in the sauce dish with soy and wasabi to dip the sashimi in. It acts as a kind of mouth freshener.

Sushi Moriawase Jo (Rp 250,000) was an assortment of seafood similar to the sashimi except each slice was served on vinegared rice. I preferred the sushi to the sashimi as it was tempered by the roll of rice and a dash of wasabi. Both dishes were ample servings and more than we could eat.

For variety we ordered Unagi No Kabayaki which was fresh eel grilled with soy sauce. It was exquisite though a tad expensive at Rp 250,000.

For dessert we had to have maccha (Rp 18,000), or green tea ice cream, as it is found only in Japanese restaurants. It was delicately flavored and creamy enough without being overwhelming so. We also had wagashi (Rp 22,000) a delicious Japanese sweet made of red bean paste wrapped in a white glutinous covering.

What a memorable experience in Japanese cuisine! We were captivated by the impressive decor as well as the excellent food. Honzen is a place to celebrate a special occasion or entertain guests.

-- Epicurus