Sara: A Real Gem (9.0)

9.0 is an extremely high rating from me. But Sara deserves it. A review on the restaurant is long overdue, as we have been visiting this restaurant a dozen times since summer began. Sometimes I tend to leave out restaurants that become our canteen, not only so that we can keep the good place to ourselves, but also to avoid misjudgment and bias that could begin to develop when we forge emotional ties as a regular. After another great meal today, though, I thought I should finally write up about Sara’s greatness. The reader can decide whether the review is fair.

To be sure, Sara is not a glamorous and well-Instagrammed restaurant, but the dedication and diligence of its Head Chef Tomita Kohei as well as the kitchen’s professionalism cannot be overlooked. Even restaurants under big F&B groups have chatty and unfocused chefs behind the counter who gossip with one another, completely disregarding the customers that are sitting right before them. Everyone behind the counter here works assiduously. And the real test comes when a regular comes every week. Is the food consistent every single time? The answer is a solid yes.

Having worked in a number of reputable restaurants in Japan, Chef Tomita has sound skills running a restaurant and sourcing the freshest of ingredients. While food is nothing dazzling and meant to be more of the every day kind of washoku, there are surprises all over the menu, things you don’t often see elsewhere, like soft-shell turtle liver sashimi or even chicken thigh sashimi. There is a focus on food coming from Saga and Kyushu in general, although some fresh food and sashimi also get flown in from other regions. Our favorite is the Yobuko squid sashimi that gets served whole. We like it so much that we often have one each on top of set meals and other dishes. Then there is a grilled sesame tofu that is really one-of-a-kind and not spotted anywhere else. Saga kuroge wagyu beef and Saga’s Mitsuse chicken are also must-tries.

Seating is comfortable and service is friendly and accommodating. One can expect to spend $200-400/head for lunch and roughly $500-800/head for an extravagant dinner excluding drinks. SARA offers alcohol free flow at a fixed price (throughout the day) of $248/$298 depending on timing. The menu includes Japanese sake, whisky, beer, cocktail, umeshu and soft drinks.

Food Rundown

Yobuko Ika Sashimi, $348 each
This is the legendary Yobuko ika sashimi that we come back for every single time. It’s very fresh and the texture is the firm kind with a creamy and nutty flavor. It also has a melt-in-your-mouth sweetness. It almost tastes better than the ones that get sliced live in Fukuoka, and the price premium is just about a 20% markup here in Hong Kong. Highly recommended.

The rest of the squid gets chargilled or deep-fried at no extra cost. Still full of the flavors of freshness.

Japanese horse mackerel sashimi
We asked for the freshest sashimi of the day and this turned out perfectly. Smokey skin, a bit fatty, absolutely fresh.

Hokkaido oyster, $88 each
Plump and juicy with distinctively Japanese sweet-ish and mild flavors. Also very creamy. Recommended.

Fresh clams, grilled and cooked, $78 each
They were huge and meaty. Again, produce was fresh. That was all that mattered.

Sashimi set (lunch), $298
Kitchen was flexible with customer preferences and sashimi also comes out consistently fresh with no hiccups. Zero complaints here. I’d say it was just as good as $500-ish lunch sashimi sets at most omasake restaurants in the city.

Sashimi platter five kinds, $428
This is sashimi ordered à la carte. Again, excellent.

Charcoal-grilled Mitsuse Chicken Set (lunch), $168
Another favorite of ours. You really can taste the difference between Mitsuse chicken and your ordinary chicken in a typical restaurant in Hong Kong. The flavors are more developed and the meat is firm and non-fatty. They grill it on charcoal (so the oil drips off) and then place it on an iron pan to serve.

Mitsuse chicken in low sugar soy milk hot pot set (lunch), $248
This is another way of serving mitsuse chicken, which is fairly unusual. It’s worthwhile giving it a try especially when it gets a bit cooler. I like it because there are more vegetables, but the chicken meat would be less aromatic and salty in a soy milk pot versus on a chargrill. If you are undecided, I would suggest trying the chargilled version first, and then the hot pot version. Or, if you don’t have health considerations at all, just go for chargrilled.

Premium Wagyu Beef Sukiyaki Set (lunch), $348
Saga beef is often counted among the top three kinds of wagyu in Japan along with Kobe and Matsusaka beef. I like it for its strong and complex flavors and the cut here at SARA is not too fatty. I would highly recommend this.

Seared Miyazaki Wagyu Beef Chuck Rice Bowl Set, $328
This is also very flavorful. It’s drier and less fatty which suits me well. The portion is huge.

Steamed Sea Bream with Wine, $98
This took ages to make (roughly an hour) and it tasted just fine. Hearty and fresh.

Grilled Sesame Tofu, $58
Highly recommended. The texture was a real surprise. We still don’t know how this is made.

Ochazuke with red snapper and sesame sauce, Ureshino tea, $88
Pretty unusual ochazuke with a thick sesame sauce and an aromatic green tea that just add up to make the most comforting rice soup. The red snapper is raw but gets cooked a little bit by the hot tea. Recommended if you like ochazuke.

Marinated Hotaru Squid, $38
Good, as expected.

Mentaiko, $48
An excellent finger food to go with drinks.

Yuzu Sorbet, $28
Good and refreshing.

Saga Water Jelly, $48
Probably looked better than it tasted, but it was just fine.

OLIV, 15-21 Sharp Street East, Causeway Bay, Hong Kong
$$, Japanese