By Katherine Bont and Kim Wejendorp, Sekka Dining chefs
WE first visited Senchou when we had only been in Japan for a week, and discovered there wasn’t much concession made for non-Japanese speakers here. At least not in the summertime, when the English-speaking, peak season staff aren’t around. Not that we were complaining, it’s just that we had no idea what anything was. We developed a technique when choosing what to eat – if it smelled good, we’d go in.
Senchou has a big neon scrolling sign that leaves you with no doubt it’s an eatery. But what sort? They have a few photos on the board out the front, with a variety of seafood, meat and smaller dishes on display. But what we discovered after our first venture was that it’s actually an izakaya – a Japanese version of a tapas bar.
The place is small with only half a dozen tables and a few seats at the sushi bar. We were seated quickly and supplied with essential beverages, a small plate of crispy squid and a dollop of ‘Kewpie’, the world’s greatest mayonnaise. We browsed the menu – well, the pictures mostly – and, settling on a few things, sat back, unaware of how delicious the night was about to become.
The first dishes to arrive were the chicken and pork yakitori (grilled skewers). The chicken was minced and served with aioli and a raw egg yolk to mix in. It was delicious, the meat moist and flavorsome, the film of egg yolk and aioli making it wonderfully rich. The pork was a skewer threaded with marinated slices of pork belly, grilled to a crisp on the outside that crunched open as you bit it to let the melted fat and juices run out.
Next came an eggplant, sliced and stuffed with chicken before being steamed in a dashi broth and topped with fresh grated daikon. The eggplant was silky smooth and the chicken was just cooked, all drenched in the smokey dashi. Then came tuna with fresh wasabi. Oh, the joy of fresh wasabi!
Once you’ve had it, the green powdery junk that gets passed off in tubes as wasabi around the world will never be the same again. The tuna was swimmingly fresh and melted in our mouths. Marinated mackerel with fresh ginger was up next up, and wow! I mean, wow!! It was nothing like any we’d had before. The texture resulting from the pickling meant it was firm, but not cooked. The pickle enhanced the flavour of the fish, rather than overpowering it. It might come as no surprise that this was my favourite dish of the night.
And finally, Hokkaido lamb with asparagus and roast potatoes, coming out still cooking on a pottery hot plate, the smell was captivating. Upon lifting the lid to the cooker we found four fat slices of lamb, some asparagus and the famed Hokkaido potatoes all sizzling away. The lamb was already at a perfect medium rare so we dived straight in. Mmmmm, so juicy and tender. The potatoes were out of this world – soft and floury inside with the most terrific crunchy exterior.
We both agreed this was a fine end result to our latest ‘smell and see’ experiment. However, in the name of science, we reasoned that we would really needed to return, as we had only just touched on the menu, and Senchou really deserved a thorough reviewing. Soon we were back, but with the resolve that we wouldn’t have anything we had last time.
Once again, greeted and seated in a flash, it was straight into the draught beer, though this time the side snack was jellied pork rib. Oishii! Our resolve, as it turned out, wasn’t that strong, as we couldn’t make it past two of the favourites from the previous visit. The chicken and pork yakitori were once again the first dishes on the table. With our cravings somewhat sated, we were able to look at the menu a little more broadly – and we were glad we did. There are two types of salmon sashimi available – regular and delicious. I don’t know about you, but delicious always sounds like a good path to follow. Coming from the fatty belly of the salmon it certainly lived up to its name – the flavour was delicate and the flesh melted in our mouths. We followed this with fried octopus, coated in a golden crust, seasoned with a hint of curry powder and topped with a squeeze of lemon.
Next came the show stopper of the night, scallop butter. This amazing dish consisted of a live scallop being fished out of a tank, then – quick as a flash – opened, sliced and whipped back into the shell with a touch of soy broth and a square of butter. The shell is then placed onto a small candle burner and brought to the table where it slowly heats and cooks to your liking. As it was placed down the chef pointed out all the pieces – heart, flesh, coral as well as the skirt… in fact, there was not a lot missing. First was the heart, firm and tasty. Then the flesh and all the remaining bits quickly fell prey. As the scallop disappeared, the reason for the little spoon served with the dish became apparent. What was left in the shell was an unbelievably tasty broth made up of the simmered scallop juices and butter. Too good to waste, this was also quickly slurped down (lucky slurping is a compliment here!).
Then, a moment of serendipity occurred, maybe through miscommunication or misunderstanding, the next dish to arrive was potato gratin. We definitely hadn’t ordered it, but after a cautious taste we weren’t going to give it up. The dish was like a Russian doll revealing little surprises, layer after layer. On the outside were roasted Hokkaido potatoes and asparagus gratinated and topped with a little sour cream. Under that a layer of crispy grilled bacon, and under that, grilled scallops and baby squid. We were soon tapping the bottom of the plate to make sure there was nothing else there.
To finish with came a spin on chicken karaage (fried chicken). Rather than a few small pieces, it was one thigh, crumbed and fried whole, sliced, then topped with a spring onion sauce. Crispy and cut with the slight sweetness from the sauce, it was a fine finish to another great meal.
As we stepped out into the night, we knew it wouldn’t be too long before we would be experiencing Senchou: Part III.