Monday, November 9, 2009

Zi Nen Ya: Just Say “No” to Whelk

(Scallops: homestyle amuse bouche. Nice piece in the back...a big hunk o' sand in the second one...)

We were pretty eager to try out this Japanese-expat-favorite in North Point. Zi Nen Ya is famous not so much for its luxurious sashimi but more for its humble, homestyle dishes. We were all set to go sashimi-less…that is, until the friendly, but perhaps a tad too eager-beaver-like waitress jumped over to our table with the nightly-specials whiteboard and started hardselling us various different “it really is extremely fresh today” sashimi. We nodded along to her suggestions of hamachi belly (MP) (which turned out to be deliciously fatty, with a lovely coating of natural fish oils over each slippery piece), sea bream (MP) (refreshingly different from the hamachi, especially when dipped in the slightly sweet clear sauce) and a fantastically crunchy fresh sea whelk sashimi. Of course, only later did we find out that the whelk was $300 a small dish! Ack!

(Sea bream: different in a good way)

(Hamachi belly: mmm...oily)

(Sea whelk: pulled up the price of the meal)

After the extravagant beginning, we went homey (which, to be honest, was the initial plan) and ordered the braised beef tongue ($95) and deep-fried Japanese taro ($55). The taro was alright – a little zingy aftertaste with an ever-so-slight taro flavor. Well-fried though. But the beef tongue? Nothing short of awesome. So amazingly tender and deeply-flavored. I didn’t need to bite the meat at all. I loved.

(Fried taro: alright)

(Beef tongue: magical)

We then went with the five-set dinner ($280) – that is, a choice of five various dishes from a set menu. The uni tofu (orig. $80) was definitely only alright. The tofu wasn’t as silky soft as we had hoped for and the soy bean flavor was a little too much, completely overpowering the uni. The steamed asari clams (orig. $60) were much better – light but full-flavored, plump and fresh and really quite delish. We then moved onto the stir-fried chicken kidney with Chinese chives (orig. $65). A can’t-lose combination that was thoroughly satisfying.

(Uni tofu: meh...)

(Steamed clams: redeeming some points...)

(Chicken kidney and chives: can't go wrong with this)

The assorted skewers (orig. $70) were dainty but comforting. Perfect grilled mushrooms, peppers with bonito, a juicy and flavorful grilled beef, ginko, crunchy salty chicken gizzards and two pieces of chicken wings. Not bad but not entirely memorable. We ended with the deep-fried oyster cutlet (orig. $60). The oysters were fatty enough and again, the restaurant’s control of deep-fried dishes really showed – the oysters weren’t the least bit oily and the inner creaminess of the mollusk remained intact. Only though, the beautiful briny oyster flavor was slightly compromised due to the deep-frying but the dish was still pretty good on the whole.

(Assorted skewers)

(Oyster cutlet: expertly fried)

Service was friendly but with only three people (not including the chefs) manning the super-busy restaurant, it wasn’t as attentive (we had to ask three times before someone finally came to refill our tea). The final bill came out to be a little more than we had initially expected but, then again, we did unknowingly order a $300 plate of sea whelk (which, to be honest, as good as it was, we could have happily done without). I wasn’t blown away this time but I do plan on revisiting because Zi Nen Ya seems like it has solid potential. And plus, next time, I’ll pass on the nightly (i.e. expensive) specials, stick with the homey classics, and experience the quality-for-value-ness of the place.

FOOD: 3.5/5
SERVICE: 3.5/5
ATMOSPHERE: 4/5 (props for being “homey”)

ZI NEN YA ($$)/($$$ if ordering from nightly specials sashimi menu)
Shop 36-38
City Garden Shopping Centre
North Point
2508 0862

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