By Austen Fiora
2:00 PM EST, February 20, 2013
2779 Dixwell Ave., Hamden, (203) 287-8888. Open seven days a week. Delivery available.
New Havenites are lucky to live in a culinary town, but that doesn't mean good food ceases to exist outside the city limits. Northern neighbor Hamden has less in the way of cultural clout, but its streets are home to some high-quality restaurants, like the Zagat-rated Ristorante Luce and Ibiza Tapas, a lesser-known offshoot of the downtown destination of the same name. Fresh on the scene is Hokkaido, a Japanese restaurant and sushi bar looking to join the ranks of the town's tried-and-true spots.
Hokkaido is the creation of owner Angela Fang, who honed her skills at a cousin's Washington, D.C., restaurant. Now, at the helm of her first venture, Angela is confident about its prospects. Though Hokkaido has only been open a few weeks, it has already done a brisk business, and can count Hamden Mayor Scott Jackson among its patrons (a photo of him alongside the staff hangs next to the bar).
Hokkaido's secret weapon is master sushi chef Kenny Gheng, who hails from Changzhou, a city in the south of China. Growing up, Gheng says he never thought he'd be a chef. All that changed 10 years ago when, after graduating from high school, Kenny emigrated to the US. Arriving in New York, he met Ken Wang, a Japanese traditional sushi chef. Under his tutelage, Gheng learned the art of preparing sushi and sashimi, as well as the proper sourcing and treatment of choice cuts of fish. His training paid off: Gheng has been in high demand ever since, most notably at Nobu, the multinational luxury sushi franchise with outposts everywhere from New York to Cape Town.
Despite his pedigree, Gheng's personality is humble. So are his boasts: "I'm the best sushi chef in Hamden," he says matter-of-factly.
"The best in Connecticut," Angela corrects him with a laugh.
When asked which of his teacher's lessons was the most important, Gheng answers without hesitation: "Quality." All of the fish and much of the produce served at Hokkaido is sourced through Japanese export companies, which keeps the fare authentic and fresh. The fish is Pacific-caught, and some of the fruits and vegetables on the menu are difficult to find outside of Japan.
While attention to detail is Gheng's hallmark, the menu isn't a purists-only offering. Along with basic sushi and sashimi, available a la carte, Hokkaido serves a huge variety of fusion rolls that combine eclectic ingredients with names like Dixwell Roll and Out of Control. In fact, Gheng's signature dish is borrowed from South American culinary traditions. His take on ceviche combines tuna, salmon, white fish, crabmeat, shrimp and mango, marinated in yuzu, a sweet lime sauce with just the right amount of chile heat. The flavors are perfectly balanced, distinct, and bracingly fresh.
Gheng's sushi and sashimi don't disappoint, either. Before he crafts the salmon tartar roll, the chef mixes a sweet sauce and a soy sauce in a dish, then caramelizes the glaze with a blowtorch to bring out the flavor. Pure rice rolls let the sauce leech into them; the salmon perches on top of each piece, well above the waterline. Japanese plums are on hand as subtle palate cleansers. Sashimi lovers should look no further than the albacore tuna, topped with red tobiko, served on a bed of seaweed, and garnished with green peas.
To cap the meal, there is banana tempura, served in a martini glass with whipped heavy cream. It's the details that make this dessert great, like the addition of a Japanese pear, and a thin wedge of fried rice skin. When your bananas tumble out of the glass and land on the plate, you'll notice fine red dots on its border. That's chile sauce, and it pairs incredibly well with the banana. Gheng has even hidden a blinking, color-changing LED light under the bedrock layer of crushed ice in the glass, which comes to life as you eat your way, archeologically, to the bottom. Well, food should look good.
Something like the combination above can be yours in the form of the Chef's Special Combination ($18.95), in which Gheng will surprise you with an improvised meal or prepare a custom selection of dishes. For busy, thrifty, or choice-averse diners, there's the Lunch Box, a bento-style package that contains miso soup, salad, shu mai, a California roll, and teryaki, tempura or katsu, all for $9.95.
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