Sunday, 11 October 2015

In search of excellence: Hito, a restaurant review

Sunomono and green beans
Round about the time of the last Spanish economic boom, Las Palmas witnessed a proliferation of Japanese restaurants. Japanese cuisine had become trendy. A few years behind the rest of Europe, perhaps, but, it's never too late.

Prior to that, there was only one,  a small, nondescript, more-a-café-than-a-restaurant type of place in one of the seediest part of town. But, yes, with an authentic ageing Japanese chef. The food was good, but the place was known only to a privileged, and dare I say bold, few. For many years, his wish was to retire and for his son to take over but, unfortunately, his son wanted no part of it. So, instead, he groomed one of his staff, an authentic Canarian. The place still exists, the area no longer as seedy as it had been.

This leads to the question: can we have genuine Japanese cuisine without a genuine Japanese chef? Can we experience its grace, its style, its excellence?

Unbeknown to most of local residents, there is not one Japanese restaurant with a Japanese chef; hell, probably not even one Japanese worker. Not as far as I know. The majority are staffed with Chinese staff, owned by Chinese immigrants.

Yet, the restaurants prove to be popular. So, perhaps, yes, we don't need Japanese chefs to prepare Japanese food, just as we don't need a French chef to churn out French cuisine [in fact, there was an excellent French restaurant in Las Palmas with an English chef, but, sadly, it no longer exists].

Later, much later, along came another authentic Canarian, with the look of a Canarian wrestler - and the luchadores canarios do have similarities with their Japanese counterparts - who married a Japanese lady, and who went to Japan and trained to be a sushi chef. Dani was his name. He and his wife opened their own place, established a reputation, moved to another location, and carried on devoting his life to the art of sushi.

Until, one sudden day, he left our presence. RIP Dani.

Meanwhile, a roving beach bum set out of his home in Johannesburg, searching for himself. From the west to the east, he covered such ground as Thailand, California, Spain and Greece, to name but a few. Somewhere along the way, he discovered that his interest and talent lie in the world of catering, and started honing his skills under numerous chefs, eventually, focusing on Japanese cuisine.

To cut a long story short, Oliver met his partner, Olga, in Greece, and they decided to invest all they had in a restaurant of their own. The spot they chose was the spot left by the departed Dani. They brought with them, Javier, a sushi chef who trained under a Japanese master in Mallorca.

So, again, not a Japanese; no, not even an Oriental in sight. Olga hailed from the Czech Republic, Javier from Ecuador, and the waitress is Italian. Mamma mia! What can we expect? What should we expect?

Just like the greatest samurai, two strokes is all it takes. "Hito", which comprises just two simple yet elegant strokes, means man, people, mankind, character. Look at the symbol and you may see two legs, a roof, or perhaps something else. Walk through the doors of Hito and you'll find yourself in a smallish, clean, 35-seater functional dining room, and most likely, looking into the eyes of the sushi chef, Javier. No tatami rooms in sight, but space is at a premium around here.

Japanese in concept, Hito goes beyond the popular dishes, inventing some of its own, and not afraid of introducing non-Japanese recipes, such as Pad Thai, but, always aiming for the Japanese standards of style and quality. The fusion of the culture mix of the staff spills onto the hospitality, the art and the quality.

We were welcomed to open up our appetite, courtesy of the house, with some hors d’oeuvre, which included the famed Japanese cucumber salad, sunomono, a green bean salad, and another dish which I can't quite recall. The slight tangy taste of the sunomono was just what we needed to tame the heat in our bodies. October in Las Palmas is summer, weather wise. The seeds of the beans were crunchy and flavourful, but getting them out of their pods were rather awkward with a pair of chopsticks.

From the cold hors d'oeuvre, we then went on to the hot, the steamy, sexy gyozas, with skins that slip onto the back of your mouth effortlessly. I am not normally a fan of gyozas, but these got the thumbs up from me.

The tempura came piled up to look like Mount Fuji but tasting far better, I bet. Fluffy, crispy and not too greasy, it didn't take too long for the mountain to vanish.

I couldn't leave without trying the Pad Thai, naturally. I'm one of those die-hard addicts and ever since the only Thai restaurant known to have existed here closed (the crisis hit the service industry extremely hard), I haven't had any. Of course, I didn't expect to eat a Made-in-Thailand kind of Pad Thai, but I was willing to settle for something even remotely close. Its appearance was "cleaner", more Jap than Thai, and even though it was "watered down" to suit Canarian taste buds, it still carried the distinct flavour those familiar with this dish would recognise.

The limes weren't Thai limes, of course, and I made the mistake of squeezing one whole wedge. Caribbean limes are bigger and juicier than Asian ones and I have reason to believe that these are of the former breed. Also, I would have liked it to be spicier; the next time I'll have to remember to tell Oliver.

After the memorable Pad Thai, we went back to the cold: how could we eat in a Japanese restaurant without sampling the sushi, right?

The tuna and salmon we had were as fresh as though they'd come from the sea 100 metres away, but the rice was a bit plain for my taste. I'm used to a slightly more vinegared version. The makis were just as lovely and one, especially, caught us by surprise. These had something warm inside: a piece of fried prawn, I believe. Brilliant!

To end the meal, we had fried ice cream (tempura de helado) with pineapple sauce. The first time I heard of fried ice cream was in London and I thought my leg was being pulled. Then, years later, I had my first taste of it in Bangkok and I was wowed. The sensations of hot and cold at the same time was exotic, but the pineapple sauce was too sickly sweet for my liking. I'd ditch that. Personally, I'd decorate it with something darker to give it more contrast, something like miel de Palma, for example. It is similar to what is locally available in many parts of Asia under different names such as nam tan pip or gula jawa. So, if anything, its exoticism value is far greater than that of the pineapple.

Hito may not have the presence of a Japanese person, but it does not lack his spirit. Innovative and arty, it seeks to introduce the exquisiteness and marvel of Japanese cuisine to the general public, to the common 人. I'm looking forward to trying some of the other temptations offered in their menu, which you can see here.

Type of restaurant: Japanese, fusion
Verdict: Recommended!
Average cost: €20-30 per person
Telephone: 928 05 82 89

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