“Sham Harga had run a succesful eatery for many years by always smiling, never extending credit, and realizing that most of his customers wanted meals properly balanced between the four food groups: sugar, starch, grease, and burnt crunchy bits.”
Nestled behind a vase featuring a hand drawn sheet itemising the daily specials, a small ghetto blaster evacuated my earwax with Tito Puente’s latin rhythms. Before me was a plate of garlicky peri-peri prawns with thick soft wholemeal bread, golfball sized potato and salmon croquettes, some sliced magret straddling aubergine and a dish of deep fried soft shell crab.
A plume of fire rose at the other end of the room – and over the top of the coffee machine I could just make out the chef at the stove. No, I am not in a tapas bar, but at The Age Cheap Eats Guide best restaurant Horoki, a favourite of we Stickyfingers.
The red bar stool I am perched upon resembles a rather large leather gear stick and driving the flames is Ken Higuchi, who I recall - in my days schmoozing clients - was the chef of Restaurant Suntory, a vastly different venue to this 30 seat laneway nook. Seated under lights shaded by enormous round shades, two thirds of the clientele here are Asian, of them the majority are Japanese.
We like the unpretentiousness of Horoki. We like the innovative fusion of Japanese technique with western recipes and the fast service, which makes it ideal for a pre-theatre or movie session. We like that the menu doesn’t change much either and that the food has always been consistent in its presentation.
As we turn our attention to the food, the eight small prawns have arrived sizzling in a handled terracotta tapas dish. The texture of the plump pink morsels is perfect, the sweetness of the flesh meshing with garlic, chilli and parsley - and the best thing? Drawing the soft chunks of bread through the rich melted butter at the bottom of the dish. Garlic bread has never been this good.
Four segments of battered soft shell crab, fried to an intoxicating level of crispiness, sit atop butter lettuce. The plate is painted Jackson Pollock style with sour cream mayonnaise flecked with baby capers and yuzu.
The crispy crabs themselves are sour with the yuzu, which has been incorporated in the marinade, but the sharpness is neutralised by the mayonnaise. It’s wonderful until Mr Stickyfingers, by force of habit squeezes the lemon garnish over it without first tasting. I’m not happy. My second piece of crab becomes excessively sour so I am forced to smother it in more mayonnaise, wrecking the texture.
Deep fried Panko crumbed golf balls of potato and salmon are anchored on their plate with a Tatare Sauce made with rich Japanese soy based mayonnaise. Anointing each ball like a miniature Christmas pudding is the ubiquitous brown BBQ sauce favoured by the Japanese, an unctuous mix, which has a base of Worcestershire Sauce and sugar. It’s a riot of flavours and textures: crispy and smooth, with salty, creamy, sour, rich, piquant, sweet and spicy…hrrr.
The result is toe curlingly pungent - like running your tongue over a tray of mixed condiments in a diner. I like the crunch factor but the flavour of the salmon is tragically smothered into insignificance. The dish is filling but it just doesn’t work for me. I take refuge in gulps of hot Persimmon leaf Houji Cha while my beloved, ever a fan of panko crumbs, puts away the crispy spheres.
Salvation comes in the form of the duck dish. The five spice and miso marinaded breast of duck is braised and finished under the grill. On the plate it crowns deep fried eggplant batons. Again swirled across the plate is a thick sauce, this time dark red miso or Hoi Sin Sauce, which gives the dish the effect of a Nasu Dengaku with buttery, melt in the mouth duck. Slippery textures combine with elegant flavours to win me over. I eat it with rice.
Outside in the laneway, overlooked by Allen Woo’s new establishment Laksa Me, smokers drink wine with their dessert, a pannacotta I think. I am sated and slightly deafened, but with the bill arrives a small tile of creamy coconut jelly – a staple of yum cha – a perfect palate cleanser with which to end the meal. As we slip out into the lane, I jiggle with the Latin swing orchestra still jangling in my head.
Horoki Casual Dining Bar. 19 Liverpool Street, Melbourne, Victoria. Phone: (03) 9663 2227. Inclusive of drinks our meal cost $60