30 September 2011

Hanami, Oslo – Restaurant Review

When you think of food in Norway today, what's the first thing that comes to mind? Pristine fillets of smoked salmon? Reindeer stew? Brown cheese? Not me. You see for me, it's sushi. Yup, Norway has enthusiastically embraced this global trend and is eating the Japanese delicacy with vigorous zeal. I'm even beginning to think that sushi has become this country's new unofficial national dish (surpassing frozen pizza and hot dogs in the process). It's particularly evident in Oslo, where it seems everywhere you look another sushi restaurant is popping up.

Now don't get me wrong, I love sushi. I mean I really, really, really love sushi. But, sadly, let's just say that at many 'sushi' places in Norway you'd also be able to order a side of tom yam soup or chicken chop suey to go with your halibut nigiri. In other words, there are too many places knocking out generic 'Asian' dishes that happen to include pieces of badly cut fish sitting on blocks of cold gritty rice. So, when news of Oslo's latest Japanese restaurant, Hanami, reached me, you can forgive me for initially being somewhat less than ecstatic.

Hanami opened in September 2011 in Oslo's Tjuvholmen area, overlooking the pristine waters of the Oslofjord. Clearly inspired by the likes of the NobuZuma and Roka restaurant chains, Hanami is billed as a modern Japanese fusion restaurant, serving sushi & sashimi, small "izakaya-style" dishes, as well as grilled food from their robata grill.
Straight away on entering the restaurant this place feels different. Inside, a modern and classy vibe pervades; an open sushi counter and kitchen dominate a large room with great views out over the water. There's also a separate lounge area with a stylish bar. The overall feel is of an urban sleekness I haven't previously encountered in Oslo. The one downside, though, is that the tables do feel a little cramped, both in size and in proximity to your neighbours.

The menu at Hanami seems familiar. Very familiar. I know that imitation is meant to be the sincerest form of flattery, but some of the dishes border on being outright replications of those at Nobu, Zuma, and Roka. In fact, dishes like black cod with miso, tomato ceviche, grilled chicken wings with lime, and scallops with shiso could have been lifted straight from the menus of these three restaurants.

But I suppose that nowadays this type of food is reflective of a certain genre of cooking (modern Japanese fusion) and as such can't really be viewed as proprietary or specific to any one restaurant. Either way, for an occasionally homesick Londoner like me, it's great to see these sorts of dishes on the menu of an Oslo restaurant.

With a rather excellent, if small, "Hanami Mojito" (NKr 129 / €16.50) in hand (made using vanilla vodka rather than rum) we studied the menu. Food here is designed for sharing, and our friendly waitress advised us on ordering about 3-4 savoury dishes per person; but it's a real struggle choosing what to order as there's so much tempting stuff on offer.
First out of the kitchen were two plump pan-fried langoustine tails that were served in a martini glass with a tangy green chilli salsa (NKr 149 / €19). An excellent start – the langoustines were fresh and juicy and the salsa was mild enough not to overwhelm their sweet taste.

Next was "Merluza Ceviche" (NKr 129 / €16.50). Here cubes of fresh hake had been briefly marinated in citrus juices and garnished with red onion, coriander, spring onion, red chillies and batons of apples. I'm a sucker for ceviche and this was a good dish with a good balance of flavours. The addition of fresh apples was a nice seasonal touch and added some pleasing sweetness.

The next dish was my least favourite. Uramaki rolls of king crab and mango (NKr 135 / €17) was a somewhat odd flavour combination. However, otherwise decent sushi rolls were ruined by the liberal sprinkling of popping candy – that tired cliché that seems to keep cropping up when a kitchen is trying to be "wacky" or "zany" or some such thing. Popping candy in food is the answer to a question no one asked; it made me giggle once when I was six and once at the Fat Duck in 2001, but the joke has long since worn thin.

Thankfully, the kitchen was back on form next with a perfect example of prawn tempura (NKr 149 / €19). The fat prawns arrived piping hot and coated in a crisp and near-greaseless batter. They were, of course, served with the customary dipping sauce.

This was followed by skewers of beef and okra (NKr 169 / €21.50) that had been marinated in a sweet garlic and ginger marinade and cooked on the robata grill. The beef was nicely cooked and succulent; the robata grill imparting a pleasing smoky taste.

The next course was a real show-stopper. A lobster had been halved and doused with sea urchin and foie gras butter before being roasted in the oven (NKr 309 / €39.50). It was sensational! The butter sauce was just so silky smooth and utterly luxurious; it worked beautifully with the soft sweet flesh of the lobster. Norwegian seafood is stunning and I thought that here was a perfect case in point. So I asked the waitress where the lobster was from. "Canada", came the reply! Oh well, at least it wasn't sprinkled with popping candy.

And because we wanted to try at least one sushi dish from Hanami's extensive sushi menu, we ordered a plate of hamachi (yellowtail) nigiri (NKr 105 / €13.50). This was rather good indeed. Beautiful pieces of hamachi crowned with caviar were draped over rice that was as good as any sushi rice I've had in Japan.

To finish, a dessert of ginger crème brûlée (NKr 129 / €16.50) was fine, although the accompanying rhubarb sorbet was cloyingly sweet.

Much better was Mrs. Nibbler's dessert of chocolate fondant and milk ice cream (NKr 139 / €18). The fondant was superbly executed. Cutting into it revealed a beautiful gooey dark chocolate centre, and the milk ice cream lightened it up nicely. It was delicious.

The bill for the food alone (nine small dishes) came to a surprising NKr 1,413 (€180) for the pair of us. I suspect that given the restaurant's proximity to lots of offices, most of the clientele will be putting the tab on an expense account and won't care too much. I'm used to paying over the odds for most things in Norway, but still, Hanami seems on the expensive side for what it offers.

Cost aside, I think you have to look at Hanami in context. If you've been to the likes of Zuma and Roka then Hanami will probably come as somewhat of a disappointment. However, compare it to other Japanese restaurants in Oslo and it really shines.

I like Hanami; it's a welcome breath of fresh air in Oslo's crowded Japanese restaurant scene, and I'll certainly be back – the lobster dish alone ensures that.

Food:          7 / 10
Service:       8 / 10
Ambiance:   8 / 10

Kanalen 1
0252 Oslo
Tel: +47 22 83 10 90