TJ KATSU & UDON
97 Courtenay Place
Ph: 385 8868
Open Mon 11am-9pm, Tue-Thu 11am-10pm, Fri-Sat 11am-11pm, Sun 12pm-9pm
Price range of mains: $13-$22
Sake list: 4/5
Cost: $62 for two, excluding sake
During their long occupation of Korea early last century, the Japanese seized most of the rice harvest, forcing the Koreans to subsist on millet.
Yet, against these odds, a Korean version of the sushi rice roll (maki sushi) evolved under Japanese rule.
Named kimbap after Japan's defeat in 1945, these Korean sushi rolls are more often filled with meat and vegetables than raw fish, making them the precursor of the so-called California roll which emerged in the 80s.
Today, kimbap bars are ubiquitous in South Korea.
This helps to explain why so many modern sushi bars in the West are owned by Korean entrepreneurs, among them Taedoo (Ted) Jun, who seven months ago opened TJ Katsu & Udon in Courtenay Place.
Walking along the self-service sushi cabinet that runs the full length of his dining room, you see why chef Jun has labelled his style Japanese fusion.
For although there is sushi filled with carrot and avocado, cream cheese and pineapple, sweet egg, teriyaki beef, breaded prawn and California-style salmon and avocado, there is nary a slice of raw tuna or translucent white fish in sight.
This, then, is definitely not sushi for purists, especially since many of the pieces are squirted with various sauces.
Most are house-made, with the exception of the Japanese mayo, a sweet industrial whipperoo, whose brand name I can never quite remember (Kewpie perhaps, or is it Pewkie?).
Aesthetics aside, it has to be said that from a purely technical point of view, the sushi is faultless: the knife work is precise and the grains of rice just hold together, firm in texture without being chewy.
The boast is that all the ingredients here are fresh, even the chicken, and that no MSG is used - with the obvious exception of the Pewkie, which fairly hums with it.
After beginning his (recently completed) BCA degree at Victoria 12 years ago, Ted Jun received his true calling from the food industry.
Since then, he has done the yards all over town at St Pierre's, Asahi, Real Earth and Kopi, to name but a few.
His two assistant chefs have followed the same career path: having qualified as accountants, they promptly went cooking.
Quite what that says about the sushi these guys produce, I'm not sure, except that clearly the unit price has been finely honed, given rice rolls here begin at $1. No wonder the place is regularly packed with students and young people.
As with the sauces, the picnic-style tables here are house-made. A certain economy is likewise evident in the service: twice we had to get up and help ourselves to more paper serviettes from the counter.
Since we could hardly review TJ Katsu & Udon without trying said katsu and udon, we ordered them together as a couple of sets.
Udon, that fat, squidgy wheat noodle, snowy white and sensuous to the bite, came in bowls of tasty broth, garnished with seaweed.
Alas, there's not a lot to be said about katsu. Introduced into Japanese cuisine during the Meiji Restoration, it's a plain Western-style cutlet, breaded and deep-fried. We quite liked the pork katsu, but we found the chicken katsu marginally dry.
The main point of interest was the coating of crunchy, almost crystalline breadcrumbs, which I recognised as panko.
At least I was able to extract that much of a confession from Chef Jun, coy about what the katsu's fruity tasting dipping sauce might contain. How mildly irritating.
Likewise, he refused to say what had gone into the spicy hot Pork Donburi, one of the more exciting dishes we tasted, other than to deny there was any miso. How marginally infuriating.
As to the somewhat overcooked Chicken Teriyaki, we could guess that its glaze contained soy sauce and sugar, and that it lacked a third vital ingredient - sake.
Never mind, we made up for that with a comparative sake tasting. Beginning with the house sake, Ozeki, which we ordered warm to disguise its harshness, we progressed to the wonderfully smooth Otokoyama, twice as nice and double the price.
With sake, as with sushi, it seems you get what you pay for.
ONE THING YOU SHOULD TRY
Takoyaki, or little spheres of battered octopus fried in special half-moon moulds, are particularly good here, being hard on the outside and soft in the middle. Served piping hot, their garnish of dried bonito shavings eerily waving with the rising heat, these tiny extraterrestrials are, I hate to admit, actually improved by their topping of Pewkie mayonnaise.