The co-founder and executive chef of Ando in Hong Kong, who honed his culinary style in Tokyo, shares some of favourite places to eat and drink in Japan’s capital
Agustin Balbi wanted to do something different. And that’s what saw him land up in Japan, despite knowing little about the nation at the time. “What drove me to pursue a career in culinary arts in Japan was my curiosity and drive to learn how to work with seafood and my desire not to follow the usual route to Europe for culinary training,” says the chef, who hails from Argentina.
Armed with experience garnered in Buenos Aires and New Orleans, it was Japan that challenged him professionally.
“The culture in Japan was very different from Argentinian culture, which was something I had to adapt to. The real challenge started when I was learning from top masters and had to summon the stamina to work extremely long hours and develop skills through endless repetition. It wasn't a fun experience at the time as the work was gruelling; however, I learned an immense amount and the mental strength I developed was remarkable. I loved being surrounded by such dedicated and talented people, as they spurred me on to raise my standards to the next level,” says Balbi, who worked at some of the capital’s leading establishments, including Basque restaurant Zurriola, Japanese fine dining hotspot Nihonryori Ryugin and now-closed French restaurant Cuisine[s] Michel Troisgros during his time in Tokyo, before moving to Hong Kong in 2016 to take the helm at contemporary Japanese restaurant Haku and then to open Ando.
“My time in Tokyo had a tremendous impact on me, partly because I went into the situation wanting to learn everything I could. I threw myself in 100%, not only with the cuisine but I also wanted to learn as much as I could about the culture of eating and study the history of eating and how it has evolved over time. I spent all of my salary at restaurants to help me understand flavour combinations. I knew that the only way to perfect my craft was to practise, so I practised until the techniques became muscle memory. My experiences all together have created what Ando is today, in part a reflection of my time in Tokyo combined with my own cultural background.”
Balbi’s affinity for Japan extends outside the kitchen too, as it’s where he met his wife. As such, he retains a strong connection with the country, visiting often in normal times and ensuring his children are exposed to the Japanese culture that is part of their heritage.
What do you miss most on the food/drink front when you are away from Japan or haven’t been back for a while?
When I am away from Japan, what I miss most is excellent ramen and soba, as I love to go for noodles as a casual and fast meal. For me, noodles are an art. Hong Kong is home to great ramen shops with delicious broth and soups, however for me, an important if not crucial characteristic is the noodle's texture. I struggle to find the same texture of noodles in Hong Kong as you can find in Japan.
What is the first dish you eat when you return and where do you go for it?
The first dish I have when I go back to Japan is ramen noodles from a shop that I used to go in Minami Asagaya, which has only six seats. The noodles are out of this world. I used to go there on my days off, and I make sure I go when I visit Japan as visiting brings a sense of nostalgia. Unfortunately, I do not remember the name as it is a tiny hole in the wall restaurant in a residential area; I just know how to get there.
Do you have a favourite restaurant in Tokyo (and/or elsewhere in Japan)—for fine dining/special occasions and for more casual experiences?
There is a tremendous amount of choice when it comes to fine dining, and it’s all fantastic. If I had to choose one restaurant, it would be Nihonryori RyuGin because I learned a lot there and it has a special place in my heart and because the experience overall is excellent. For Western food, I like Esquisse; Zurriola for Spanish; and Bulgari for Italian.
If you have visitors/guests with you, where do you ensure you always go to give them a real taste of Tokyo?
When I have visitors, I always plan very carefully to ensure that they discover all of Tokyo's remarkable places. First, I will take them to Toyosu fish market to visit and take in the surroundings. We will then to for omurice at Rengatei in Ginza, followed by ramen in Minami Asagaya and then a short stop for some kakigori. I will always take guests for a nice matcha green tea to experience the base of omotenashi philosophy [Japanese hospitality]. After that, we will head to Kaiten Sushi in Shinjuku and then proceed to a modern kaiseki dinner at Ryugin. We will go to an izakaya to finish the night with highballs and okonomiyaki, if we still have space. Planning a day like this is a great way to try many of Japan’s iconic dishes.
Where do you like to meet up with old friends for food/drinks?
I usually meet up with old friends at Shinjuku station as I used to live at a station called Hatsudai a few minutes from there and have many friends in the area. We will usually go to a yakiniku or izakaya place to reminisce about old times.
Do you have a favourite bar and/or café in Tokyo?
My favourite bar is in Hatsudai, and it is fantastic. It is an eight-seater bar with seats around the counter, and is based in a residential area. The bartender runs the place by himself, and is also a sommelier and a total master of his craft. I am not a big drinker but I loved going there with my wife to admire his craft and watch him perform. The way he ran the place was artful and I learned a thing or two from him. I don't know if it is still there, but I truly hope it is.
Another one of my favourite bars is Faramarz in Nakameguro. It is a real treasure, and I highly recommend visiting.
One of my favourite cafes is Fuglen, close to Yoyogi Park. I used to visit often on my days off when I lived in Tokyo and I loved it.
Is there anywhere else that you never miss visiting when you are back?
I love going to Fuchu, where my wife used to live. There are very cosy little restaurants close to the train station, and they are full of great memories.
What do you always take back home with you when you leave Japan?
I always bring Kit Kats with me, and doughnuts for my wife as they are her favourite souvenir from home. I also like to get face masks with funny characters on them.
On a more serious note, I also usually bring back some omamori [Shinto amulets] to give to my close friends to wish them good fortune.
Where do you go to find authentic flavours of Japan in Hong Kong?
When I get truly homesick for Japan, I try to visit restaurants that I believe have authentic flavours. I like to go to Godenya, Kozy Teppanyaki, Toritama, Sushi Shikon, and Sushi Saito. I say I try to visit because all of these places are hugely popular so it can be difficult to get a seat!
What do you love most about Japanese cuisine?
I love so many things about Japanese cuisine. The first thing that comes to mind in the philosophy behind it. When I talk about Japanese cuisine, I mostly refer to kaiseki to be specific, the overall attention to detail, the connection with the heritage, and the hunger for innovation while respecting that traditions. The level of hospitality is unmatched, and the understanding of nature is also out of this world.