Last Friday, I headed down to Barton after work to check out the newly opened Lilotang restaurant. Lilotang comes to us from the Chairman Group, which also looks after some other fantastic restaurants from around Canberra, including Chairman and Yip, Lanterne Rooms and Malamay. When I first heard that the Chairman Group was looking to open a Japanese restaurant, I was super excited but also a little hesitant. I absolutely love Japanese food, its probably my favourite cuisine and I’ve probably complained the ears off everyone about how I think Canberra completely lacks in good Japanese restaurants. There are a few decent ones, but we could definitely do with a couple more! So I was super excited to see another Japanese restaurant come to town. However, at the same time, I wasn’t sure that the Chairman Group could pull it off, they’ve never done Japanese food before as they seem to focus quite heavily on Chinese food.
Well, let me just say, (and I guess, a bit of a spoiler alert) the Chairman Group definitely know what they’re doing because Lilotang was beyond amazing, even Ouk who is quite lukewarm to Japanese had a very, very enjoyable meal. The food at Lilotang took all the best elements of Japanese cuisine and enhanced them while also adding modern touches here and there but nothing to detract from the traditional Japanese style. Most of the dishes were simple in flavour, but entirely delightful in their simplicity. Every singe element was done perfectly and tasted fantastic together. I don’t think there was a single thing I could fault about my entire meal.
Before I move onto the food, does anyone notice how similar Lilotang’s sign is to Cho Cho San’s in Sydney?! Another wonderful Japanese restaurant with a similar food style. For a second, I started wondering if they were from the same crew or something. Anyways, food time!
First up, the Umami-jime snapper sashimi ($15.50) with white peach and heirloom tomato. This is the first time I’ve ever had snapper sashimi. I’ve only ever really seen kingfish, salmon and tuna sashimi’s. So when I saw this on Lilotang’s menu, I knew I had to give it a try. The snapper sashimi was fresh, delicate and had this lovely mild flavour to it. It kind of reminded me of kingfish and even looks the same. Wait is kingfish and snapper just different names for a particular fish? I’ve got no idea.
Flavour wise, Lilotang used really mild and sweet flavours to compliment and bring out the flavour of the snapper. The snapper sat in a sweet peach juice which brought fruitiness to the snapper and helped lighten the flavours. There was also diced chunks of sweet white peach throughout the dish as well. Finally, to top it all off, there were a couple of boiled and skinned cherry tomatoes which were juicy and sweet. I thought the flavour combination of peach, fish and tomato was bizarre but it worked surprisingly well. Lots of mild, sweet and fruity flavours that played on the freshness and delicate flavour of the snapper. Overall this was really fantastic and a great way to start things off.
One sashimi wasn’t enough, so we grabbed the tuna and avocado ($14.50) with wasabi okra soy as well. As you may have noticed by now, I absolutely love Japanese food and I recently also had a pretty disappointing sashimi experience that I was looking to overcome. I had pretty high hopes for Lilotang and their menu looked quite authentic so I figured I couldn’t go wrong and opted for both their sashimi offerings. Plus, tuna is always my go to fish. It’s just so tasty! The tuna sashimi was completely different to the snapper. Here, thanks to the much stronger flavour of the tuna compared to snapper, the crew at Lilotang matched it up with other strong traditional Japanese flavours like wasabi and avocado. Thankfully in this case, the wasabi was quite mild and only really brought that slight horseradish flavour without bringing any undue spiciness to the sashimi, which was good for me since I cannot eat chilli at all.
The avocado added some lovely creaminess and flavour to the sashimi as well. I know this is going to sound weird but you can totally tell that you’re getting quality dishes when the avocado is ripe, creamy and has that strong avocado taste, especially when it’s not avocado season, those things get expensive! Nothing is worse than getting all excited about an avocado dish, ordering it, and then getting a cheap avocado that is mushy and doesn’t taste like anything. At that point I’d kind of just wish they used green goo or something.
There was also a sprinkling of okra, which I didn’t really eat a whole ton of to be honest, over time the other dishes came out, and unfortunately this dish is what fell victim to us running out of stomach space. Regrettable. Outside of the great taste, I also really liked that the sashimi came in an avocado cup, points for presentation!
Our first entree for the night was the Nagoya style quail karaage ($18) with sweet sansho soy. When we first went through the menu, we couldn’t quite pick between this and the chicken namban-zuke, I have no idea how good the chicken is but I’m so glad I got the quail because it was fantastic. This was the best dish of the night, my absolute favourite. I probably won’t do it justice with just my words but I’m just going to try and give it as much superlatives as I can, and then you’ll probably have to go try this dish. The crew at Lilotang were explaining to us that these quails were soaked in milk for at least 24 hours prior to cooking. I’m so glad they do this, because it definitely comes through in the final product.
The quail meat was so soft it just melted in your mouth as you start to bite into it. Plus the meat was just so juicy, when I squeezed it to comment about how juicy it was, the lovely quail juices just spilled out over the edge. The inside flesh was perfectly tender, pink and delicious, which is rare when it comes to poultry, especially smaller birds like this. The outside on the other hand, was slightly crispy, but mainly really soft and tender. It wasn’t a fried chicken like a hot and spicy KFC chicken, think more original recipe. To top off the amazing texture, the quail was also seasoned perfectly. There was quite a bit of sweetness to it and normally I’m not a massive fan of sweet and savoury together but here somehow the crew at Lilotang made it work. On top of the sweetness, there was also a little bit of spice to it as well which was a nice touch.
I know I used the word perfectly waay to much to describe this quail karaage but this dish was just that. Perfect.
To keep things balanced and healthyish, we grabbed a serving of Roast umami vegetables ($11.50) with orange miso in an orange pot. Okay, I admit it, I didn’t really care about it being healthy or that it had vegetables much, I only got this because its served in an actual orange and I could just not help myself. I’m a total sucker for things like that. So any future restaurants take note, if you serve your food in a cool thing, then I will eat it. Having had that said, the crew at Lilotang do everything amazingly, including this dish.
Apparently, according to the crew at Lilotang, the different vegetables for this entree are cooked in in separate daisho sauces and then combined in an orange miso at the end. There must’ve been a lot of effort that went into this dish, because there were quite a few different vegetables in it, and each with their own daisho sauce? Impressive! I remember having eggplant, radish, carrot, mushroom and a couple of other things as well. Overall, the vegetables were quite savoury and creamy in flavour with a soft texture. They had a mild flavour that went perfectly with our sashimi and other goodies, which was great because this isn’t a place where you get rice as a starch balancer. I also noticed that towards the end, there was this sweetish, fruity sauce, I’m assuming that must have been the orange miso sauce. When I dipped my veggies into that sauce, I found it really helped to give these veggies a burst of flavour. It was so nice that we ended up dipping some of our other meats into the sauce by the end.
On to something more substantial, the Pork spare rib ($30.50) with a black pepper balsamic sauce. This was really tasty! This was probably my least favourite dish at Lilotang and I still thought it was exceptionally tasty, which I think says a lot about the overall quality of my meal here. Having said that, there was absolutely nothing wrong with this dish, it was tasty and cooked really well, but it just reminded me a lot of the pork you get at Korean BBQ joint. Not a slight by any means, but I was getting shocked and awed by the flavours being presented to me with the other dishes, so this felt a little tame by comparison.
The meat was really soft and tender while the outside had a lovely crispy shell, with no lingering tastes of charred meat, which was fantastic. There was also a really good amount of juicy and delicious fat on the side, so much so that I felt that if I didn’t ration out the pork flesh, I’d eventually be left with pure fat, which is probably a little bit too rich, even for me. I loved the texture of this dish, how smooth and easy to chew it was which for me is a bit rare with spare rib, I tend to have to sit there chewing it for 20 seconds before I feel comfortable that I won’t die if I try to swallow it.
The pork was flavoured in a sweetish soy sauce, it was a little thick, a bit like oyster sauce and kind of reminded me of a black bean sauce, though I’m sure it was a lot more complex than that. I kind of had this dish all to myself, and the flavours did get a bit much by the end, having this with a rice dish would’ve really allowed it to go down much easier, and I eventually started dipping it into the orange daisho sauce to kind of mix things up a bit. Overall, the dish was great, and I’m sure if you’re into Korean BBQ meat, then you wouldn’t really be able to go wrong with this, but as it stands, my least favourite overall.
Our final savoury dish, the Pork belly ($9.50) with yuzu kosho miso. This dish gave the quail kaarange a run for its money. My favourite was definitely either this or the quail and I can guarantee you this pork belly only lost by the smallest of margins. When I saw this on the menu I was shocked, pork belly for $8.50?! Insane! I’ve got to order this before these guys realise what a terrible mistake they’ve made! I was then told that these were probably just a couple skewers, so at that point, any dreams of making off with a huge pork belly haul were dashed and I just had to make do with my appropriately priced pork belly.
One really cool thing about this dish is that they pieced it together so that there was always a chunk of flesh, then a chunk of fat, and for someone like me who absolutely loves scoffing down fat, this was amazing. Every bite you had, had a combination of delicious meat and fatty goodness. Another really cool thing was that even though the skewer had that fat and meat combination going on, the entire skewer had a comparative level of tenderness, that is, the meat was just as tender as the fat was. How do they even do that?! I honestly thought the whole thing was flesh, until I saw that I was eating fat but I couldn’t tell once it was in my mouth, it looks charred in the picture, but it just melted away so easily.
I’m all about texture when it comes to meat but taste is just as important and these skewers lived up to any expectations I might’ve had during my night here at Lilotang. The main flavour that hit you as soon as you bit into these skewers was smokiness. The meat was exceptionally smoky and this was just delightful that this meat managed to taste this way whilst being as tender as it was. Good stuff. There was also a lovely fruity and slight sweet sauce which brought some extra flavour here and there, though honestly I didn’t really use much of it since I was so enamoured with the smoky flavour that I didn’t want anything to mess with it. I also noticed that it had a little bit of spice to it as well. The sauce was lovely. However, unlike with the pork ribs, the sauce wasn’t overly strong here and you could definitely always taste the flavour of the pork shining through.
Finally, our dessert, the Sticky mochi-mochi tofu ($12.5) with brown syrup and green tea ice cream. If you’re thinking, that doesn’t look anything like mochi then I totally agree with you. I saw someone else get it before me and thought it was a really strange looking mochi, I almost opted for the tea pudding but I love all things green tea, so the green tea ice cream won me over and I got it anyway. I’m pretty glad I got it too, the weird looking mochi ended up being my favourite part. To me, this dessert was like a more interesting and tasty version of the Asian silken tofu in ginger syrup desert. So in this dessert, the mochi had this lovely mild silken tofu flavour, but with a slightly thicker texture. It was quite glutinous and sticky. It was a lot more fun to play with than food ever should be. I should mention in case the above wasn’t really that clear, that the mochi/tofu was absolutely delicious and I was a huge fan of the fun texture.
The brown sugar syrup was sweet and brought plenty of flavour to the tofu, it also helped out with the green tea ice cream which was really strong and had very little sweetness to it. I’m a massive fan of cakes, desserts and all things sweet. However, I find that just because its a sweet, people just go a little crazy and make it as sickly sweet as possible. Luckily for me, that didn’t happen here, and I’m honestly not sure I know anyone that really enjoys that level of sweetness. The desserts here found a great balance with the flavours and did not let the sweetness overpower anything else to any great extent. This mochi tofu with green tea ice cream dessert at Lilotang was just that, sweet but perfectly balanced.
Finally, a wine Chikusen binkan kyurei nigori hyogo ($28, carafe). We couldn’t go to a really nice and fancy Japanese place and not get a Japanese wine. I know very little about wine in general and I know less about Japanese wines. I know I tend not to like sake, they tend to be really quite dry and strong. I’m more of a umeshu or plum wine kind of person but I tend to find them quite pricey and at times a little too sweet for the foods that we eat. Hence, this time I decided to experiment and got something based on the description. I remember the description for this drink was great, it had pears, tapioca and coconut with a ‘sweet’ finish. When this came out, I was a tiny bit shocked, I guess I wasn’t expecting something milky. Strange but whatever, we were here to try new things. If you’ve ever had a rice wine from a Korean place, this reminded me a lot of that. I actually quite liked it but I know others may not. For me, it reminds me of this Vietnamese dessert I used to have growing up, where they ferment rice until it becomes wine like and then you eat the rice, which are shaped in small round balls. The best way to describe it is, imagine rice water mixed with the taste of alcohol. I love it but its not for everyone, so if you’re not 100% sure, maybe go for a glass first.
I was genuinely surprised and really enjoyed my meal at Lilotang. I had mixed feeling when I first heard about it and when it came out I didn’t really want to go, half because Ouk hates new restaurant hype, but also because I just wasn’t too sure about how this place would represent Japanese cuisine. I’m glad to say I was left completely full and very happy. I can now happily say, Canberra has a very delicious modern Japanese restuarant. I absolutely cannot wait to go back to try some of the other goodies at Lilotang and maybe even some of their other Japanese wines and what not. There’s a chance my words don’t mean a lot in this particular context since I’m so in love with Japanese food, but Ouk who is at best lukewarm with Japanese food claimed afterwards that this was one of the best things he’s ever eaten, so there! I think it says a lot about how good Lilotang is because Ouk doesn’t even like Mappen and Mappen is amazing, I mean come on.