We had heard the buzz around the time Honto opened. That felt like the trend then, modern asian eateries reinvigorating the would-be Chinatown (we all know Fortitude Valley isn’t actually Chinatown). Although we liked Little Valley (which has since sadly fallen to the COVID downturn), we were underwhelmed by Donna Chang. Media hype has often oversold these eateries, particularly ones that are supposedly a modern take on asian cuisines. It took a friend recommending Honto to us to eventually get us to visit.
Finding Honto proved to be a bit of an adventure. Think a barely marked door next to dustbins in a back street of Fortitude Valley. Honto is only open for dinner, so you will also have to look for it in streetlit night. The secrecy does make it Melbourne-esque.
We could just hear strains of music as we walked up to the door. There was a dark corridor beyond it, at the end of which you could see the lights from the dining space.
It was a large room with surprisingly many tables, mostly already filled when we were there. It was dimly lit, mostly by a few chandeliers from the ceiling casting warm hues, and candles at the tables. The dark surfaces of walls, ceilings, floors, and even the bar, gave it an underground bunker feel, but without being claustrophobic. Music with a disco base beat played overhead, but not too loud that it overpowered the patron hum.
We had booked ahead (we would recommend the same, given how busy it was), and were shown to seats at the counter around the raw bar. This was in the central area of the eatery, giving us a good view of sashimi being prepared. There was an open kitchen at the further end of the space where hot food was prepared.
Each seat was set with a placemat with the Honto logo printed on it, a dark coloured plate, a rolled up napkin, and a pair of chopsticks placed across them. There was a single sheet of paper as well, which had a QR code to check in on one side, and a list of the food available on the other. It was barely readable in the low light though. We decided to go with the banquet option, in which we would simply have a chef’s selection of dishes, rather than have to narrow it down from the menu ourselves.
Honto has quite a large bar and a range of drinks, for those so inclined. We opted for a couple of mocktails as recommended by the waitstaff. They were alright, but didn’t really have the flavour complexity we hoped for. As is too often disappointingly the case, they were like mild fruit juice mixes.
The first item to arrive was a dish of Lotus root chips with an edamame dip. The chips had been fried, and were light, with a good crisp crunch. They were not oily. The edamame dip was a wasabi-hued shade of green, so we weren’t quite sure what flavours we would get, but it turned out to be a mellow, earthy taste. The dip was also chilled, which gave it a temperature contrast to the chips.
The next dish was Kingfish sashimi with yuzu. The kingfish slices were fresh and firm. The yuzu dressing was citrussy, with a little zing to it. It did not overpower the sashimi though, which is a risk when people try to meddle with the natural light flavours of fresh fish. In this case, it was executed carefully enough. Crisp fennel slices added textural variation.
The next item brought out was Bluefin tuna handroll with shiso. The tuna pieces were served simply, with a little mound of rice, on a flat sheet of nori. It was left to us to make the handroll ourselves, which, realistically, was not quite as deft or as neat as the sushi chef would have done (although I also contend that there was not enough nori to wrap the ingredients into the little cone shape handrolls are often served in). The tuna pieces were thick cut and fatty, which allowed you to appreciate the unctuous mouthfeel. The tuna was unadulterated by sauces, so you could taste just the natural sweetness of the fish.
Following this were Salmon tacos with wasabi mayonnaise. The tacos had light, very crunchy shells, more the texture of fried crackers than your typical taco shells. They shattered when bitten into (making it a bit of a handling issue as the fillings threatened to fall out). Inside the tacos were cubes of salmon, drizzled with wasabi mayonnaise to meld the pieces together. They were not too heavy-handed with the wasabi, so it was just a present note rather than being a punch.
The next dish was Potato crisps with bonito. These were definitely not what you would expect from what they were called. They looked like little bricks when presented, topped with yellow squiggles of mayonnaise. They turned out to be thinly shaved slices of potato, recomposed into blocks, that were then fried. They were crispy on the outside, and soft on the inside. Essentially, they were next-level potato dauphinoise. The bonito mayonnaise on top gave it extra creaminess, and an umami flavour. This was definitely one of our favourite dishes of the evening.
A less flamboyant dish followed this – Pork dumplings in a chilli broth. The pork and chive filling of the dumplings was loosely packed and lightly seasoned. The dumpling skins were a touch under-done at the edges, so had some chew rather than being supple. The chilli oil broth was not too hot, likely tempered for western palates.
The next dish was back to something more fusion, Karaage chicken burgers. The milk buns were airy, and very soft. They were golden brown on top, and were caramelised just at the edges, where they would have been toasted in the pan before the burger was composed. The karaage chicken pieces were piping hot, and had a crunchy, well-seasoned coating that carried mixed spice flavours. The chicken meat was juicy and tender. The mayonnaise layered in between had hints of wasabi and ginger, and added a smooth creaminess to each mouthful.
We were then brought Slow cooked beef short ribs, accompanied by a side salad with lettuce and pear. A rib bone was served alongside the slices of beef, perhaps as an indicator of where the meat came from. The beef was drenched in a sweet, sticky glaze, that combined savoury with fruity hints. The meat had an almost jelly-like softness, and was aptly described as melt-in-your-mouth. It had a just-crisp crust on the skin though, which was a pleasant contrast of texture. The salad served with it had lettuce, thinly sliced nashi pear, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds, and sesame oil. It was quite a light salad, with nutty flavours, and a fresh crunch.
The final dish was dessert. It was a Strawberry granita, with creme fraiche and cake croutons. The cake croutons were turned into a crumb, so they looked similar to the granita. The granita captured the essence of strawberry flavour without being too sweet or sour. When mixed and eaten with the creme fraiche, it became like a strawberry ice cream. There were pieces of strawberry hidden in the mix that were quite tart though.
Waitstaff were attentive, and our water jug and glasses were frequently refilled. The pacing of dishes was a bit of an issue though, with the first few dishes arriving in quick succession, then quite a lag between each of the later dishes, so we were aware of the wait for food, rather than it just being a considered pause. It was also a likely result of the restaurant layout and the low lighting, but our chairs were frequently kicked by staff as they passed behind.
Overall, we thought the dishes at Honto were alright for what they were, but what was missing was creativity and novelty. Though their blurb states that they reimagine Japanese cooking, with the exception of the Potato crisp dish, they were all dishes and ingredient combinations we had encountered before. While the food was mostly well done, it just didn’t blow us away. It was a reasonable amount and variety of food for the price, however, so Honto would still be a reasonable place to go for a dinner out with friends (though if you haven’t seen them for a while, perhaps ask for a better lighted table so you can see them).
Setting: 1/2 (Though the dark setting was probably meant to be atmospheric, it made it really hard to see the menu, and even the food properly. A simple addition like bag hooks would also have made it more convenient, and in keeping with the consideration you find at Japanese restaurants.)
Price point: $65 per person for the Chef’s choice menu.
Value: Not bad.
Address: Alden Street, Fortitude Valley (no, there is no street number)
Phone: 07 3193 7392