Chef Mark Tan's Hibana Goes for out-of-the-Box but Approachable Japanese Cuisine
You might think that posting that black charcoal cone on your Instagram account puts you at the “edgy” side of the foodie world, but then you haven’t had Hibana’s soy sauce ice cream yet. This out-of-the-box dessert experience comes from kitchen creative Chef Mark Tan, who has several other items on his menu (squid-sauce ice cream, anyone?) that make will open your eyes to more progressive possibilities that Japanese food can bring.
It was a love for basic Japanese food that sparked Chef Mark Tan’s culinary journey—he wanted to learn how to make sushi. “Even before I started working for the Michelin-starred chefs, I was already working at Japanese restaurants. It’s not like in Japan where after college you can apprentice as a sushi chef. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity. So I worked for a Japanese chef and I went to a Japanese culinary school in L.A. that’s run by a master sushi chef.” He also went to a Western culinary school and went to work in a seafood restaurant. Those experiences opened his eyes, he said, as they used a lot of Japanese fish but prepared them in a different way. It was this East-meets-West background that eventually led him to his three concepts; the first one was Studio Kitchen in Alabang, then Allium in Makati, which is now Japanese-themed Hibana.
Prawn cracker with uni dip
Dirty Tuna Maki
It’s all about reference points, he reiterates, and being able to rein in your ideas to make sure that it is in line with what you are trying to do.
“I’ve been in the industry for 15 years. If you like food, then I would say that it is easy to cook. I always liked to eat and even before I went to culinary school, I was already cooking. I wanted to eat at home a lot of things you couldn’t afford to eat if you went out every day,” he adds.
His first venture in Alabang, although warmly received, was slightly ahead of its time. “People were looking at it as a fine-dining concept because the techniques that we used are associated with fine-dining, even if the dishes were simple. The population there was also smaller then.” Allium was more of an upscale attempt, mostly because of the quality of the ingredients that he used. I wanted to work with specific high-end products.”
Now, with Hibana, he still works with high-quality stuff, specifically seafood that is imported from Japan. The offerings are familiar Japanese fare, with sushi, tempura, noodles, and katsu along with grilled items or robota, which are given his creative touch. Among the items that are must-tries on the menu are his Wagyu Beef Saikoro, which are cubes of butter-soft beef in a sweet sauce, and his hearty and umami-rich Sesame Beef Soup with Ponzu, Enoki Mushrooms, Beef, and Prawns. He also has a velvety Chawan Mushi with Prawns, Crab and Mushrooms, a Dirty Tuna Maki with Black Garlic Aioli and a Spider Roll made with soft-shell crab.
Beef Misono: There's nothing more approachable than a rice bowl.
Sesame Beef Soup
Wagyu Beef Saikoro
Even though many chefs have been saying that Filipinos have become more adventurous when it comes to their food choices, Mark explains that you still have to find a point of reference to make your dish more relatable. He cites an example from his former restaurant in Alabang. “We had a dish called Poached Prawn Salad, with Caesar Dressing, Citrus and Grapes. It was really good, but people weren’t ordering it, saying that it was really weird. We renamed it into Caesar Salad with Prawn, and then the customers started commenting things like "Wow! This is the best Caesar Salad I’ve ever had!’” he grins. At Hibana, he has a dessert called Japanese Queso, which, has no cheese at all; it’s actually the aforementioned squid-sauce ice cream. Mark explains that it tastes like Parmesan, hence the name. “If you call it squid ice cream on your menu, people will hesitate to try it,” he smiles. Those who would want something a little more recognizable at the end of their meal can try the light and fluffy goodness of the Kyoto Miso Souffle.
Soy Sauce Ice Cream
Kyoto Miso Souffle
It’s all about reference points, he reiterates, and being able to rein in your ideas to make sure that it is in line with what you are trying to do. “Sometimes, with your ideas, you will know right away if it will work or not. Even if you think it will work, you still have to try it out and see if your end product will tell you if it fits with what you want or not. If it is too weird, or too out of the box for people to comprehend then it won’t fly.”
He aims to make Hibana a nice, non-intimidating place to hang out in, which is why he tied up with The Curator’s Jericson Co to concoct a series of cocktails that make good pairings for the food. Classics include a nice Midori Sour with Midori Liqueur, Suntory Kakubin, lemon, and sugar; something sour but more progressive and playful from the Twists selection would be the Black Sesame Sour or Black Sesame Infused Scotch Whiskey, with lemon, sugar and egg white. This bar tie-up, Jericson says, helps set the vibe that Hibana is a fun place, one that is relaxed and approachable.
Black Sesame Sour
Since Mark has 15 years experience in the industry, we asked him for his thoughts on how to remain relevant as a restaurateur. He pauses, and says jokingly, “you need to have an instagram account and post great pictures. Seriously, I don’t think in those terms. For me, it’s about how we can make a good product. I am a believer that if you have a good product, people will come. With Hibana, we changed our approach by using high-quality ingredients and making it fit in with a specific price point so more people can try it. You can be a Michelin-starred chef, but if people cannot come to you and enjoy your food, it’s like being a great singer and singing to five people—or worse, singing in the shower.”
Hibana will only be open for lunch, 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. from January 16 to 31. By February, service with start from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m.; Grand Midori, Bolanes Street, Legazpi Village, Makati City; (02) 519-1088.