_I asked Cat where she wanted to have our anniversary dinner and she said she'd been craving Japanese.  And when it comes to Japanese food, Hanakazu will always be among the first restaurants I'll think of.

This traditional Japanese restaurant along Aguirre (near the Elizalde stoplight) -- now entering its seventh year of business -- is helmed by none other than the former chef of the posh Tsukiji restaurant in Makati, Hiroaki Otsuka.  If you're a fan of Japanese food you'll already know what that means; if not, then let us quote you what they've put at the front page of their menu:  "Fresh Sushi.  Delectable sashimi.  Crispy tempura.  Tender Beef Sukiyaki.  Mouth-watering Ebi Ten Maki."  The descriptions do not exaggerate.  From a small restaurant, Hanakazu has expanded its space to accommodate its growing clientele, a testament to Chef Otsuka's labor of love.

We ordered a perennial favorite, the Ebi Ten Maki, a sushi roll tenderly cradling crisp ebi tempura slices in its center; Miso Soup; a refreshing Kani Salad; Yakiniku (grilled beef); and Yakimeshi (fried rice). 

All the dishes were made to the high standard that this popular restaurant has come to be known for -- all the ingredients are top-grade and fresh, the flavors light and ethereal, very well balanced -- you can see the chef's expertise in the way every roll of sushi here is rolled just so, the sashimi cut so neatly you'd swear fish grow in neat rectangles and lozenges.

Ebi Ten Maki with Maguro Tatsutaage and Miso soup
_As I said, we nearly always order the Ebi Ten Maki when we eat here; Hiroaki's wife Lorna says she's not sure whether this roll is Hiroaki's own invention or not, but she does get comments from foodies telling her Hanakazu's version is the best they've had.  I agree.  We also received tiny bowls of Maguro Tatsutaage, breaded tuna slices fried crisp, as a complementary appetizer. 

A new revelation for us was the Kani Salad, a beautiful light salad of lettuce and assorted greens, carrots, and kani strips, tossed in a light semi-sweet mayo dressing and topped with strips of dried seaweed.  The serving of this salad was surprisingly large, easily good for sharing among three or four.  On its own, it can make a pretty filling meal for a health-conscious diner.  We also loved our Yakiniku, the beef so tender we could tear apart the strips easily with our chopsticks, with a light soy-pepper-slightly-sweet flavor.  The beef went perfectly with our sticky Yakimeshi. 
Yakiniku with Yakimeshi
Kani Salad
_Chef Hiroaki was too busy to interrupt, but we were able to get Lorna Otsuka to drop by our tatami room and tell us more about Hanakazu.  The restaurant's name is taken from their daughters, Hana and Kazuko.  They and their two sons, Yoshi and Sachi (after whom the two tatami rooms are named), are the reason Chef Hiroaki is happy in BF Homes rather than taking up offers to open a Hanakazu branch in commercial districts like Makati.  "We were tempted by an offer when Serendra was new, but when we found that we'd have to be open all week, my husband said no," reveals Lorna.  "He wants his Mondays off, because that's his day to be with his children.  That's the day he'll make them lunch himself as a treat." 

The rest of the week, though, is spent keeping up the quality that Hanakazu's become known for.  Though the restaurant opens at 11:30 a.m., Hiroaki arrives early to begin making the ramen broth, which he insists on making fresh every day.  He also does the marketing for ingredients himself every three days, and they regularly receive shipments of locally hard-to-find items from Japan. 

That passionate attention to detail  is evident in every bite here at Hanakazu, which is why we've been regular customers since 2005.  The staff even remembers my friends and I as "that noisy gang that always makes such a ruckus in the tatami room but orders a lot!", said with a smile, of course.  Lorna said that their loyal customers now have "Hanakazu babies" -- you could say that we could count ourselves among them as well.