Saboten - Grand Opening Media Event

I attended Saboten's grand opening event on Sunday with Janice (Good Eat), Kirby (Eating with Kirby), Gary and Taya (Eating in Vancouver). Saboten is the newest addition to the Aberdeen food court. It's part of a Japanese franchise with over 500 locations in Asia. The signature dish here is tonkatsu, or Japanese breaded and deep fried pork cutlet.

We met briefly with the executive chef for a quick Q&A session. We found out that he had attended a full training course in Japan to prepare for this role. He explained that the preparation for the opening of this location took much longer than expected because they had trouble sourcing high quality ingredients good enough to meet the company's standards.

Read below for details on the ingredients:
the meat: The meat is premium pork that is aged for days to ensure its richness and tenderness.
the cabbage: The cabbage for the salad is not sourced from local supermarkets, but directly imported from California.
the bread crumbs: The bread crumbs used to bread the pork are shaved fresh daily from loaves of bread baked in-house. Any leftover crumbs at the end of the day are thrown out, and a new batch is prepared the next morning.
the oil: There are set standards on the number of items that could be fried in the oil before it had to be replaced. We were assured that the oil is replaced at least once daily, and maybe even more than that on a busy day.
the sesame: The black sesame is ground fresh to order with a mortar and pestle so that it wouldn't lose its flavour.

Since we were there for the media event, the food was complimentary. This is my disclaimer right here. And as you all know, free food (almost) always tastes good, so keep in mind that my comments may be biased. We got the Saboten set minus the rice and the soup, but with 5 different condiments to try.
(counterclockwise from upper left)
vinaigrette: The vinaigrette was for the shredded cabbage. It was quite sour, but it was very refreshing.
tartar sauce: The creamy tartar sauce was perfect with the breaded prawn, but I found it a bit heavy combined with the deep fried food.
curry: The curry sauce wasn't very strong in flavour compared to Indian/Thai curry. It was savoury and not spicy, and actually tasted like thick soy sauce mixed with curry.
black sesame: The black sesame was freshly ground and I could smell the aroma wafting through the air. The taste was just as intense as the smell. Combined with the tonkatsu sauce, this was my favourite condiment of all.
tonkatsu sauce: The tonkatsu sauce was supposed to be mixed in with the black sesame to create a dipping sauce for the pork.

We got to taste 3 different meats (from left to right):
loin: When I commented that my piece of loin was almost as tender as the tenderloin, Kirby quickly protested and claimed her loin had the texture of white meat. We exchanged a piece and it turned out that she got the lean part while I got the fatty part. Mine was indeed more tender, but I also got a large piece of fat attached to it. So I guess there are pros and cons for both and depending on your luck, the loin would either taste like white meat or dark meat.
shrimp: The shrimp was pretty big and I actually liked how juicy and crisp it was. And when I say crisp, I'm not just referring to the bread crumbs. I'm talking about the texture of the shrimp as well.
tenderloin: The tenderloin, as the name implies, is the most tender cut of pork. I kind of had this image of rare beef tenderloin in my mind (first thing I thought of when I heard tenderloin), but the pork was nothing like that as it was cooked. It was soft, but not in that melt-in-your-mouth way. The texture was a bit more substantial and reminded me of fish cake with a slight bounce.
cabbage: I really appreciated the shredded cabbage after eating all the fried food. It helped refresh the palate with its crisp sweetness. It was even more appetizing with the tangy vinaigrette. I usually don't enjoy coleslaw and the like, but because of the heaviness of the meat and the yummy vinaigrette, I ended up eating all of the cabbage.

I've actually been feeling really bloated for the whole week before this meal, so I was surprised that I managed to finish all of it for breakfast, deep fried crumbs and all. Although everything was deep fried, I didn't find it overly greasy or oily. Just look at the picture, you don't see any oil glistening on the food. I've read a couple of reviews commenting on the small portion size. I obviously can't comment on that because I haven't tried ordering from their regular menu. But most of the set meals cost around $8-$9 which seems like a reasonable price to pay to try something new (or you could try the tenderloin katsu sandwich for only $4.75). So if you haven't been here yet, it's worth trying at least once. Then you can decide for yourself whether you like it or not.

EDIT: Feb 15, 2012

I finally got my hands on the tenderloin katsu sandwich ($4.75). I've gone to Aberdeen many times for this elusive sandwich, but there's permanently a "sold out" sign on the counter. I asked if it's still on the menu and was told that they only make 20 sandwiches per day, so it's usually sold out within a matter of minutes every morning.

The presentation didn't look as nice as the picture displayed on the menu. The bread was thin and deflated due to its softness. The portion was quite small, as the sandwich was made with 2 slices of regular white bread. The sandwich was cut into 3 parts, and each part was only about 2-3 cm wide. Though I have to say, the thing tasted pretty good. The pork was thick and tender with crispy bread crumbs and a savoury mustard-like sauce. I liked the soft and fluffy texture of the bread, but I would have preferred thicker slices. If this sandwich were readily available throughout the day, I would definitely drop by for one as an afternoon snack. I don't think it's worth lining up for first thing in the morning though. Hopefully they will start making these throughout the day when the lineups die down and they become less busy.

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