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Taka by Sushi Saito in KL (Apr ’16)

4 Apr

Malaysia is not a country known for its fine-dining scene. Living in Singapore, my first thoughts of Malaysian food are nasi lemak, Sarawak laksa, KL hokkien mee, roti canai and fried carrot cake. So it was a big surprise to hear over lunch at Sushi Saito last year that Takashi Saito, probably the best sushi chef of his generation, had chosen Kuala Lumpur as the site of his first outpost worldwide, which would open in April. “Malaysia??” I wondered if I had misheard. I had just flown in from KL to Tokyo, and that very week the Police Headquarters had conveniently caught fire, the latest episode in the shameful 1MDB scandal to engulf ruling party UMNO. Investor confidence had fallen, and the exchange value of the ringgit was falling rapidly. Malaysia was such a counterintuitive country for Saito to base his first outpost in. Singapore, or Hong Kong, or even Bangkok or China would have been much safer from an economic point of view.

But entering the finished restaurant on the day Saito said it would open, I could discern some strong reasons for being in Malaysia: No expense had been spared in outfitting the restaurant. The counter is large and spacious, the kitchen equipment state-of-the-art, the doors and decor threaded with clouds, the private dining rooms well-equipped. The restaurant has impressive financial backing, and decor-wise is a world away from even Saito’s stylish Roppongi outlet. Second, he would not be competing in the same city as his master Kanesaka. Third, KL has a lot of rich folks, but its dining scene is a lot less saturated than Singapore’s or the other Asian cities – a local Saito would likely dominate the market.

We began the meal with a light beer…

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  • Baby shrimp (shiroebi):
    • Soft to the bite, delicate.

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  • Steamed abalone, boiled octopus
    • Excellent Chiba abalone with very tender texture
    • Saito’s octopus is quite magical, the outer tissue becoming an amorphous sweet and tender jelly that completely defies one’s expectation, especially if one has only encountered the firm octopus that most sushi places serve.

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  • Skewered firefly squid (hotaru ika)
    • Excellent, creamy grilled squid

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  • The Season’s First Bonito, Soy Marinated (katsuozuke)
    • Good balance of soy and ginger

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  • Hairy crab (kegani)
    • I liked the flavor of the innards, but the crab flesh I felt was a bit less sweet than I remember in August or December.

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  • Grilled rockfish (nodoguro)
    • Great skin, though the flesh was just a tad drier (like 5%) than I would liked it to be

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  • Flounder (hirame)
    • A bouncy texture that is always a delight, this seemed to be engawa (the side of the flounder).

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  • Alfonsino (kinmedai)
    • Very tasty and fatty

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  • Chutoro

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  • Akami

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  • Otoro
    • A delicious and unimpeachable tuna sequence, Honmaguro from Wakayama. Essentially perfect.

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  • Gizzard shad (Kohada)
    • Great balance of vinegar

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  • Horse mackerel (Aji)
    • Well salted

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  • Spear squid (Sumi-ika)
    • Maintained its starchiness, which I’ve only rarely encountered outside of Tokyo

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  • Tiger prawn (Kurumaebi)
    • Good

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  • Nemuro Uni
    • A pleasing color combination of deep orange, yellow, and deep orange. This uni had a very deep sweet taste, and came from Nemuro in East Hokkaido.

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  • Seawater eel with salt (Anago shio)
    • Excellent

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  • Seawater eel with sauce (Anago tsume)
    • Excellent

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  • Kanpyo maki
    • Sweet and crunchy

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  • Tamago
    • Custardy, like a flan

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  • Miso soup

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  • Katsuyama sake

I found Taka a faithful replica of the 3* Tokyo Saito experience. Our sushi flight, made by head chef Kubota-san, had well-seasoned rice compacted into a solid but airy form in Saito’s style, and possessed the same excellence. The only minor difference I could discern was the food (namely the sushi rice, and shiroebi) was a bit colder and drier than at Tokyo Saito. This is probably due to a stronger air conditioner, exacerbated by my taking 5-10 seconds before eating to snap photos. Overall, an excellent meal.

A recent trip to Kuching, Sarawak (Oct ’14)

12 Oct

Kuching, where I’ve family, is a place I’ve visited quite a few times. In my most recent October visit, I tried Sarawak laksa for the first(!) time, and opinionated. In no particular order:

  1. Kuching is the largest Malaysian city on the island of Borneo (the only island in the world divided between three countries), but still feels a bit sleepy. It is less connected than Kota Kinabalu (KK) in Sabah, with the only international flights are to Singapore, and an Indonesian City of Borneo. In contrast, KK has flights to Japan, China and Australia. This is probably because KK is next to a beach, and Kuching is next to the muddy Sarawak River.
  2. It is hard to avoid a sense of decline in Kuching, because (1) the weekly flight to Australia got axed (not enough volume?) and (2) the River Cruise that runs on the Sarawak River has shifted from a full dinner to light refreshment (cost-cutting).
  3. The Sarawak river is muddy and polluted, probably because of timber-logging.
  4. Spicy cornflakes with ikan bilis is a thing.
  5. Avoid Susi Air (in Indonesia), they don’t have flight engineers on their planes, and their pilots are inexperienced.
  6. The Mormons in Sarawak seem less aggressive in proselytising than a couple of years ago.
  7. Selling bikinis in the Spring Shopping Mall seems oddly incongruous with Kuching’s geographical fundamentals (i.e. it’s in the middle of a jungle, far away from a beach)
  8. Mt Singai, converted to a Christian place of worship, is actually a rather beautiful and restive spot.

And now, on to the food.

1. Swee Kang Ais Kacang

  • Address: Ground Floor, Lot 176, Jalan Haji Taha, Kuching, Malaysia

Most places in Kuching are what we’d call “coffee shops” in Singapore, by which we mean a large open-air area, with 3-6 stalls, owned by a proprietor. I was brought here to try Sarawak laksa and ice kachang, and it did not disappoint.

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Sarawak laksa (5/5)

  • Fresh and crunchy prawns, not the mashy cotton textures from inferior prawns (what’s the point of adding them), gave it nice texture.
  • The lime and chilli was essential, I dumped the whole lot in. It became a sour-ish tang, a satisfying soup that did not feel heavy, as with the curry-based Singapore laksa, which I dislike.
  • A full-bodied broth, hearty, and sour from both lime and tamarind. Quite, quite delicious.
  • Laksa in Sarawak is very different from Singapore laksa or Penang laksa. It has no curry, and the soup is tamarind-based.

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Rojak (2.75/5)

  • Alright. The sauce was too cloyingly sweet. Would have been better with jicama.

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Ice Kachang

  • Deliciously coconut-y (cold coconut milk), you could add your own gula melaka (brown palm sugar) within. Always great on a hot day, which is always.

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Char Kueh (4/5)

  • A dry form of fried white carrot cake.

2. Good Taste Cafe

  • Address: 306-311 Lebuh Lb Sekama, 93300 Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysia

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Sarawak laksa (3,25/5)

  • Alright. This place uses inferior prawns, and the soup was thinner, and less full bodied than the one at Swee kang

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Kolo Mee (3.25/5)

  • Alright. Kolo mee is primarily based on lard, and can be cloying if you use too much, or if the fat isn’t cut by sour vinegar. Here it was more cloying than delicious. Also, shoe-leather char-siew.

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Kampua Noodles (3.25/5)

  • Supposedly a Foochow variation on Kolo Mee, but it’s basically the same thing.

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Tau huay AKA beancurd (4.5/5)

  • Now I thought this tau huay was worth remarking about. The best in Singapore is at a place called Beancurd City near Little India. While this beancurd didn’t quite match the silkiness of Beancurd City’s tau huay, it was a close second that would put 80% of the coarse beancurd fare Singapore hawkers are now serving up to shame.

3. Somewhere with No Name

  • Address: Somewhere near Lorong Kempas 4

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Fish fillet mee hoon with fish maw (4.25/5)

  • A hearty breakfast that I enjoyed very much. Sour tastes (a trend) with the fish made for good eating, and the alcoholic pour of red rice wine (ask at the counter) made the dish very fragrant.
  • This stall is famous for fish fillet mee hoon, so it shouldn’t be too hard to find.

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4. Ah Tan Ais Kacang

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What better way to end off the afternoon, than with another bowl of Ice Kachang? Here you choose your own adventure – milk vs coconut milk, and what kind of ingredients you want.

Minuscule differences – but while Ah Tan was good, the best bowl of Ice Kachang probably still goes to Swee Kang Ais Kacang.