Wednesday, September 20, 2006

MODERN JAPAN RISING







Today, Japanese restaurants with classical décor like those depicted in the Memoirs of a Geisha blockbuster no longer reign supreme. Instead, most prefer the minimalist Zen approach, with sleek glass, dark wood and steel interiors, clean-line soft furnishings, open-concept show kitchen and piped-in jazz music. Service staff is garbed not in elaborate kimonos but informal happi coats (short Japanese robe with straight sleeves) or monochromatic ensembles of white shirt and black pants.

Mizu, a Japanese fine-dining eatery at the Bangsar Village, is the embodiment of this revolutionary, modern approach. Its intimidating granite and cascading water façade at the entrace gives little away of its goings-on inside. Walk through its narrow, raised passageway and you’d find yourself in an elongated L-shaped dining area interspersed with secluded corners. Noren or Japanese doorway curtains and some framed artworks underscore the outlet’s understated décor whilst its elongated sushi counter sits adjacent to an open-concept kitchen. Other features include a wine cellar, a private dining room and an outdoor patio that overlooks part of Bangsar’s busy thoroughfares.

Executive chef Aspazali Amran, one of the few Malay chefs skilled in the art of Japanese cuisine, helms the kitchen team here. Having previously worked for the old Nadaman restaurant at the Shangri-la KL, Chef Aspazali shows that his 20-year experience and training stints in Japan has evolved to complement Mizu’s contemporary attitude. His innovative specialties infused with French/Continental elements, has already won him the stamp of approval from discerning corporate types and local dignitaries who frequent Mizu. Amongst them are several company bosses of Japanese corporations who hosted the Toyota F1 crew to dinner last year.

Chef Aspazali’s amuse bouche of Deep-fried Maki Roll got the evening off to a rousing start. A house specialty here, it comprises sushi rice roll with minced salmon, red tuna, tobiko (flying fish roe) and mayonnaise, coated and deep-fried in crisp tempura batter. A full portion of 8 pieces costs RM15++.

Many of his signature dishes are highly inspired by Tokyo’s cosmopolitan outlook. The dish of Foie Gras with Daikon (RM30++) proves how a simple, rustic dish of simmered Japanese radish can be transformed into an epicurean delight with the inclusion of pan-fried foie gras. The latter’s rich, velvety texture merged so seamlessly with the radish’s delicate sweetness that diners are unlikely to forget this sublime dish in a hurry. We bet the Foie Gras Chawan Mushi or steamed egg custard with foie gras (RM25++) is equally outstanding.

The Sashimi Platter (RM130++) is a sight to behold with succulent cuts of red and white tuna, salmon, amaebi (sweet shrimp) and yellow tail artistically presented on a tall mound of shaved ice. Flown in twice weekly, the fish’s quality and freshness is assuredly comparable to other fine Japanese eateries.

For those who are averse to raw delicacies, the Mizu Maki (RM35++ for 6 pcs) is worth sampling. The reverse sushi roll, in which the nori or seaweed sheet is rolled inwards with the rice on outside, comes filled with sliced avocado, grilled unagi (eel), tempura prawn, lettuce and tobiko.

Chef Aspazali forays into fusion again with his Grilled Maguro Steak (RM35++) that looks remarkably like a luscious steak. Lightly basted with a concoction of teriyaki and garlic sauce, the tuna belly is melt-in-the-mouth tender.

The creative Kedahan whose boyish looks can rival that of celebrity chef Jamie Oliver’s, certainly has no qualms about experimenting with new ingredients and techniques.

“My modern approach towards Japanese dishes will appeal to the young and adventurous diners who patronize Mizu,” said Chef Aspazali. “To stand out from competitors, I advise my team to maximize on our culinary creativity while retaining the core essence of Japanese cuisine. Thus, new tempting dishes can be regularly introduced to entice customers and generate word-of-mouth recommendations to family and friends.”

Although more Continental than Japanese, the Baked Jumbo Oyster with Cheese (RM15++ each) is certain to have you raving about it to all and sundry. Baked in its shell with grated cheese, the huge mollusk which is the size of a large sauce plate, tasted sinfully rich and indulgent. Thankfully, its accompanying dressing of light soy sauce and minced garlic prevented this speciality from being overly cloying.

More edgy temptations can be found in the a la carte menu such as Marinated Fresh Salmon with Yam (RM25++), Pizza with Salted Cuttlefish (RM25++) and Spicy Seafood Mini Hot Pot with Kim Chi (RM25++).

Desserts are a little more sedate with the Macha (green tea) or Black Sesame Ice-cream and freshly sliced fruits.

Mizu also has a good selection of wine and saké for those who enjoy their favourite tipple to complement the culinary delights here. If the outlet doesn’t carry the desired vintage, they will try their best to procure it to ensure your next dining experience will be truly complete.

MIZU JAPANESE FINE-DINING (pork-free)
Lot F6 First Floor
Bangsar Village
No1 Jalan Telawi Satu
Bansar Baru
59100 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 2283 6988

Friday, September 15, 2006

PRIME MAKES THE CUT

^ Trio of flavoured butter to spread on
crusty seven grain and poppy seed breads

^ Fresh oysters to seduce the senses
^ Angel hair pasta with saffron sauce & seafood
^ Scrumptious lobster tail terrine
^ Prime rib carved at your tableside
^ 80 day grain fed Australian filet mignon with side dishes
^ Sink your teeth into this tender ribeye with morel cream sauce
^ Berries with cream for a tantalising finish

For me, steaks are synonymous with cowboys, Country & Western flicks and the funny antics of Desperate Dan, a steak-loving cartoon character in the UK Dandy comics of my childhood. I also cut my teeth learning to eat sizzling steaks at an established ship-themed steak house in Kuala Lumpur. However, the steak and Wild, Wild West association distintegrate after a visit to Le Méridien Kuala Lumpur’s spanking new outlet, Prime.

Touted as Kuala Lumpur’s first international steak restaurant, Prime is set to take the proverbial bull by the horns, serving up the finest cuts of imported beef within its sleek, contemporary confines.

Extensive timber inlay and impressive custom-built floor-to-ceiling wine displays are matched by high backed two-tone leather chairs and oversized tables that accord extra space and elbow room.

If you wish to see and be seen, opt for the main open seating area. Otherwise, be discreetly cloistered in cosy booth seats and secluded nooks for better privacy. The 10-seater private dining room looks like a presidential conference room that offers an up close and personal vista of the culinary masters at work. While show kitchens are now almost de rigueur for new restaurants, Prime goes one up with its novel Sommelier’s Table. Naturally wine samplings are the main focus here and the resident wine manager will be more than happy to help select suitable wines to complement their meal.

Prime’s steak cuts vary between the basic 220g (8 oz) and the staggering 900g (32 oz or two pounds!) portions, covering a prized range that includes Black Angus 200 day aged and Australian 120 and 80 day aged steaks, grilled on lava stone or imported charcoal. For connoisseurs, there is the Australian certified Kobe-style Wagyu beef with a marble score of six and above. This score is considered the best as the meat has a good balance of dense fat and lean marbling.

The different ‘aged’ steaks actually denote the total number of days the cattle is fed with high grade grains (usually corn), which determines how tender and well-marbled the beef is going to be. Good things don’t come cheap and neither does Wagyu (pronounced wah-g'you, it means Japanese cattle) beef, even though the ones served at Prime comes from Wagyu cattle raised in Australia and not Kobe, Japan. Raised under stringent, exacting conditions, the cattle are placed under a carefully controlled diet and given daily massages to procure supremely tender and densely marbled beef cuts. Is it any surprise a 340g (12 oz) Wagyu sirloin costs RM300 a pop?

My serving of 80 day centre cut 220g Filet Mignon (RM60++) with Caramelized Balsamic-Shallot Jus with Deep-fried Potato Balls with Foie Gras Heart (RM15++) certainly deserves top billing for its amazingly juicy tenderness. Despite its deceptively dainty portion, the expertly prepared steak proved substantial enough. The subtly sweet and tangy sauce brought out the beef’s sumptuous full-bodied flavour whilst the potato balls teased the palate with its mixture of crisp and velvety smooth textures.

Our lunch had earlier started with oven-fresh poppy seed and seven-grain breads served with three types of flavoured butter – unsalted, smoked salmon and mushroom. Our group also shared half dozen of fresh Fines de Claire Oysters (RM60++), Australian Crab Cakes (RM45++), Fresh Angel Hair Pasta with Crustacean Saffron Sauce (RM45++) and Caesar Salad (RM35++).

Served imaginatively on a two-tier glass platter, the oysters were exceptional for their delicate sea-brininess but if you wish, the six accompanying dressings – wasabi mayo, Thai chilli, sour cream, lemon ginger, Tabasco and lemon wedges would certainly add an interesting dimension to them.

The Australian Crab Cakes served with chilli flakes, garlic sauce and mango salsa is an easy way to enjoy tasty crab meat minus the hard work. Forgo pasta as appetizer unless you have an insatiable appetite – the delicious Angel Hair is huge enough to qualify as a main course on its own. The classic Caesar Salad is a better option, prepared and served with a flourish at your tableside.

Special mention must be given to the slow-roasted 80 days grain-fed Australian Prime Rib (300g RM80++, 450g RM110++) which left an indelible impression with its unbelievable melt-in-the-mouth tenderness. Noteworthy accompaniments for this are corn sweet mashed potato, jumbo white and green asparagus, Béarnaise and cracked peppercorn sauce.

My partner’s 120 days 220g Ribeye Steak (RM55++) cooked to medium rare with red warm centre was moist and succulent. Complemented by Morel Cream Sauce and Truffle Mashed Potato (RM15++), it was a match made in heaven.

Prime’s menu is further beefed up with seafood, chicken, lamb and venison. If you want your beef and seafood too, the ubiquitous Surf and Turf (RM120++) would be the ideal solution.

Since we had no room left for decadent desserts such as Gelato, Sticky Date Pudding, Tiramisu and Mango and Coconut Baked Cheesecake, a platter of fresh, imported berries with luxuriously smooth whipped cream brought our meal to a refreshing conclusion.

Prime is definitely worth visiting if you are true-blue steak lover and have no qualms about paying top dollar for great steaks. No bulls about it.

PRIME (pork free)
Level 5 Le Méridien Kuala Lumpur
2 Jalan Stesen Sentral
Kuala Lumpur
Reservations 2263 7555