Mission: To respond thoughtfully and responsibly to my experiences of drinking and dining at restaurants with regard to the quality, service, preparation, presentation and overall experience received thereat. The standpoint is one who respects the crafts of the chef and sommelier and who seeks to understand their choices in the kitchen and cellar and grow in knowledge. In this, I will seek to be fair, reasoned, direct and constructive and aim to keep my ego in check on our mutual journeys through the worlds of food and wine.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

IWFS Kampachi Sake Dinner - Averagely All Right

August 22 2014

The August shindig for the IWFS Kuala Lumpur was to be quite an auspicious affair. Big Tony had been contacted by the Kampachi people and advised of an upcoming promotion of produce from the Okayama Prefecture in Japan. Some more, the Governor of the Prefecture would be coming and did we want to hold a function there with him as guest of honour. Committee considered and yes please was the decision. 

Kampachi used to be legend for Japanese Cuisine in the early days when it was at the Equatorial Hotel on Jalan Sultan Ismail. Seems it has been around for more than forty years and was a regular winner of awards from the Food and Beverage industry. Indeed, our IFWS KL gave a Certificate of Commendation for a pairing dinner held at the Jaya 33 outlet in 2013. 

At one time Lenglui and I were quite friendly with Kampachi Executive Chef Cheah and occasionally went to the Kampachi at the KL Equatorial but then he moved to manage the Bangi outlet and we lost touch.  Since then, the Kampachi brand has expanded into stand alone restaurants in selected locations in the city. There has also been an explosion of competitor restaurants offering high end sashimi, and so much so that we drifted off to other new favourites - Iketeru in KL Hilton, Kami Sushi in Sri Hartamas, Kamimura in The Weld and the recently rediscovered Zipangu in the Shang. 

Table Place Setting at Kampachi
Over the years Kampachi has been sourcing its fresh produce from various prefectures in Japan. For the dinner, the fresh farm and marine produce and sakes would be sourced predominantly from the Okayama Prefecture. In this, the restaurant was seeking to "bring forward the highest level of flavour and enjoyment with each sake pairing." In particular, we were to look out for the award winning Sakura Muromachi Sake brewed from Omachi-mai rice and the famous Omachi spring water. This would be Sake One.

Executive Chef for the dinner would be Looi Weng Leong. Trained in Japan and with more than 20 years with Kampachi, it was felt his long association with the restaurant would ensure the highest standards of quality and innovation would be maintained. The showcase Sake Dinner would comprise seven "exceptional courses prepared from the freshest produce paired with carefully chosen traditionally crafted premium sakes highlighting the bountiful natural resources from Okayama". 

Kampachi Entrance
I had never yet been to any of the Kampachi outlets since it left the Equatorial nest. For some reason the locations were a bit off the usual shopping haunts. The one at Plaza 33 in Petaling Jaya is their fourth and is "the culmination of a Japanese interior designer’s effort to integrate traditional Japanese materials in a contemporary style. The restaurant is separated into two distinct zones: a stylish bar at the entrance leads guests into the main dining area. The well-stocked bar features some hard to find ‘cult’ Japanese sakes from exceptional breweries that are exclusively available only at the Kampachi."

I found it all a bit on the dark side, which was not really helped by the fact that most members had felt the need to dress equally dark. The ambience of the Kampachi felt modern Japanese with lots of traditional light balsa wood and bamboo feel yet with quite a bit of darker boardroom brown. Lighting was quite subdued for me. The IWFS had booked out the place and our 53 members and guests got separated across four tables of varying numbers. The setting was lovely and the service smooth and pleasant, though the temperature inside veered somewhat toward the chilly. 

The amazing Okayama Black Grapes
We were all greeted by a cocktail glass of something that looked staggeringly sweet and which was declined, preferring instead the wonderful looking grapes and peaches being carved and served. These were delightful. The black grapes in particular were massive - firm and crisp with a huge finish of sweet acidity. The peaches were equally stunning - a fresh clean bite and crunchy sweet pear like texture but finishing as soft as a Katy Perry teenage dream. Brilliant fruits - a total taste of Okayama sunshine and summer. There was also a Conger Eel carving demonstration. Some of us thought that we could eat the carvings and tried to pinch some of the eel but got firmly told no - demo only, no eat. 

Kampachi ambience
The Governor of Okayama His Excellency Mr. Ryuta Ibaragi was asked to give a speech and he kept it reasonably short. Quite a young chap, his speech was basically "come to Okayama and we will welcome you". Certainly the tourist brochures being given out portrayed a wonderfully fresh looking and clean part of the world. Very natural and hugely pretty. Given that they were most generous with their grapes and snow peaches as appetizers and later as parting gifts in cute bags, it became quite a tempting proposition. O how we can be easily bribed with good fruit… 

IWFS KL Past President Tony Narisawa with The Governor of Okayama His Excellency Mr. Ryuta Ibaragi
The Sakes for the night came in three separate flasks, though not all at the same time. It was all quite generous in that each of us got a flask of each sake and, being IWFS, there seemed little left over at the end of the night. Sake One was the slated Sakura Muromachi Bizen Maboroshi. The notes talked about a "sweet aroma of rice on the nose with a hint of citrus. A balanced palate that is clean and refreshing with a dry, long finish. Best served cold. Alcohol 17%, Seimaibuai 58% and Acidity 1.6." (NB Seimaibuai is the percentage of rice grain left after it has been polished - more polish equals higher grade sake). It came across as fragrant with a clean crisp and crunchy mouthfeel and a good rip on the back of the tongue. A good no-nonsense starter sake which we were all quickly quaffing and Kanpei-ing with gusto. Someone at this point asked if I like sake. My reaction answer was that I love the booze. Yes. The Kiwi thought I was being very honest. 

The opening Zensai (means Appetizer) would be two dishes. First out were the oysters which were absolutely superb - fresh, creamy and juicy and giving a fantastic sea-salt feel on the inside of the cheeks. They tamed the alcohol in the Sake to give off an odd tea tree bark feel on the salt sensitive sides of the tongue. Odd, but not unpleasant. 

Fresh Oyster with Homemade Japanese Citrus Vinaigrette
There were lots of little bits surrounding the oyster to give texture, and it was clearly a deft touch by Chef to ensure that there was not enough to overpower the main boy. In this, it would have been excellent to have had more oysters - we got two each when six would have slipped by so easily. So it goes. The oysters were generally accorded to be stunning - for me, they alone were worth the admission price. Unbelievably good. Set a high standard for the rest of town. 

The Nyonya and The Lenglui
Next out was the Stuffed Tomato and Prawn which combined a somewhat thin vegetal taste with a shellfish texture whilst a spaghetti squash added some crunch. Though there was little taste on the prawn, the combo worked quite well with the sake to bring out a nutty fruit feel in the mouth - apples, pears and almonds. The dish showed off a nice acidity and zing on the tongue - good sparky sparks, possibly the result of the Omachi Spring Water.

Stuffed Tomato with Green Asparagus, Pumpkin, Prawn, Potato and Spaghetti Squash with Wasabi Dressing
Sake Two (Bosatsumoto Nigorisyu Hiire) came out quickly and was ice cold, same as Sake One. The notes talked about a "light style of nigori with slight cloudiness and rice sediment. Made from Omachi rice using the ancient Bodaimoto method, it is slightly sweet with a balancing citrus sourness and peppery aftertaste. Best served cold. Alcohol 17.5%, Seimaibuai 65%, Acidity 1.8."  Sake Two was indeed more structured - chewy and with a very nice balance of alcohol and sugar - and cloudy. First time I'd had one like this, and very happy to have done so. Good earthy rice feel with a soft alcohol punch on the back end.  

It was being paired with the Suimono (means Soup) and Tsukuri (means Raw, alternate word for Sashimi) courses. Very little booze offerings will pair well with soup but tonight would prove an exciting exception. Alone, the Japanese Clear Soup was light spice liquid with a hint of salted potato and leek. It did feel a little bit snuzz on its own but when supped with the sake it gave rise to a supercharged fire which cleansed the tonsils and throat like a blowtorch. All Whoosh and tickling grip. Definitely a new experience with sake. The Conger Eel got a bit lost in the mix - no note on the taste or texture.

Japanese Clear Soup with Blanched Conger Pike Eel and Yellow Chives
The Sashimi was a bit mixed - someone asserted that the Maguro (tuna) was apparently Moroccan which explained the sense of "okay only" in taste and texture, though the Kanpachi (Amberjack) was a clean bite and firm chew without coming across as overly fishy. The accompanying vegetables were way better - fresh, crisp and full of powerful tastes coalescing across the top of the mouth in a frenzy of peppery radish and carrot fireworks. But it was the wasabi that was the star - freshly grated with a brilliant zappy mustard smack up the nostrils. The sashimi did bring out a fuller body in the Sake - got smoke and bite with a hint of coffee and flinty stonefruit. 

Slices of Raw Fish: Tuna and Amberjack
Sake Three (Chikurin Fukamari Junmai) came out in a soy sauce kind of receptacle. The previous had been consumed in traditional shot ceramic style shot glass shape things. So presumably this would be the business. And it sort of was, in a hot kind of way. The notes talked about a mellow aroma reminiscent of fragrant fruit blossoms. Dry, yet with great umami from the brown unmilled rice. Alcohol content 15%, Seimaibuai 60%, Acidity 1.3. 

I got lemon curd and heat, and sherbet for some reason on this one. Someone said that heating sake should only be done with the lower level offerings since the heating process impacts the structure of the drink. It's a bit like adding ice or water to whiskey - okay with the blends but you really shouldn't mess with the single malts. Which would seem a bit strange given that the third one to come out was to presumably be the business and was being served hot. Maybe I heard wrong. It happens. Getting a bit conversationally deaf in loud environments.

Sake Three was being paired with the remaining four courses: the Yakimono (means Pan Fried), Shinogi, Shokuji and Kanmi (couldn't find definitions for these last three).  

We were all pretty merry by this time given that both Sakes One and Two were well on their way to being fully chugged. At some time in the night, one tends to stop really caring about the subtleties of the pairing and just wants to chug down and have some fun. We were pretty close to this point in the night. Though I soldiered on with notes on the food. Kind of.

The Grilled Butterfish was firm and salted, with a teriyaki-ish kind of crisp baste which thankfully had more salt umami than sticky caramel. The fish felt a shade ordinary in its grilled smoked state, but the star was the sesame paste - it totally rocked with Sake Three. Imagine the smoothest peanut butter you ever tasted and then think of a number and multiply it. This is what Sake Three did to the paste. Wicked and sinfully smooth. And boozy. Wooooooooo…. 

Grilled Butterfish marinated with Miso Bean Paste and Eggplant with Sesame Paste
The next dish out was the Tofu skin which felt a bit delicate and wispy; almost felt a bit scared to eat it in case it blew away. The Konnyaku Jelly had a firmish texture, and was nicely acetic with the vinaigrette and the mustard giving a cute kick. But not really to my taste - it came across like a two day old Tau Foo Fah, that milky gunky bland beancurd dessert you get that slips down the throat and tastes tasteless (except for the syrup that can be added to it). And two day old to boot. Not my favourite. 

Tofu Skin in Konnyaku Jelly served with Vinegared Miso and Mustard
The best thing about this one was the Sake - it cleaned off all the gunk that the tofu left in the mouth a treat. Especially at the back of the teeth which got a coating of cold cacky fur - better than a mouthful of Steradent for doing the job. Perhaps this was the charm of the dish - getting your teeth cleaned by the sake. 

The Veg and Rice was quite hearty and hugely welcome. Although a shade stodgy in a wholewheat kind of way, the rice helped to pacify a belly that was screaming for some carbo. 

Edible Japanese Wild Vegetables and Mushroom Rice
The dessert melon was very very sweet. The taste of the grapes somehow got reversed when they got served as dessert - the green grapes were lovely crisp and sweet fruity bites whereas the black ones were somehow off. Not sure if it was the way they had been kept in the interim or whether the Sake does something to the tastebuds. Odd. 

Japanese Melon, Okayama Pione and Muscat Grapes
Then, strange of strange, there was a Lucky Draw. Whether this is usual in Japanese Culture I did not find out. In Chinese culture for certain lucky draws are part and parcel of big gatherings, but with Japanese company this was a new one. And yes, it happened - the new friend on the table who moans that he or she never wins anything and then suddenly their number comes up and they scream in wild delight. Makes you want to spit. 

Some more Sake for you? Hai!! er, please...
The Lucky Draw necessitated translators for the number calling. The important chap making the draw had such a thick accent in his English speaking voice that he could not be understood in his pronunciation of the numbers of the winners. Thankfully someone was on hand to translate and enunciate. Could have been worse - imagine if someone had decided to have a Bingo session - nightmare.

The service on the night was mostly pleasant and unobtrusive, with staff clearing plates with minimal fuss and interference though with good humour when needed. 

Kampachi kitchen staff and crew
In sum, quite a number of people seemed to see the evening as one of brilliant oysters, good sake, but with the rest of the food a bit snuzz and not enough of it. "Averagely all right" as someone put it. I have some degree of sympathy. Although the dishes were pleasant and made for interesting pairings with the Sake, there really wasn't enough food to satisfy. I heard a few grumblings of "Let's go for Char Kwey Teow," and when I have to scarf down a hunk of bread, butter and honey on arrival home to quell the angry grumbles in the gut then something is clearly amiss. Granted that Japanese cuisine is notably lacking in the carbo stakes and granted that my Western belly demands carbo to stave off the gastric, but this felt like a larger than usual gap in the feeling full stakes. And this in the face of a decent bowl of the mushroom rice that got swiftly polished just before the dessert. More volume was definitely needed to soak up the sake. But then we did consume a fair chug of it across the evening, so I guess these things might be relative - when we drink more, we need to eat more to soak it up. Maybe. But it's not every Japanese dinner that necessitates a honey sandwich before bedtime.

IWFS KL Past President Tony Narisawa, IWFS Roppongi President Dennis Tanaka and friend
On leaving, Big Tony called us over. He had a spare jug of Sake which he was pouring for everyone and insisted on a final "Kanpei" with us and friend Dennis who had hosted our IWFS Roppongi trip in February 2014.  Which we did. Knows how to enjoy his food and wine does Tony. Top man and top marks for a good night. Just wish we could have had a bit more food…


Summer Day 
Sake and Sweet Sour mix

Hamo no Honkiri
Conger Pike Eel Demonstration

Nama Gaki Ponzu, tomato no Ikomi Wasabi Dressing
Fresh Oyster with Homemade Japanese Citrus Vinaigrette;
Stuffed Tomato with Green Asparagus, Pumpkin, Prawn, Potato and Spaghetti Squash with Wasabi Dressing

Pairing with Sakura Muromachi Bizen Maboroshi

Togan Jiru Hamo Kuzuuchi Kinira
Japanese Clear Soup with Blanched Conger Pike Eel and Yellow Chives

Pairing with Bosatsumoto Nigorisyu Hiire

Maguro, Kanpachi
Slices of Raw Fish: Tuna and Amberjack

Managatsuo Saikyoyaki Nasu Gomayose
Grilled Butterfish marinated with Miso Bean Paste and Eggplant with Sesame Paste

Pairing with Chikurin Fukamari Junmai

Yuba Konnyaku Karashi Sumiso
Tofu Skin in Konnyaku Jelly served with Vinegared Miso and Mustard

Okayamasan Sansai to Kinoko no Takikomi Gohan
Edible Japanese Wild Vegetables and Mushroom Rice

Melon, Pione, Muscat
Japanese Melon, Okayama Pione and Muscat Grapes

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