Japanese Tapas Is King
Updated: Mar 3, 2021
Gone is Babe and in its place is Japas, Jeff Ramsey's exciting new KL restaurant which marries the traits of an izakaya with one of Spain's greatest culinary gifts to the world – tapas. Communal-style Japanese and Spanish gastronomical delights are the stars at this casual-luxe modern izakaya, which is now open for business and as of this writing takes over Babe's 11th-floor spot at Work@Clearwater in Bukit Damansara.
Jeff was kind enough to invite me for an "advance screening" of Japas at the end of last month and I gotta say I really enjoyed my experience. The whimsical flair of Babe is toned down a few notches at Japas, but you'll still find Jeff's attention to detail and creative handiwork all over the well-executed fare. Only this time everything on the menu is designed to be shared, spark conversations, and facilitate the flow of wine and sake, of which Japas has quite the curated list.
My party of food personalities (four writers and one stylist/photographer) had quite an extensive tasting of what the restaurant had to offer. Japas' menu is divided into five sections – nibbles, sashimi, small plates, big plates, and dessert. Let's dig in.
The pouring of a 2018 bottle of Villa Antinori Bianco Toscana, the clinking of glasses, and the arrival of smoked edamame (RM16) heralded the start of the meal. Brined in soy and maple wood smoked, I'd easily recommend this to anyone. The seductive aroma of smoke combined with the sultry sweetness of soy really did a number on the humble edamame, supercharging it with just the right umami notes to make it a bonafide palate pleaser. Especially when paired with sips of the acidic and dry white wine.
Smoked ikura tartlet (RM34), the restaurant's take on the classic smoked salmon and cream cheese duo, was also excellent. Creamy fromage blanc forms the base of the tartlet, salmon roe crowns it and specks of yuzu rind and edible flowers complete the dish. This had everything – texture, taste, presentation, and creativity. The satisfying briny pop of the ikura was softened by the cheese and the satisfying crunch of the thin pastry holding everything together.
Next, an ingredient I will never be tired of in Japanese cuisine – flounder fin. Japas' engawa tsukudani (RM49) is a small plate of pure flavour goodness. The engawa itself, with it's semi-chewy, semi-gelatinous texture, was simmered perfectly, its flavours intensified by the use of mirin and soy. Mustard seeds, soaked for seven days to severely diminish its pungency, offered textural juxtaposition with a more solid pop than that of ikura.
After such a strong start, two types of contemporary sashimi – uni and shiromi (RM90) and toro truffle (RM138) – proved to be a hit and miss for me respectively. While both dishes were beautifully presented and finely executed, it's the flavours of the latter that didn't agree with me.
Shiromi is the Japanese blanket term for white-fleshed fish, and Japas changes its use of shiromi for its sashimi dish depending on what's seasonally available. During my experience, it was tai a.k.a sea bream, a lean fish accentuated by the use of ogo nori, truffle ponzu, spring onion, and kaiware (sprouted daikon seeds). This I really enjoyed due to the fresh, umami quality brought on by the uni and tai that's subsequently humbled by the gentle earthiness of truffle ponzu and the accompanying greens. The inclusion of truffle in this dish I can take, only because it's faint and doesn't mess with the dish's inherent tastes.
The toro truffle, however, I didn't particularly enjoy, mostly because I'm not a fan of truffle, especially when its flavours are concentrated. I much prefer the freshly shaved variety, and even that is not necessarily always a win with me. I love fatty tuna belly. Call me a traditionalist, but I think that the richness of toro is already sufficient to stand on its own, even in new-age sashimi. Replace the truffle with a dollop of caviar and I would probably be singing praises right now. The addition of truffle was a turn off, as I feel it hijacked the taste of the toro and the tsukudani. However, I am definitely in the minority here, as everyone on my table enjoyed this except for me.
Kozara Ryouri (Small Plate Dishes)
While everything up until this moment had been predominantly Japanese, it's not necessarily an accurate representation of the Japanese-Spanish influenced menu. The next wave of dishes made sure to remind us of Japas' duality, starting with an assorted cured meats platter (RM85) – air-dried Cecina beef, chorizo, salchichón (Spanish saucisson), and gyutan (ox tongue). High-grade meats guaranteed a pleasing charcuterie board, with my two favourites being the somewhat spicy chorizo and the salty gyutan, which went satisfyingly well with the wine served.
Next up, a personal favourite and a Spanish classic – grilled pulpo al ajillo (RM58). Perfectly grilled over binchotan, seasoned with smoked paprika, and served with aioli, lemon, and chimichurri, this was outstanding. The outside of the tako had a delicious slight crunch while its insides were moist and tender, a mark of fine kitchen work. The smoked paprika added a little more kick to the dish, while the aioli and chimichurri definitely helped to lighten things up. With that being said, the octopus was so darn good that just having it on its own was perfectly acceptable. I'd reckon this would even go fantastic with a cold pint of lager.
It was approximately at this point of the meal that sake was introduced, a junmai ginjo from Kid to be precise. Perfect timing I might add for a clean and light rice wine, as the next two dishes took the meal back to Japanese territory with the help of torched shimesaba (RM45) and beef tartare (RM55).
The shimesaba was another favourite of mine, partly due to its simplicity and pure, focused flavours. The desirable complexities of seven-spice condiments, shoyu, and lemon are imbued into torched fish, enhancing the natural flavours of the mackeral. All I could think of while tucking into this was just how great I thought the fish would go with a bowl of rice and misoshiru. I might have to do just that soon.
Beef tartare, prepared à la Korean yukhoe and served with pear, was a little underwhelming for me. I think that the taste of the beef and the seasoning used was a bit too delicate for me. I will concede that perhaps it was the order in which the dishes were served and the more robust flavours of the saba, tako, and cured meats that oversaturated my palate, leaving it with little room to appreciate this dish.
Ozara Ryouri (Big Plate Dishes)
These dishes are the big boys, meant to pack a punch. I was fortunate enough to have a large enough party to include four of these hefty plates, starting with the truffle tatsuta chicken (RM45).
Fried chicken, (who doesn't love fried chicken), reminiscent of karaage but bigger sized and with a thicker batter, is served with black pepper and truffle vin, mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), and radish. Diners also have the option to add 15 grams of either freshly shaved Perigold truffles (RM115) or French caviar (RM155) to make it the most luxe fried chicken in town. I quite enjoyed this, the batter gave the chicken a nice crunch and the presence of black pepper imbued the boneless pieces of chicken with a lovely piquant spiciness. Jeff was kind enough to add a whole truffle's worth of shavings to the dish, adding that subtle musk everyone seems to love to each bite. I thought that the truffles were unnecessary, but hey, that's just me and my reserved feelings for it.
Japas' yuan miso-marinated salmon (RM80), teppan grilled with miso and served with anchovy cream, dill, and ikura, was another hit. The fatty, oily fish benefitted from the savoury taste of miso, which was balanced by the lightly salted and herbal-nuanced cream. Great on its own, it's a suitable and welcoming alternative to the most popular main dish that almost always is guaranteed to get chosen – beef.
Which brings us to the two types of steak, a 200g A5 Kagoshima wagyu striploin (RM398) and one 300g Spanish ribeye (RM228), we had the pleasure of relishing. Paired with a Marsilea Bobal Premier Organic red from Valencia, both steaks had their own merits. The wagyu had the advantage of fat for a richer, more pronounced flavour, while the ribeye was leaner with a slightly aged taste. The steaks at Japas come served with an assortment of yakumi (condiments) – salt, pickled daikon, yuzu kosho, arima sansho, cracked black pepper, and smoked dijon. The clear winner for me was the wagyu, especially with a spot of tangy yuzu kosho, straightforward salt, or the wonderful zing of arima sansho.
Three desserts were served and each I felt fulfilled a specific purpose, still riffing on the Japan-meets-Spain vibe the restaurant successfully embodies.
There was the Harajuku burnt cheesecake (RM22), a Tokyo-style Basque cheesecake with vanilla cream that most diners will gravitate towards due to its overwhelming popularity in KL. It's soft and moderately creamy with a light cheese taste. Not the best in town but it's no slouch either; it stands on its own.
For those who need a palate cleanser after pampering their taste buds with fatty meats, there's the melon and white wine (RM28) – a refreshing mix of melon, yuzu curd, and wine jelly.
The adventurous eater looking for something out of the ordinary will opt for the hojicha crème caramel with sannoutou sugar (RM22), my personal favourite. The use of hojicha makes this one of the best crème caramels I've ever had. Silky smooth texture, balanced sweetness, and an elegant tea taste will leave you wondering why you haven't seen this East-meets-West combination used more often.