Updated: Jun 28, 2022
There's a new restaurant by James Won – Shin’Labo. Whereas his previous flagship, Enfin, maintained a more French outlook despite incorporating both Japanese and Malaysian influences and ingredients, Shin’Labo flips the script, putting Japanese culinary principles first. But it wouldn’t be a James Won restaurant if it didn’t feature a healthy dose of ingenuity, creativity and culinary opulence.
James tells me that Shin’Labo is a new expression of his approach to gastronomy, playing with modern French techniques to put Japanese yōshoku heritage front and centre. There’s a delightful mix of Japanese, French and Malaysian elements at Shin‘Labo, which is a very James thing if you’re familiar with his food.
The recently minted Shin’Labo is also neither overly small nor large, striking a sweet spot between the lounge, the caviar bar, the main dining kappo room, and the private Krug room across 2700 square feet.
Speaking of caviar, Shin’Labo has partnered with the good folks at Caspian Caviar House for their caviar bar, renamed Maison du Caviar Caspienne at James’ establishment. It’s a cozy nook in the restaurant for those looking to indulge in some of the finest caviar. I’m told that the restaurant and Maison du Caviar Caspienne intend to bring the highly sought-after and rare white almas caviar to his restaurant, which fetches $25,000 (USD) per kilo.
Dining here starts from pricey to extravagant. Entry-level meals begin with lunch, where Shin’Labo dishes out a small selection of donburi sets starting from RM110+. The real nikujaga mainly revolves around the restaurant‘s two kappo menus (Kikuryu at RM668+ and Kikumaru RM888+) and the more luxurious omakase (RM2000+), which requires a seven-day advanced booking and is only available once a week. The restaurant’s crème de la crème gastronomical experience is undoubtedly the private Krug chef’s table that commands a minimum spending of RM20,000+.
I was fortunate enough to be invited by James to a media review of the more opulent of the two kappo menus – Kikumaru. It was an exceptional experience, made sweeter with a fantastic champagne and sake pairing that really elevated the whole experience. Let’s dive right in.
A trio of yōshoku snacks kickstarts the meal – hambagu, korokke and omurice. These Japanese mainstays have been miniaturised and contemporised. The hambagu was made of duck confit, with a salty intensity that jolts the tastebuds awake and extends it with a dollop of sevruga caviar. The thin layer of potato keeping the faux “Hamburg steak” together introduces oiliness and slight starchiness to add body and bite.
The korokke was, unfortunately, my least favourite of the trio. Why? Because it had yam. Haha. It is a luxe take on the humble woo kok dumplings you find at dim sum restaurants that, while I can appreciate the idea behind this amuse bouche, I just didn’t prefer.
The omurice, on the other hand, was the clear winner. Inside, crispy chicken skin hides the actual rice, making for a two-textured, full-on flavoured bite of pure deliciousness.
Two cuts of hamachi (Japanese amberjack or yellowtail) – the loin and the belly – and a tuna akami made up the sashimi course. All three cuts were superb, starting with the leaner hamachi loin, then the akami and finally the fattier belly. Shin’Labo’s use of dry ageing amplified the natural flavours of the fish. Unconventionally, the dish also featured a dollop of cilantro oil, which elevated the plate with a soothing, elegant herbaceous bite. The shoyu Shin’Labo uses is also fascinating – made from a blend of 90-day superior Cantonese and a 45-day Japanese aged shoyu with added kombu for balance.
There’s a lot going on here that the naked eye doesn’t immediately reveal with this dish. When paired with Krug champagne, the delicious, fine bubbly enhanced and balanced the flavours presented. Being a Krug ambassador, James is a master at crafting dishes that work to harmonise the champagne, so it’s no surprise that the opening transition of amuse bouche to entree becomes just all the better with Krug in the mix.
From sashimi to oshizushi, Shin'Labo once again features the hamachi in sushi form. Lightness is the key here; the taste of the hamachi was prominent enough to stay at the forefront long enough until the rice took over and highlighted a mix of seaweed, cucumber and flowers.
Shin'Labo smartly switches to the sublime IWA 5 at this point of the meal, the elegant, well-balanced sake pairing beautifully with the lighter flavours of the pressed sushi.
The incredibly delightful IWA 5 once again seems a fitting choice for such a premium oyster from Hyogo prefecture. Depending on availability, the restaurant's oyster course may be French or Japanese. In this case, the Hyogo oyster was clean, crisp and slightly creamy, with controlled amounts of balsamic vinegar and parsley oil balancing the natural salinity with hints of earthiness.
The last of the entrees – Hokkaido scallop and caviar. Once again, underneath the hood, there's more going on with this dish than what appears on the surface. James revealed that the scallop received the sous vide treatment before being flamed seared on top with goose fat and cocoa nibs, while uni butter rests at the bottom. A dollop of sevruga caviar, a few drops of cilantro oil, and a sprinkling of togarashi and flowers completed the dish.
All the techniques and flavours layered in this one dish were superb. The entire experience presented featured exceptional balance – heavy yet refined elements and a complex yet easily enjoyable spectrum of tastes. A sip of IWA 5 wrapped this package with a neat little bow, cleaning the palate with gentle sweetness.
Fresh off the grill came a melange of seasonal vegetables, featuring locally-sourced tomato, jumbo shiitake, kai lan, corn and carrot served with a brush of miso, heralding the start of the bincho grill courses. Shin'Labo kitchen team's skill shines throughout this section, with most if not all dishes displaying just the proper levels of smokiness from the grill to complement rather than outshine. The greens were all perfectly cooked, although I wish the miso was more liquid in nature rather than it being a paste, which made it a tad challenging to incorporate into the vegetables without some effort.
This vegetable medley reminded me a lot of Enfin's completely edible garden, except now stripped down to its very core and presented more to the tune of Japanese minimalism.
The start of the bincho grill also called for a change of sake, switching out the fantastic IWA 5 for equally sublime Tanaka x Chartier. What a treat.
Locally-sourced Blue Prawn, lovingly flame-kissed and served with two types of butter (uni and lemon), continued the indulgence. Plump, perfectly tender meat enriched with two kinds of butter made for absolutely delectable mouthfuls. To aid with the easy separation of meat and shell, James asked us to use the quatra passata – a fork, chopstick hybrid that he helped design for exclusive use in his restaurant.
The fruitier notes of the Tanaka x Chartier sake really complemented the richer umami notes that dominated the dish for this pairing.
Duck à l'orange with a Japanese twist. James tells me his duck is unlike any other in town and I gotta say he's right. I've had a few stunning duck dishes in town from several restaurants, but Shin'Labo's rendition is unique in its own right. This classic French dish is served with two surprises to jazz things up – ikura and duck powder.
The meat was exceptionally tender, contrasted with crispy skin and complemented by a mix of moderate tartness from the orange and pickled radish. The ikura, on the other hand, added in a nice curveball by introducing bursts of salinity, while the duck powder gives diners a choice to add on a more intense duck game sensation should they prefer.
Diners have a choice between lamb saddle pissaladiere or A5 ribeye Omi Hime beef when it comes to the last main, the latter of which I'm told is a Shin'Labo speciality. I went for the lamb, mainly because I think that while beef is delicious and fantastic in its own right, it's boring because it's...well beef. Lamb, on the other hand, seems much more exciting to me.
James and his kitchen team have chosen to serve a lamb saddle with pissaladiere, think a stuffing of anchovies, olives and capers, done over the bincho grill. The result is an incredible cut of lamb, with marble-like fat coating the cut's outer layer and pink, succulent meat on the inside. Served with a mint sprig to chew on as opposed to the typical sauce variety, which is unconventional but makes introducing mint to the dish novel, the dish was completed with traditional accompaniments like sea salt and jus.
And so we come to the rice portion of the meal, signalling the end of the savoury courses and marking the oncoming of dessert. Shin’Labo gives yet another yōshoku classic the luxe treatment – hayashi rice. Although similar in concept to Japanese curry rice, hayashi rice often features beef, onions and champignons in a demi-glaze sauce made with red wine and tomato sauce.
At Shin’Labo, modern twists keep the dish from feeling rustic. Truffles are introduced on top of a perfectly poached egg that James refers to as a “happy egg”, the tamago itself hiding duck hayashi sauce. There’s a lot to love here for Shin’Labo savoury final act. The egg yolk introduces a lovely rich and flavourful element to the hayashi sauce and rice, the latter of which delivers a robust meaty taste that‘s softened by the pillowy white rice. Despite my adversity to truffles, the component in this dish provided a much needed levity to an otherwise heavy dish.
This was the first time I had Tanaka x Chartier sake with such an assortment of meats across various styles, and I’m happy to report that the wine‘s elegant versatility holds up to heavier, more pronounced flavours as it does lighter, more fruity and floral elements.
Two desserts and a fantastic petit four spread round out the Kikumaru experience. The first was unsurprising yet surprising for different reasons. The unsurprising part was that the musk melon was delicious, as one would expect from Japanese melons. On the other hand, the surprising element was that the melon served was grown on Malaysian soil, cultivated by the good folks at Chitose over in Cameron Highlands. Yes, folks. You can now get locally grown musk melon that’s just as good as their Japanese-grown siblings for a fraction of the price. What an age we live in.
Next was a soba sablé, keluak and chocolate parfait. The introduction of buckwheat and keluak smartly prevented this dessert from becoming yet another chocolate dish. There was a delicate balance between the bitter and sweet components of the chocolate that played out very nicely on the palate. At the same time, the textural crunch of the soba sablé and the inherent lightness of buckwheat helped balance the chocolate and keluak’s more robust flavours.
Enjoyed with coffee or tea, Shin’Labo‘s petit fours ended the meal on a high note. The matcha bonbon had just the right amount of intensity and sweetness with minimal bitterness. Almond florentine, on the other hand, was delightfully nutty, a fantastic follow-up once you’ve had that nama chocolate. As simple as it may sound, fruit jelly was also incredibly satisfying, for it featured a rich, concentrated taste of citrus to refresh the palate.
James and his team have done it again. Shin’Labo serves delicious food that spares no expense. Dishes are well designed, thought of, executed and paced perfectly to facilitate a seamless flow from course to course and dish to dish. Sure, dining at Shin’Labo falls on the pricier spectrum of the KL dining scene, but what you get for your money is well worth the asking price, in my opinion.