March 21, 2019
Jun Wong is a chef on a mission. For nearly two years, she has been largely known by her past credentials, which span stints in modern restaurants ranked at the foremost in Australia, Japan and Macau.
But increasingly, she wants patrons at her Malaysian home base of Kikubari in DC Mall to see past her resume and savour her food for what it is - a pure reflection of her respect for produce and her team's restraint in its preparation. What you see is what you get, without gratuitous embellishment.
As Kikubari moves deeper into 2019, Wong's latest menu marks her as a fully defined chef on her own terms, working in a kitchen that nimbly balances the rustic and the refined, anchored by Japanese inspirations but set to sail by the freedom of Wong's own progressive imagination.
If you crave a meal where crispy prawn heads share the limelight with tender beef tongue, where mentaiko toast takes a bow with sea urchin tartlets, where amadai earns as much of an ovation as awabi, Kikubari is the stage where every ingredient - honoured or humble - seizes a chance to shine.
The paramount roles at Kikubari often belong to seafood and vegetables. For the former, Hokkaido angel prawns and Japanese flying squid illustrate Wong's natural preference for substance over style, for fulfillment over flamboyance.
The prawns and the squid are served whole by determined design - Wong has long practised the principles of nose-to-tail eating even for seafood, underscoring a sense of serene reverence for every part of the produce.
The seafood is synergised simply with sauces that confidently complement briny-sweet flavours - the kushiyaki-style prawns with garlic butter and chives (RM88) and the smoky binchotan-grilled surume ika with shoyu burnt butter (RM118).
In that regard, both of Wong's watchwords of respect and restraint are illuminated in these preparations. The result: Texture-wise, the crustaceans are killer, their plump succulence yielding luscious mouthfuls, while the cephalopod is encouragingly firm to the bite, fleshy to the chew.
Freshness is irreproachable - Kikubari flies in crates of seafood from Japan twice a week, with a repertoire that ranges from seasonal fish to scallops and sea urchin from Hokkaido.
While Kikubari might be perceived as a fine-dining establishment, Wong insists her cooking favours rustic roots.
There's a timeless elegance to this awabi kombu zosui, featuring slices of Japanese abalone draped with seaweed over a congee-like rice soup, bringing together the bounty of the ocean and the harvest of the land in one bowl (RM128).
The secret sauce to this umami-rich recipe is blended from abalone liver, again cultivating a practical use for an otherwise overlooked portion of the abalone - the nourishing creaminess of this illustrates what generations of grandmothers might make in a corner of Chiba, but it's universally comforting enough to evoke the home-cooked love of neneks and nonnas around the globe.
Wong revels in relying on ingredients that she genuinely loves and doing utmost justice to them - case in point, mussels, an absolute should-try at Kikubari. The achingly delicate smoothness of these mussels make most others in KL seem stringy and past their prime in comparison.
More than a dozen of the warm mussels emerge, unconventionally, with cuts of cold, corn-fed chicken breast in what might seem like a conflict in contrasts - thankfully, the chicken is deliberately made tender enough to pass off for dark meat, for a potent pairing of protein on this plate.
Rounding out this recipe is a mussel cream that creates a binding coherence of flavours, a sprinkling of togarashi for a subtly spiced edge, and takenoko bamboo shoots for savoury-juicy earthiness - plenty of dynamics to transform what risks being bland into buoyantly brilliant (RM58).
The same chicken that wound up with the mussels offers up its liver for a distinctively different dish - the offal is transformed into a thickly decadent parfait laced with truffle oil and shallots, crowning a buttery fruit-and-nut brioche and a roasted fruit sauce for what tastes like a triumphant, crowd-rousing cross between a Melburnian brunch and a Parisian dinner (RM52).
If you'd like to hear Wong explain some of her choices of produce and concoctions in her own words, Kikubari's Facebook page occasionally posts videos (titled Understanding Our Ingredients) of her handling her latest shipments of everything from fish to poultry; her staunch emphasis on sustainable sources can be traced to being raised by environmentalist parents.
Exactly a year ago, Wong began experimenting with a Meatless Monday vegetarian tasting menu; while that no longer happens weekly, customers here can still construct an entire dinner of vegetables on their own.
Two top temptations include the cauliflower (RM36; whole-roasted with nut butter for a delicious depth, bolstered with aromatic sage oil and a puree of cauliflower florets for two textures of cauliflower in one dish) and the avocado (RM28; turned into a tempura whose airy crunch is perfectly coupled with the avocado's ripe creaminess, punched up with matcha salt and a pesto dip that provide a herbaceous interplay on the canvas of the avocado).
For folks keen on living the plant life, expect a bumper crop on Kikubari's menu - enoki chips with gobo cream; tofu ‘cheese’ with house-made tsukemono; sweet corn with mushroom tartlets; burnt cabbage with miso sauce and negi charcoal powder; and napa cabbage mille-feuille with butter-roasted smoked eringi.
There's no lack of sweet flourishes for a satisfying finish either, with everything from yuzu curd tarts with lightly aerated mascarpone to almond-crusted brioche with tualang honey and vanilla bean ice cream beckoning from the menu.
But if you leave it to Wong to decide your final fate, her selection might be the sensational anmitsu shiratama (RM18), which sends you out on a soothing high - Kikubari's take on the Japanese classic combines agar jelly with rice flour dumplings, completed with house-made yam ice cream, red bean paste, and a seasonal variety of fruits - the kind of chilled, vibrantly nuanced delight that speaks to the inner child in each of us, ideal for a summer day in Tokyo or a sultry night in KL.
Kikubari has nurtured a reputation for being a sanctuary for sake from the start, so a lengthy meal here with diverse courses can be partnered with multiple sakes.
To begin the evening, a reviving Kokuryu Kuzuryu Ippin that benefits from its origin of Fukui's 'soft' water (RM60 per 180-ml carafe), followed by a dry, cleanly intense Suigei Tokubetsu Junmai from Kochi for heavier dishes (RM55 per carafe; love the 'Drunken Whale' label for this bottle), and perhaps a full-bodied, fragrantly perfumed Tatenokawa Junmai Daiginjo from Yamagata to stand up to some seafood (RM70 per carafe).
As Kikubari, its chef and her crew continue to evolve and mature, so does their food, consisting of components at their prime, woven together with intelligence and inventiveness, with the benefit of experience and exactitude, expressing themselves with captivating clarity.
Many thanks to the team here for having us back.
L3-01A, Damansara City Mall, Jalan Damanlela, 50490 Kuala Lumpur.
Dinner, Monday-Saturday, 630pm-1030pm; lunch, Tuesday-Friday, 12pm-230pm. Closed Sunday.
You Might also Like