The air is thick with conversation and boisterous laughter. Pitchers of beer are lifted in celebration, ears are cocked in rapt attention and food is surreptitiously tossed into hungry mouths.
If this raucous, festive atmosphere is what Tsubohachi hopes to create, then it has already succeeded.
Launched in Hokkaido, Japan in 1973, Tsubohachi is ubiquitous in its motherland with over 300 outlets to its name. Its solid reputation has sparked off franchises in countries like Singapore and Thailand, and some of that allure has rubbed off on the Malaysian edition as well.
Ensconced in Publika – one of Kuala Lumpur’s all-embracing food hubs – the restaurant’s fiery red lanterns and high ceiling will catch your attention as you enter. A long open kitchen spans the length of the restaurant, so you can treat yourself to the live visual performance of chefs in motion every day.
Describing itself as the first izakaya restaurant in Malaysia, there are private rooms and sake barrel-shaped eating corners. The restaurant also has a menu bursting with alcoholic options. Whether your tipple of choice is beer, shochu, sake, plum wine or yuzu, the inebriation possibilities are endless. If you’re looking for a particularly potent intoxicant, the sweet potato shochu is just the ticket to knock your socks off.
But what is izakaya, really? Described as the definitive after-work culture of Japan, it’s the Eastern version of happy hour. Izakaya restaurants often provide copious amounts of alcohol and good food, all of which lead to one surety: a heck of a good time!
“On weekdays, izakaya restaurants in Japan are almost a must-go after-work hangout for office workers. So for Malaysians, we are foreseeing the same trend,” said Maverick Lee, managing director of Iccho Dining Sdn Bhd, the company set up in Malaysia for the Japanese franchise. His brother, Tommy, executive director of the company, is just as confident that the restaurant will charm the pants off locals.
And why shouldn’t it? On paper, it has everything going for it. Location? Check. Atmosphere? Check. Alcohol? Check. Good food. Erm … well, it’s nearly there.
This isn’t to say the food is not good, rather, it’s a case of the same old stuff. Few things on the menu hint at originality and one is inclined to ask, “What else have you got?”
There are a few dishes fighting valiantly to rise above the innocuous, like Wahadori Zangi, a Hokkaido style deep fried chicken which has been fried to glorious perfection, worthy of the two-word sobriquet “comfort food”. Succulent and tender on the inside, and spectacularly crunchy on the outside, this is the sort of stuff you’ll keep reaching for, calories be damned.
The Kashimori is another triumphant warrior: a skewer platter with various chicken parts moulded into mounds of meat.
The little bird that gave its life up for this dish didn’t die in vain, as every bit has been put to good use, from the leg to the liver, including the skin and even the gizzard! Grilled beautifully, the platter is a lesson in textures, inspiring poultry poetry. I concocted my own as I waded greedily through this toothsome offering:
“Chicken, oh chicken, how many ways can I enjoy thee?”
“Writer, oh writer, clearly more ways than three!”
But then, a veil of blah blankets the rest of the offerings. The egg rolls are simple, unpretentious and predictable. The Roppinmori (assorted sashimi) has all the usual suspects like salmon, tuna and octopus. While everything is fresh and silky smooth (the salmon is particularly velvety), there’s nothing particularly new or special.
The same goes for the Nigiri Moriawase Matsu (a selection of sushi), which comes with tuna, salmon, cucumber and fish roe sushi. It’s all nice and tasty, but this is your garden variety sushi which doesn’t really stand out from other places.
While a lot of thought has been put into Tsubohachi’s triple A (aesthetics, alcohol and ambience) – it scores top marks for this – the same has not been invested in the food. It’s a pity as the owners are certainly on to something good with the izakaya theme.
Here’s hoping they get it right soon as Maverick said another Tsubohachi outlet is in the works.
“We’re looking at a second outlet in KL six months. This will be around the popular hangout areas, where people go for drinks,” he added.
Still, if you’re after a good time with an Oriental flavour, Tsubohachi will be right up your alley.
A2-UG 1-9 Publika
No 1, Jalan Dutamas
50480 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03 6206 5526
Open daily 11.30am to 3pm; 5.30pm till closing