It sounds like a bad idea at first. But the marriage of two culinary worlds – especially ones with little in common like Japanese and Italian – seems gastronomically illiterate until a visit to a smart new “fusion” restaurant proves you wrong.
Located in a low-key corner of Atria Shopping Gallery in Petaling Jaya, Manmaru Robatayaki & Bar plys non-purist flavour combos with its distinctly Japanese menu peppered with slight Italian accents.
Opened several months ago by restaurateur Audrey Teh, a Nippon-phile who thought it was high time for “a different kind of Japanese restaurant” in Malaysia, Manmaru gets its inspiration from the fusion eateries that are so common throughout Japan but remain a relatively unexplored genre here.
Thanks to Danny Leow, the stoic but affable head chef of Manmaru, she’s able to tackle her vision head on. If Leow was ever told as a child not to play with his food, he didn’t listen.
Trained in a Japanese-Italian restaurant in Fukuoka, Japan, for a year under “the master of fusion cuisine” Kimijima-san, who’s now a celebrated head chef at Ozeki Kuala Lumpur, Leow has a knack for knocking diners over with a steady stream of artfully composed dishes that could rival more highfalutin Japanese dens here.
But it isn’t just the food that is different. There’s no boring beige tones or bamboo-clad anything in the restaurant; only bare cement walls dotted with replicas of samurai helmets, and set off with a massive mural of swimming mechanical kois.
Past the entrance, where fishes air-flown twice-weekly from different parts of the world are artfully displayed atop an ice-speckled bar counter and where you can order the freshest fishes to be grilled, steamed, deep-fried, or cooked at the chef’s whim, is the high-ceilinged dining room, where diners of the younger and more moneyed variety mingle and stuff their faces.
As its name suggests, Manmaru has a robatayaki counter, where another chef, Eric Lee, doles out sizzling skewers of grilled meats and fishes.
But nothing could quite match the deftness of the main kitchen, which serves standouts like the salmon ikura mille feuille (RM45), in which a mosaic of salmon topped with glistening beads of salmon roe lingers in housemade wasabi sauce; the momotaro salada (RM22), whereby a juicy, ripe tomato is injected with crab mayo; the cream korokke (RM22), a plate of deep-fried balls of creamy seafood-y goodness; and the President’s roll, or delightfully meaty roll brimming with wagyu and foie, among others.
One thing to note in-between courses however: service isn’t coffeeshop-swift, but you’ll realise why once the dishes come cruising to your table on the hands of well-trained servers, looking like modern artworks.
Leow, you see, is a bit of a dreamer: he views creativity as something divinely inspired and lugs around a lined notebook everywhere he goes, just in case an idea happens. Pages of this book are filled with colourful drawings and descriptions of his culinary inventions, but these do not see the light of day until they earn a nod of approval from Teh, whose regular jaunts to the Land of the Rising Sun has made her a Japanese food aficionado.
Teh, however, is more than happy to give Leow’s easy-on-the-wallet Christmas and New Year Omakase Set the green light. Available at a cool RM158 nett (and RM180 nett with a glass of wine), the six-course meal is heavy on salmon (because wintertime is salmon season in Japan) and begins with an amuse bouche of pan-seared salmon, deep-fried unagi croquette and softshell crab salad roll, each delicately arranged on a rectangular plate and lacquered with head-turning sauces.
Of these flavour bombs, the deep-fried potato balls stuffed with morsels of unagi is perhaps the most clever, with its generous lashings of sweet-sour citrus miso and creamy-crumbly texture.
Next, an assortment of sashimi arrives spankingly fresh and ensconced in an ice sculpture that was mistaken for glass at first. A meltingly soft slab of ahi, or yellowfin tuna; several generous slices of fatty salmon; and the raw, glossy body of the Japanese botan ebi – one of the most succulent shrimp you’ll ever taste – are some of the fishes competing for your attention – if you can tear your eyes away from the fast-melting, translucent case it comes in.
Meanwhile, maximum pleasure awaits with the foie gras volcano roll, an assertive dish featuring a mountain of caramelised mayo and edible flowers in which fatty bits of foie gras and well-vinegared rice lurk.
You don’t expect much from the main course of beef bacon-wrapped grilled salmon, until you bite into it and the piquancy of cheese, olives and capers hits you right in the taste buds, making you go “oooh, this is more than decent”.
To round off the procession of savoury dishes, the Passion Inaniwa – Leow’s Italian-inspired take on the Inaniwa udon – comes looking like a piece of Kandinsky’s.
Partially submerged in a pool of smooth, rich tomato sauce, the Inaniwa is silkier and skinnier than the average udon, and would’ve been a delight to savour if it wasn’t overpowered by tomato.
Dessert does not skimp on flavour either, but that’s a great thing especially when tiramisu is concerned. Served in small, delicate squares atop a bed of edible chocolate and matcha-coated peanut soil and flanked by coconut ice-cream, it’s a sweet end to a generally lovely meal.
With little competition in the area, it’s a wonder why Manmaru is not inundated with customers. But, as my husband suggested after a meal at Manmaru the other day, it wouldn’t hurt to keep this place our little secret.
Manmaru Robatayaki & Bar
Ground Floor, Atria Shopping Gallery
Jalan SS 22/23
47400 Petaling Jaya
Tel: 03-7733 1038
Open 10am to 10pm