KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 6 — Succulent pink prawns wrapped in the lightest of tempura batter. Slivers of crab sticks and ribbons of omelette. Strips of crispy nori seaweed. A bed of sushi rice. All slathered with creamy mentaiko (pollock roe) and mayonnaise sauce.
What’s not to love? It’s a tiny slice of Hokkaido when we are far from the northernmost Japanese island, when returning won’t be on the horizon anytime soon.
This is a typical donburi (rice bowl) we’d find in Washo Market in the seafood haven of Kushiro. Except we are somewhere along Old Klang Road in KL.
How we discovered this little bowl of nostalgia is a story in itself.
Like many others, we have been cooking regularly at home during the myriad phases of the movement control order (MCO). Or at least a lot more than we used to in the days before what we now acknowledge is our new normal.
Like many others, we have also found this unsustainable on a daily basis, either due to a lack of extensive cooking skills or sheer boredom with the repetitive nature of our #StayAtHome, #CookAtHome menu.
So, like many others, we have resorted to food delivery apps and ordering meals from outside. Not too frequently, since we are trying our best to be prudent with our spending, but often enough that we have had the chance to try something new.
After all, if you don’t need to go out and deal with hunting down parking spots or making table reservations, there’s no limit to what you can have for lunch or dinner. Better yet, we have friends who call us and ask if we’d like some takeaway from where they’re at.
On one such occasion, one of our friends was raving about this tamago ebi-don she was having again as takeaway. Given she stays in our neighbourhood, she’d be more than happy to dabao two packs of the same for us. Lovely idea.
Which was how we came to be introduced to the Tamago Ebi Mentai Rice, one of Café Yamatatsu’s best dishes. Located off the sixth mile of Old Klang Road, the homegrown izakaya (Japanese style diner) began life as a tiny pop-up stall inside KongsiKL, a former metal and steel factory rejuvenated as a shared event space.
We’ve since had that rice bowl again, albeit via delivery. And now that dining-in is possible once more, why not pay Café Yamatatsu a visit? Which is what we do.
Perhaps this is an experience that is new solely to us. Perhaps many others are used to getting food from a restaurant or café that they’ve never visited before and never will. Such is the boon and bane of the Age of Food Delivery Apps.
Had we stayed on that path, we’d have missed out on the rest of Café Yamatatsu’s menu — there are always some dishes and drinks that are best enjoyed on site, no? — as well as its welcoming and kitschy ambience. (The former thanks to Japanese noren curtains at its entrance; the latter due to walls adorned with manga and anime posters.)
The diner exudes a warmth that extends beyond the heavy usage of wood in furnishing. We sit at the counter on stools, reminding us of coffee sessions in Tokyo kissatens.
Towers filled with ice cubes slowly melting and dripping onto ground coffee loom over us. The creation of the house-made ice drip coffee in action. Large bottles of sake and other Japanese liquors guarantee an authentic izakaya experience, if far removed from its land of origin.
Small touches matter. We are offered environmentally friendly paper bags for our face masks, like protective pouches, a reminder that there can be hospitality and thoughtfulness even during a tough situation.
This, along with the fun, friendly décor, proves that there is gaiety and joy still in this new world, this season of the new normal. All isn’t doom and gloom.
The dishes and the drinks are not unlike what we’d enjoy after a long day at work — we imagine we’re Tokyo salarymen without having to be squashed like sardines into JR trains or the Tokyo Metro subway.
For beverages we eschew alcohol in favour of more soothing libations: a hot, healing Lemongrass Ginger Tea and a refreshing iced Yuzu Lemon Mojito. The citrus theme continues in our selection of appetiser: their Yuzu Bitter Gourd Pickles nods to Okinawa where goya (bitter melon) is said to contribute to the inhabitants’ longevity.
Another must-order side is their Salt Pepper Corn, which is equal parts savoury and spicy-sweet. This would go well with a dry sake or a can of Asahi Beer for those thus inclined.
Time for our mains. We stick to the donburi: another of Café Yamatatsu’s irresistible Tamago Ebi Mentai Rice and a bowl of their Seafood Rice, an all-in affair that includes a hearty slab of grilled saba (mackerel).
There are no conversations with other diners, of course, unlike the cult favourite show Midnight Diner (Shinya shokudō). No Kaoru Kobayashi as a wry and wise izakaya master doubling as both chef and therapist; one of the reasons why we venture out rather than dine in the comforts of our own home is to find someone who would listen.
No, no sensei here with a willing ear. (No midnight hours either; the diner keeps sensible hours for their lunch and dinner service, taking a three-hour break in between.)
But we do have each other for company. We don’t have to eat alone, whether we are dining in or ordering takeaway, and that is a blessing in these uncertain times.
30, Jalan 2/131A, Project Jaya Industrial Estate, Batu 6, Old Klang Road, KL
Open daily (except Thu closed) 12–3pm, 6–10pm
Phone: 011-6569 0402