KUALA LUMPUR, Feb 18 — The most memorable meals are often found where one least expects them.

In Block F, Plaza Damas is a laundry service occupying half a shop lot; the other half has no sign, save for a small square piece of paper stuck on the wall in a near-discreet fashion.

This is Saisai Japanese Restaurant. It opens only for dinner five days a week, serving a mix of homey, comforting fare and drinking-friendly, bar-style food.

Additionally, the menu often includes specials curated by owner Mika-san. Her daughter and son also help run the restaurant which has been open since 2015.

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The restaurant’s Facebook page is where updates on these daily specials get posted, depending on what's sourced from the market or even the weather, which in my opinion is what sets Saisai apart from the many Japanese restaurants all over the Klang Valley.

Having called ahead to make a reservation, we were able to secure three of the counter’s eight seats.

There are bigger tables in front of the restaurant, but otherwise the counter is the only seating in the small space.
There are bigger tables in front of the restaurant, but otherwise the counter is the only seating in the small space.

Next to me was a lone Japanese gentleman finishing up his meal, sipping on his miso soup and reading an e-book.

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To the right, a Japanese television serial played mutedly on the television, while the chalkboard of specials hung right in front of me. It’s written in both Japanese and English and includes some recurring favourites, as well as the specific dishes mentioned in that day’s Facebook post.

One dish not found on the menu or listed among the daily specials is Oden, a popular type of nabemono (Japanese for "one pot dish").

Sitting at the counter feels like being transported to a Japanese bar.
Sitting at the counter feels like being transported to a Japanese bar.

Ever since its introduction here, it has undergone the dreaded "tom yum-ification" (looking at you, FamilyMart) due to its popularity in Malaysia.

However, this is no convenience store oden; one sip of the clear beige broth quickly proved that. Instead, it was delightfully savoury, with a subtle hint of smoke that lent great depth of flavour.

You can choose your ingredients, so we opted for one of everything — a boiled egg, daikon, konnyaku, fishballs, beancurd, and chikuwa, a tubular type of fishcake. The total came up to RM24. Served with karashi (Japanese mustard), it made for a warming start to the night.

A simple but really good Hiyayakko (RM10) followed; silky chilled tofu topped with plenty of bonito and soy sauce on the side.

Hiyayakko, Japanese chilled tofu topped with plenty of bonito and soy sauce on the side.
Hiyayakko, Japanese chilled tofu topped with plenty of bonito and soy sauce on the side.

Next was a pair of specials: Salted Pork Belly with Ginger Sauce (RM19) and Pork Shabu-shabu and Cabbage Salad with "salty sauce" (RM24).

The former was as intriguing as it was delicious. Five thick pieces of cold, pearly-white pork belly, salted and lightly poached, were topped with a ginger and soy-based sauce, almost reminiscent of cold poached chicken.

The latter was just as good, razor-thin slices of soft pork belly paired with crunchy slivers of cabbage and bean sprouts, drizzled with a tangy ponzu dressing.

One of the best dishes of the night, Salted Pork Belly with Ginger Sauce.
One of the best dishes of the night, Salted Pork Belly with Ginger Sauce.

Pork Shabu-shabu and Cabbage Salad came with razor-thin slices of soft pork belly paired with crunchy slivers of cabbage and bean sprouts, drizzled with a tangy 'ponzu' dressing.
Pork Shabu-shabu and Cabbage Salad came with razor-thin slices of soft pork belly paired with crunchy slivers of cabbage and bean sprouts, drizzled with a tangy 'ponzu' dressing.

The pace picked up with three hot entrees, all from the daily list of specials.

This was also the point in the meal where — like with so many other Japanese meals I’ve had, whether it’s uber-expensive omakase or at a low-frills izakaya — everything starts to meld together in a heady symphony of eating and drinking.

As if by design, my fourth drink of the night arrived as a plate of Grilled Chicken Wing Gyoza (RM22) was produced. Three chicken wings, stuffed with gyoza filling and dipping sauce laced with some chilli oil. It’s high art, this stuff — truly phenomenal drinking food.

Grilled Chicken Wing Gyoza — the platonic ideal of drinking food.
Grilled Chicken Wing Gyoza — the platonic ideal of drinking food.

Grilled Eggplant with Ponzu sauce was a dark horse for the best dish of the night.
Grilled Eggplant with Ponzu sauce was a dark horse for the best dish of the night.

The Grilled Eggplant with Ponzu Sauce (RM15) was also brilliant, creamy in the centre, well-charred on the outside and perfect with a dollop of grated daikon and ponzu sauce.

While it was nicely grilled and smoky, the Grilled Hokke Fish (RM29) was not as oily and rich as I would have liked, which unfortunately rendered it a little plain.

Grilled Hokke was not as oily and rich as I would have liked
Grilled Hokke was not as oily and rich as I would have liked

Deep-fried Horse Mackerel were supremely crunchy and went especially well with a dip that tasted similar to tartar sauce.
Deep-fried Horse Mackerel were supremely crunchy and went especially well with a dip that tasted similar to tartar sauce.

Things picked up once more with the Deep-fried Horse Mackerel (RM21). Breaded and fried, the fillets of rich and strong-tasting fish were supremely crunchy and went especially well with a dip that tasted similar to tartar sauce.

I felt ready to burst at this point, but still had space for Tororo Gohan Yam (RM15), grated Japanese mountain yam over rice which came with a bowl of miso soup and pickles.

Tororo Gohan Yam or grated Japanese mountain yam over rice, is an acquired taste, but is my preferred way to close out the meal.
Tororo Gohan Yam or grated Japanese mountain yam over rice, is an acquired taste, but is my preferred way to close out the meal.

The yam is an acquired texture rather than taste, with its very mild flavour taking a backseat to the slimy texture it is renowned for. Poured over rice, I enjoyed it best with a few drops of soy sauce for taste, before downing my miso soup in a fashion far less dignified than the gentleman before.

Saisai Japanese Restaurant

F-0-9, Plaza Damas, Jalan Sri Hartamas 1, Taman Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur

Open Thursday to Monday, 6-10pm

Tel: 017-223 7683

Facebook: @sai2jap

Instagram: @saisai.japanese.restaurant

*This is an independent review where the writer paid for the meal.

*Follow us on Instagram @eatdrinkmm for more food gems.