Sushi Hibiki: Dine on fine sushi with Chef Sam

Japanese chef Makoto Saito Sam presides over the sushi counter where he’ll showcase his specialties. — Pictures by Ham Abu Bakar & courtesy of Sushi Hibiki
Japanese chef Makoto Saito Sam presides over the sushi counter where he’ll showcase his specialties. — Pictures by Ham Abu Bakar & courtesy of Sushi Hibiki

KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 12 — Sushi aficionados, rejoice! Newly-minted Sushi Hibiki is definitely the place for fine sushi. What makes the dining experience here more enjoyable... their secret weapon in the form of Japanese chef Makoto Saito Sam.

You will notice that the sushi served here is much more than just a piece of fish on top of rice. What heightens your dining experience here is your interaction with the friendly Chef Sam who can speak fluent English, a rarity for Japanese chefs.

Look for this calligraphy-drawn fish to discover the hidden wonders of Sushi Hibiki (left). The stage is set at the sushi counter that seats only 9 people (right).
Look for this calligraphy-drawn fish to discover the hidden wonders of Sushi Hibiki (left). The stage is set at the sushi counter that seats only 9 people (right).

“While it is not essential to make good sushi, it is vital for customers to have a delightful dining experience with us. I think ‘who you eat with’ is more important than ‘what you eat’,” he said.

Finding the restaurant is also part of the fun. It’s hidden in the most unexpected spot. We’ll leave it a secret for you to discover. Hint: Look for the fish.

Unlike most traditional Japanese restaurants, Sushi Hibiki’s interior reflects a more modern approach, designed by Japanese architect, Fumihiko Sano. His work, which can be seen in many countries from the US to Iceland, focus on a harmonious balance between traditional Japanese elements and contemporary touches.

Start with an assortment of canapes of kobashira skewer, chamame, corn tofu and tomato ohitashi.
Start with an assortment of canapes of kobashira skewer, chamame, corn tofu and tomato ohitashi.

You’ll find that the walls are all decked out in slate grey — a cool hue that heralds these modern times. Dimmed lighting sets the stage for a more intimate dining.

The focus is the sushi counter presided over by Chef Sam which seats up to nine people. There are also three tables in the dining area; each one can accommodate up to four people.

Complementing the atmosphere, you have non-traditional music: an assortment of jazz tunes, favourites of the chef.

Cutting and prepping the fish before it’s paired with rice.
Cutting and prepping the fish before it’s paired with rice.

The 40-year-old landed in Malaysia about one and half years ago at Sushi Azabu. Together with four investors that also includes Wong Wey Hwa, he opened Sushi Hibiki on July 12.

Initially, Wong tells us he wanted to open a bar but a chance encounter with Chef Sam saw him investing in this place, his first foray in F&B.

The delicate, lovely iwashi no tsumire-jiru uses homemade fishballs made with fresh sardines, carrots, spring onions, shiitake and mountain yam.
The delicate, lovely iwashi no tsumire-jiru uses homemade fishballs made with fresh sardines, carrots, spring onions, shiitake and mountain yam.

In his early days, the Tokyo native didn’t think he would become a sushi chef. At 15, he took up a part-time gig with Norhachi, a sushi restaurant to earn extra pocket money.

He explained that what drew him into the F&B industry was his sushi master who was such a nice person. The 10-seater eatery was very much under-the-radar, serving only the locals, as the owner was anti-media.

As an apprentice, what Chef Sam picked up from his sushi master wasn’t just about sushi but that other important element... the bond with customers.

Hokkaido corn gives this light, crunchy tempura, a sweetness.
Hokkaido corn gives this light, crunchy tempura, a sweetness.
Enjoy the meaty flavours from the lightly grilled katsuo or tuna is served with soy sauce and topped with spring onions and grated ginger.
Enjoy the meaty flavours from the lightly grilled katsuo or tuna is served with soy sauce and topped with spring onions and grated ginger.

He reminisced about how his sushi master would be so perceptive about his regular diners’ moods that he would even make different items to please them.

Sadly, the place closed after his sushi master passed away. This led to the start of his adventures. First, it was Australia where he picked up English, Later stints saw him travelling to Italy then back to Kyoto to work for the Ritz-Carlton.

Just before he joined Sushi Azabu’s outpost in KL, he was in Tel Aviv. In Malaysia, he has discovered a place filled with friendly folks. The local fare is also just up his alley; he is a big fan of bak kut teh, petai and mangosteens.

Making sushi.
Making sushi.

Once you have managed to find the place, settle down at the sushi counter and choose from a series of multi-course tasting menus. The menu changes with the seasons but expect well-prepared dishes with finesse.

The prices range from RM240 to RM480. Each set includes an appetiser, chawan mushi, sushi set, miso soup and dessert. An ala carte menu is also available.

You can also pre-order a week in advance their premium omakase course for RM700. By ordering the omakase, you’re entrusting Chef Sam to prepare his most impressive dishes, using seasonal ingredients.

Once the sushi is placed on your plate, eat it immediately to enjoy its flavour.
Once the sushi is placed on your plate, eat it immediately to enjoy its flavour.
Bite into a sweet tasting botan ebi made with prawns sourced from Japan.
Bite into a sweet tasting botan ebi made with prawns sourced from Japan.

Aesthetics are also part of your dining experience here. Usually, oblong plates are used to serve your sushi. At Sushi Hibiki, you’ll enjoy your exquisite sushi on an orchid leaf placed on top of beautiful, unglazed Bizen round plates made in Japan. These plates are incredibly limited so they’re treated like babies by the chef and his crew.

Your meal here will start with an assortment of small bites. That day, we sampled their lightly-grilled kobashira skewer which uses the adductor muscle of the surf clam. This is followed by a delicate corn-flavoured tofu.

There’s also fresh chamame pods from the Niigata prefecture with a lighter, delicate green hue. Pop these pods to enjoy the sweet taste of the soybeans. This variety is well known as one of the most delectable edamame beans in Japan.

Chef Sam didn’t expect to become a sushi chef as all he did was do part time work at a sushi restaurant to earn extra pocket money.
Chef Sam didn’t expect to become a sushi chef as all he did was do part time work at a sushi restaurant to earn extra pocket money.

Our favourite is the simplest. Pop the tomato ohitashi into your mouth and you will be rewarded with a burst of umami when you bite into the Japanese cherry tomato. We find out later it’s been steeped with dashi.

Savour the divine soup appetiser or iwashi no tsumire-jiru. The light, clear broth made with konbu and bonito flakes is lovely. What tops the scale is the fluffy fishballs made with a combination of fresh sardines or iwashi, carrots, spring onions, shiitake and mountain yam or yamaimo. Nutritious and delicious!

This is followed by corn tempura. Using the lighter hued Hokkaido corn, these niblets have a sweet taste coupled with a light tempura batter.

Just before serving, the chutoro sushi is brushed with its sauce.
Just before serving, the chutoro sushi is brushed with its sauce.
The chutoro sushi uses two types of rice, one made white rice vinegar while the other is made with red rice vinegar that has a stronger taste.
The chutoro sushi uses two types of rice, one made white rice vinegar while the other is made with red rice vinegar that has a stronger taste.

We also enjoy thick slices of lightly seared katsuo or tuna with a nice, smooth meaty flavour served with soy sauce, chopped spring onions and grated ginger.

The main event is the nigiri sushi course. Depending on which menu you select, it can range from seven to nine pieces. Take a cue from the sushi experts... use your fingers.

As the sushi can be incredibly delicate, using chopsticks may cause it to fall apart. And don’t dilly dally with your sushi. Each piece is timed by the chef to ensure it’s at the right temperature so eat it immediately after it’s served to you.

The chutoro sushi is made with bluefin tuna brought in from Boston.
The chutoro sushi is made with bluefin tuna brought in from Boston.

We start with a delicate fat greenling followed by the juicy botan ebi. There is also a delicate chutoro or bluefin tuna sourced from Boston — paired with two types of sushi rice, using different rice vinegars for deeper flavours.

This is followed by a striped jack topped with a squeeze of sudachi. Our favourite is a tasting flight of the decadent uni — two from Hokkaido with brighter orange hues, one farmed in the east side of the island and another from the northern side. The ultimate sea urchin is the creamier, sweeter-tasting mustard yellow lobes sourced from Amakusa on the western coast of Kyushu. Sublime!

The seasoning for the rice is important as it gives flavour, like these ones made from different rice vinegars.
The seasoning for the rice is important as it gives flavour, like these ones made from different rice vinegars.

Despite what many people believe, it’s not about the freshness of the fish but how the fish is handled. Chef Sam will take the trouble to marinate the fresh fish, giving it more flavour.

For sushi chefs, there are like 40 to 50 different kinds of seafood and as Chef Sam explained, since they are at their peak only for a limited time, sometimes they don’t have much time to learn how to handle these ingredients. It takes many years to accumulate their experience.

Assembling the uni tasting flight with different types sourced in Japan.
Assembling the uni tasting flight with different types sourced in Japan.

Most people think with sushi it’s more about the fish, but in actual fact it’s all about the rice. Mastering cooking the rice for sushi can take many years!

For Chef Sam, he toiled for three to four years! When he first started out as an apprentice, he asked his master how to make the rice. His master’s reply was a cryptic one: “Talk to the rice!”

After a year, he chuckles, you will be “talking to the rice” as you learn how to read every tiny detail of it before you perfectly cook each rice grain.

The magnificent uni tasting flight with two types of uni from Hokkaido and another one soured in Amakusa.
The magnificent uni tasting flight with two types of uni from Hokkaido and another one soured in Amakusa.

There are also many factors to cooking the rice. For instance, he tells us that the humidity levels in the air can even affect the ratio of the water to the rice.

Chef Sam explained that Japan has many seasons from spring, summer, autumn, rainy and winter, which they have to take into account. He adds, “Even if you make the rice every day, it’s different and it’s hard to get the consistency.”

For his sushi, he prefers to use a mixture of two types of rice — one sourced from the Yamagata prefecture and another from the Niigata prefecture. Another element that plays an important part to the taste of sushi rice is the type of vinegar used.

To end the savoury items, there’s tamago and tuna maki.
To end the savoury items, there’s tamago and tuna maki.

Traditionally, about 100 years ago, red rice vinegar or akazu made with sake lees was used to season the rice. The stronger taste of the rice was meant to cover the taste of the fish since in those days preservation of the fish was rare. Even the fish was strongly marinated in soy sauce.

At Sushi Hibiki, he’ll use a mix of rice, seasoned with different types of vinegar. This is only for the stronger tasting fish.

For instance, medium fatty tuna or chutoro goes well with this type of stronger umami-tasting rice. For the lighter flavoured flounder and squid, only rice seasoned with white rice vinegar is used.

Your meal continues with a fluffy tamago emblazoned with their trademark calligraphy-drawn fish and the tuna roll. Here, Chef Sam has sourced a special seaweed from a supplier that has been in the business for 200 years, only available to those-in-the-know.

Dessert is a wobbly matcha panna cotta made specially for Sushi Hibiki.
Dessert is a wobbly matcha panna cotta made specially for Sushi Hibiki.

The course ends with a wobbly Japanese matcha panna cotta for your dessert. It’s specially made for Sushi Hibiki by a dessert shop in Isetan KLCC. Throughout your meal, drink the cold brew matcha. The light green drink is the perfect thirst quencher, made by mixing cold water with matcha powder sourced from the Shizuoka prefecture.

And why the name Hibiki, you wonder? In Japanese, it means echo or harmony. Most importantly, Chef Sam tells us with a chuckle, “It’s easy to remember... same as the Japanese whisky!”

Sushi Hibiki
Lot B1-04 (A)
Basement 1
Shoppes at Four Seasons Place Kuala Lumpur
No. 145, Jalan Ampang
Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2391 9008
Open: 12.30pm to 2.30pm, 6pm to 10pm. (Note: There two sushi counter sessions for 6pm and 8.30pm.)
Closed on Mondays
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/hibiki.my/

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