Seiji Fujimoto: The lord of the izakayas

Fujimoto’s latest izakaya, Lao Jiu Lou, is inspired by fusion Chinese-Japanese dishes from the Yokohama Chinatown. - Pictures by Kenny Mah
Fujimoto’s latest izakaya, Lao Jiu Lou, is inspired by fusion Chinese-Japanese dishes from the Yokohama Chinatown. - Pictures by Kenny Mah

KUALA LUMPUR, March 8 -- Taman Desa has a growing reputation as the izakaya centre of KL, thanks to Seiji Fujimoto, a 44-year-old restaurateur from Yokohama. The former Isetan general manager has successively opened four casual Japanese food outlets in this quiet neighbourhood since 2009.

Regulars head to Sanuki Udon for affordable bowls of thick wheat-flour noodles with toppings such as wakame (seaweed) and kakiage (mixed vegetable tempura). Fujimoto’s open-air Japanese BBQ offers yakiniku (grilled meats) while Maruhi Sakaba serves yakitori (skewers of grilled chicken).

His latest venture, Lao Jiu Lou, is inspired by fusion Chinese-Japanese dishes from Yokohama, which is home to Japan’s largest Chinatown. Diners can enjoy a back-to-basics tonkotsu ramen (pork bone broth noodle) and spiced roast pork that is not unlike our local siew yoke.

Crave drops by Fujimoto’s new shop for a chat over a cup of Chinese tea.

Why have you chosen to open all your shops in Taman Desa?

I really like Taman Desa for its central location; it’s connected to so many other areas such as Cheras, PJ and Bangsar via convenient roads and highways.

This old neighbourhood has a long history too. There used to be more foreigners living here but now I find there are more locals, especially the younger generation. They are curious and open about new foods but are also looking for good quality at affordable prices. So when they come to my shops, they taste my version of what Japanese food is like –- the simple street food, not the more upmarket and expensive sashimi or sushi.

As the residents here are middle- to upper-class, they travel a lot too. They visit Japan, search for the foods they have tried at my shops such as yakiniku and yakitori, and then they come back and tell me about it. Sometimes they know more places in Tokyo for this sort of good food than I do!

Tell us more about your new shop, Lao Jiu Lou.

I used to watch a lot of Hong Kong movies when I was growing up in Yokohama. These are typically the martial flicks starring Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. One thing I enjoyed was how everyone would be eating at these back street food stalls. Just simple Chinese food like noodle soup or rice with waxed meats.

Also, Yokohama has a really big Chinatown. Many of my friends are fourth or fifth generation Chinese living in Japan. There is a good mix of both Japanese and Chinese cultures here, which is also reflected in the food.

We even have xiaolongbao (Shanghainese soup dumplings)!

Lao Jiu Lou offers simple comfort food such as tonkotsu ramen and pork gyoza
Lao Jiu Lou offers simple comfort food such as tonkotsu ramen and pork gyoza

These are influences I want to share in my new shop. “Lao Jiu Lou” means “Old Restaurant” in Chinese. The concept is akin to “Chinatown in a Japanese izakaya” or maybe the other way round. There are no fixed rules of cooking here; just inspiration from both Chinese and Japanese cooking, especially the comfort food.

Which is your favourite dish from your shops?

If I had to pick one, it’d be the yakitori (skewered grilled chicken) from my third shop, Maruhi Sakaba. It’s difficult to find a good yakitori chef, even in Japan. I was really lucky; I found my chef through sheer coincidence. He was a regular customer at Taishu Yakiniku, my open-air Japanese BBQ shop. Eventually we became drinking buddies. I shared my idea of opening a yakitori shop, and that’s how it started.

How do you conceptualise your shops and the food they serve?

As a Japanese expatriate who has lived and worked abroad, specifically in Malaysia, I guess my view of culture is very different. What others may see as ordinary, I see as an opportunity. I try to put this essence into my shops, so my Malaysian customers can get something new from their dining experience.

I believe locals are already very familiar with Japanese cuisine, be it tempura or sushi, but these tend to be in formal restaurant settings. I want my shops to serve Japanese food that are more accessible, affordable and something everyone can include in their daily routine.

Share with us a typical day for you.

I start every working day around 11am, visiting each of my shops. My teams will have started the food preparations already, so I try not to micromanage. I only guide and advise where necessary. Otherwise I won’t be able to leave the running of the day-to-day operations to each of the shop managers.

Then it’s back to my office for paperwork. At 4pm, I head to the gym to exercise. By 7pm, I return to the shops to check the evening operations. But I’ve to admit that these days I mostly spend the evenings drinking with my regular customers! It’s now a very smooth running operation.

What’s next for Seiji Fujimoto?

One thing I would like to do is a Japanese-style bar, where the focus is on the drinks rather than the food. I’ll have a chef preparing his own selection of small dishes for the customers, more like light bites to snack on than full meals. This will change from time to time, like a seasonal menu.

In fact, I get a lot of feedback from my customers, especially the businessmen. They are always more than happy to share their opinions and ideas; they even introduce me to their suppliers. It’s very different in Japan; if you run a business, your competitors are not likely to help you out.

This is why it was so important for me to go out and make new friends when I first decided to open a restaurant in KL. Conversations I’ve had while sharing drinks in a bar have been very helpful for business, especially for an outsider like me. So perhaps I can give back by opening a bar next so others may discover new friendships and ideas too.

Lao Jiu Lou

25, Jalan Bukit Desa 5,

Taman Bukit Desa, KL

Open Tue-Sun 11:30am-9:30pm; closed on Mondays

This story was first published in Crave in the print edition of The Malay Mail on March 7, 2014.

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