By See Foon Chan-Koppen
Ah for the nostalgia of my two years living in Japan. I can still recall as vividly as if it were yesterday, my first en-counter (pun intended) with sushi, perched at the traditional counter, watching the chef deftly slicing up the various fish, and when our order finally arrived, I was totally blown away by the spectacle. The fish head with its mouth still flapping and the gills moving, the central bone revealed and artistically displayed with the fish meat slices arrayed on either side, was beckoning to be eaten. No sashimi could be fresher than that my friends told me, egging me on and cajoling me to use my chopsticks on the still pulsating fish slices, dipping into the wasabi and soya sauce and popping it into my mouth.
Well it took me a few minutes to summon up enough courage to do that, never having eaten raw fish in my entire young life (20 something then) but what a big step that was. Since then, as the saying goes, “I’ve come a long way baby” eating as much sushi and sashimi as I can lay my hands on and always trying to reproduce that quintessential freshness of that first Japanese experience of the still breathing fish. These days, with the plethora of Japanese sushi places popping up all over, I find myself eschewing sushi restaurants, finding most places ‘wannabes’, with little respect for the fine tradition of craftsmanship that sushi chefs in Japan undergo years of training to achieve.
Sushi Zento strives to be different, prepared to stand out from the crowd with a large and varied menu and specialty fish, air flown from Japan and USA every Tuesday and Friday. With Chan Nam and Dato’ Chan Yew Mun who are avid fans of Japanese cuisine, we descended on Zento one lunch time and taking one of their three smaller private rooms (one large for 20 pax and two smaller ones for 8-10), we proceeded to order up a storm given that the menu was so interesting and inviting.
I still remember the words of Dato’ Chan Yew Mun at the wedding of an Ipohite when he praised the qualities of Ipoh ‘boys’ repeatedly calling them kind, considerate and generous to a fault and these are the exact words I would use to describe my host Chan Nam especially when the bill came to a grand total of RM850.
But then when the bill of fare included a whole live lobster served two ways, first as sashimi, each slice, umami freshness and perfection in every bite, followed by a broth (Nabe) made from the head, shell and claws, its understandable that the bill would be so high. Lobster RM220 medium RM240 large.
Lest I put my readers off with the prices I just quoted, let me assure you that there is a good meal to be had for much, much less. There is the usual carousel from which one can pick the revolving plates of sushi and tidbits which vary from RM1.80 for the egg sushi to the most expensive of RM7.80 for the seaweed, jelly fish and clams or whelks. The quality of these are good and highly popular.
Or one could opt for one of the sets which are priced from RM35 to RM58. These would consist of minimum six dishes of soup, rice, main course of meat or fish, fruit, steamed egg or chawan mushi, and a salad. The RM58 set has an extra dish with both raw fish and meat.
On the day of our lunch, we had as appetizers, the fried white bait RM15 and fried baby shrimps RM10, both crispy and utterly delectable. A fresh salad topped with soft shell crab and salmon skin at RM20 followed by a plate of salmon belly sashimi RM35 kept the hunger pangs at bay. Then the magnificent lobster sashimi arrived, more shell and decoration than actual meat but nevertheless most impressive.
Naturally we were still hungry as we were ten people around the table so it was time to have the Buta Kakuni Stewed Berkshire pork belly with sauce RM18, tender morsels braised to perfection, not unlike the Chinese ‘Dong Po Yoke’. It was so good we had to have two portions.
For those on a budget and who love Japanese food, I would certainly recommend their Ramen, apparently one of the signature dishes of the house. The Kyushu Ramen comes in a robust pork broth which the manager assures me has been coaxed from pork bones overnight, the noodles still chewy on the bite, with slices of barbecued pork, a perfectly cooked half-boiled egg with the yolk still runny and topped with fish paste slices. Other combinations are available and makes for a satisfying meal on its own – RM18-20.
The last to come was the Nabe made from the lobster shells and claws. This was a hearty broth with the two claws which we shared amongst ourselves, with leeks and scallions lending additional flavour to the broth. A satisfying ending to a great meal.
Festival Walk, Jalan Medan Ipoh 1
Medan Ipoh Bistari. Tel: 05-545 2966
Open: Mon-Thurs: 11.30am-2.30pm; 6pm-10.15pm