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The Jap's Snacks: Oishi Restaurant, Kemang

A blast from the past, when I was quite 'inexperienced' with exotic food, let alone labelled as a food critic. Sitting in a restaurant near Kyoto, Japan, I watched the nicely arranged lunch set in a beautifully painted wooden tray in front of me. Hitoshi, a good Japanese friend of mine, insisted that I try the traditional cuisine of his hometown.

"Please, taste the appetiser. Let me know what you think," said Hitoshi.

I looked at what appeared to be tiny clear orange marbles - later on I learned it was salmon roe - surrounding flakes of raw white fish in the centre of the plate. I took a bite using my awkwardly positioned chopsticks.

Without thinking I turned around, trying to attract attention from a waiter by snapping my fingers and yelled: "Gaston!"

Hitoshi looked frantic. His face was ashen when I told him that the food was tasteless and I needed to ask the waiter for extra seasonings.

"No, please - you'll humiliate the chef by doing that," he said. I stared back at him, puzzled, then the story about 'hara-kiri' struck my brain.

Despite that experience, and the rather complicated Japanese dining etiquette with their hierarchical seating arrangement and frustrating eating utensils, I honestly became more intrigued to explore further. Maybe it's because of the freshness of their ingredients - so fresh it's often raw! - the balanced meals and the fact that the average Japanese person lives longer than most other nationalities, well it must have something to do with their food, right?

That's why I was pleased when a Japanese restaurant, Oishi, had the guts to open in the 'bule' neighbourhood of Kemang more than a year ago. Their menu sticks out amongst the usual 'pasta, nachos and burgers' being offered by most eating establishments in the area.

The Osaka-style Japanese restaurant is strategically located on Kemang Raya, just opposite Kem Chicks. The access can be tough, especially during peak traffic hours.

At the entrance, the 'elastically challenged' resin replica dishes on display managed to stop me - and gave me something to chew over. My mind rushes back to the dark Tokyo alleys full of similar front window displays. Somehow I feel it doesn't quite fit in Jakarta's current climate where the streets are packed with people suffering a one-meal-a-day diet.

But inside the restaurant, the atmosphere creates a completely different small world. It consists of two square rooms, downstairs and upstairs. The private dining rooms that can accommodate about 40 patrons are on the second floor. The main area of the restaurant is downstairs and can seat about 80 people. There are two tatami rooms in each back corner, a long U-shaped sushi and teppanyaki bar and about ten individual tables. Between the bar and the teppanyaki cooking tables there is a narrow channel of flowing water, where the sushi chefs place their creations - ready-to-eat sushi and sashimi on small floating plates.

Bright red and orange fish - koi - inhabit the glass covered U-shaped channel, which has been carved into the floor, surrounding the bar. The staff are outfitted in Japanese costumes and always greet guests in Japanese, the meaning of which I never quite catch. They are friendly, give rather fast service, and don't mind giving you extra seasoning for your food.

"Since we opened in July 2000, we have gradually picked up more and more clients from different nationalities. The Japanese guests usually come for an early three-course dinner. The Indonesian and Caucasian clients come for lunch and dinner, and they usually order their favourite meal box combination (bento) for lunch and sushi, sashimi and teppanyaki for dinner," explained Singgih, the manager of Oishi Restaurant.

Being a fish lover, my first choice was Gindara Teriyaki Set. The fish was succulent and flaky fresh. The richness and the sweetness of the teriyaki sauce were in complete balance with the freshness of the salad and its traditional condiments. The other teriyaki choices are beef, chicken or salmon. Stick with those and you can't miss.

Teppanyaki dishes are served with rice, salad, miso soup and desert. Watching the art of traditional cooking on a large iron grill in front of you while inhaling the fragrant steam doubles the joy of eating the food served directly from the grill to your plate. I found the meat or the seafood were as good as they can be but the accompanying fried bean sprouts and garlic tended to be a bit too dry.

My favourite snack from the a la carte menu was the Agedashi Dofu (Fried Japanese Bean Curd). Soft bean curd cylinders, covered with tasty batter, were soaked in thick fish sauce and sprinkled with bonito. The snowcoloured bean curds melted right on my tongue. The Harumaki (spring rolls) were fried to perfection. The other Japanese snack, Tempura - which was originally introduced by the Portuguese, was light and crispy although the batter was rather excessive. And the Yakitori (Grilled chicken on skewers) was grilled with just the right amount of herbs and sweet tare (the sauce used to baste the chicken).

Out of curiosity, on one visit I ordered Shishamo (Grilled Pregnant Fish). It was quite an experience. The plate came with two tiny pregnant fish on it; the fish were as big as your ring finger. They tasted slightly bitter and appear over cooked. While I was eating the shishamo, my thoughts were on environmental issues over gastronomic reason.

The Udon was tasty and down to earth. The noodles were firm and thick and the soup had a warm aftertaste. I'm sure people wouldn't find it difficult to make the traditional loud sipping noise whilst eating this dish. I was a bit disappointed with their Nikinanban Udon (Beef Udon) as they included all the fat and the trimmings of the sliced beef.

For overall performance, Oishi is a great place for a visit. Excellent for Sunday brunch with the kids, as the staff are extremely friendly with toddlers and the underground aquarium is interesting entertainment.

Oishi also offers delivery service. Nothing is better than having Oishi's fresh Tobiko - I love it -, Tako Sushi (Flying Fish Roe and Octopus) or simply California Rolls delivered to your door.

"We emphasise the freshness of our products. We import about 70% of our seafood and meat from Japan and Australia. Our salmon is always transported chilled, not frozen. To ensure our authenticity, we have a Japanese chef working with us who is responsible for the quality of the food we produce," added the restaurant manager.

First Published in the Jakarta Post