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Feast for the senses

   
Robatayaki grillmaster serving customers.

New Straits Times (Travel Times), December 27, 2005 January 2, 2006

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MAKAN

At the Gonbei in Starhill Gallery, diners can enjoy more than just the freshest of ingredients cooked in front of you. The restaurant is truly a feast for the five snese, writes TAN BEE HONG

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WITH the opening of Gonbei on the Relish Floor of Starhill Gallery, Kuala Lumpur, YTL Land and Properties has set new standards for Japanese cuisine in the city. Gonbei is more than just a restaurant. It is a visual feast of four restaurants in one, including the first robatayaki in the country.

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"Like most restaurants in Japan, robatayaki are family concerns, which is why they are rarely found outside Japan," explained Tan Sri Francis Yeoh. Apart from the robatayaki, there is a teppanyaki counter, sushi counter and tempura counter.

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In Japan each cooking style is traditionally enjoyed as a cuisine on its own. Tiny private restaurants specialise in only tempura or teppanyaki or robatayaki and various ingredients are carefully prepared and cooked in front of the diner, who is served immediately so that they can enjoy the freshly cooked flavours.

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While each and every counter in Gonbei lives up to exacting standards set by consultant sensei Masao Kobori, it is the robatayaki that will offer a completely new experience for KL

folks.

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Here, diners sit at three sides of the counter on which is displayed a fresh selection of seafood on ice, meat and vegetables. Right in the centre sits the yakikata or grillmaster. Just point to what you fancy and he will cook it. When it's done, he arranges everything neatly on a plate and hands it over on the flat of a wooden paddle.


   
Main entrance arched by rows of bamboos.

Try to stay on for the change of shifts, a ritual accompanied by robust yelling and loud rhythmic clapping of hands. Yelling is, after all, a big part of the robatayaki culture; it matters little that one may not understand a word of Japanese this audio feast completes the fun of the experience though at Gonbei, the volume of yelling is decidedly lower than in Japan.

You can also order foods from the sushi, tempura and teppanyaki counters to be delivered here. Though the "best seats" in Gonbei are at the counter where you can watch the chefs at work, you can choose to sit at any of the dining rooms divided by "walls" of glass bottles or tea cups.

Freshness of ingredients are a big deal at Gonbei and are air-flown in daily by suppliers from Tokyo's Tsujiki market. One can also expect these ~o change with the seasons in japan.

Sake too is a big deal at Gonbei with a wide selection of both cold and hot sake.

But one goes to Gonbei for a visual feast too. Approaching customers are announced by the beat of a drum and one walks under a short archway of yellow bamboo exactly like how one enters a farmhouse in Japan. Gonbei, after all, is a common name for a Japanese farmer. Inside, one is greeted, most appropriately, by the aroma of rice cooking in three cast-iron pots over a charcoal fire. After all, rice is the basis of Asian food, especially Japan.

The restaurant is designed by Yuhkichi Kawai, the man who created Starhill Gallery's Feast Village.


   
Air-flown freshness is the keyword at the sushi counter.

His attention to details is amazing. The 6,000 sq ft of space reflects Kawai's belief that food should be a gastronomic experience for all the five senses. Light shines through a thin veneer of wood to give a golden glow to the interior. Japanese cloth handkerchiefs or Tenugui adorn one wall in the semi private room while another wall covered entirely with colourful rice paper slides open to reveal Kamon, the traditional Japanese family crests.

The ornately carved fish hooks used to suspend the tempura pots are exactly as they were in olden days in Japan, when cooking over charcoal meant having to occasionally adjust the height of the pot from the fire to control the temperature.

Even a visit to the bathroom is an experience. These are marked by kabuki masks to depict gender and inside, even water faucets aren't what they seem to wash your hands, you simply tap at a strip of bamboo to turn on the water.


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