Dining with a difference at Fukuzushi

“What’s so different about dining at this Japanese restaurant?” I ask myself as I find my way to Jalan Sutera in Taman Sentosa, where the restaurant is located.

Chunks of salmon sashimi topping on the Yee Sang,
auspicious Lunar New Year raw fish platter
As I pass the rows of shop-houses, I realise that a number of restaurants have opened along this stretch of road but I spot something distinctly different – a Japanese thatched roof – and know I’ve found the right place.
        
This restaurant is designed within a double-storey house located on an inner parallel road. I’m glad there’s space to park my car without obstructing traffic on the busy main road.

Potted bamboo bushes mark the entrance to Fukuzushi Japanese Restaurant and in just two steps, I’m wrapped in charming Japanese ambience, complete with the sound of gurgling water features and the sight of wooden furniture in the outdoor dining area.

When I step into the indoor section, the staff call out a chorus of “Irasshaimase!” a typical Japanese way to welcome guests.

The shake or salmon sashimi
served with the Yee Sang platter
I’m joining several guests for a dining preview of the restaurant’s signature dishes and Yee Sang or raw fish platter, served during the Lunar New Year season.

When I take my place at the long table set out with placemats and Japanese crockery, I surreptitiously scrutinize the ceramic plate and tea tumbler, admiring its rustic finishing typical of Japanese pottery.

The restaurant boasts of over 300 items in its menu and I’m looking closer at the various sections for Salad, Soup, Sashimi, Sushi, Tempura and specialty dishes prepared by Executive Chef Derick Wong.

Then I see what sets this Japanese restaurant apart from the rest: At Fukuzushi, discerning diners can savour Japanese pork dishes in a range of favourites like Tonkatsu Ramen as well as Buta Kakumi, slow-simmered Japanese braised pork belly and Buta Amiyaki, grilled spare pork ribs!

I cannot help but eagerly anticipate what Chef Wong has prepared to impress us today so I sit back, ready to be wowed.

Executive Chef Derick Wong
at Fukuzushi Japanese Restaurant
Mentored by Master Chefs in his 28-year culinary career in Singapore, Chef Wong brings a wealth of Japanese culinary experience to Fukuzushi. Combining his skills in Japanese fine dining with fusion Japanese cuisine, the Chef has created some exciting dishes paired with own-made sauces for the dishes here.

Prepared with an auspicious 18 items including ten chunky slices of shake or salmon sashimi, the colourful Yee Sang platter is presented with a side the Chef’s own-recipe plum sauce in an elegant cocktail glass.

The sense of excitement is palpable as this is probably the guests’ first taste of Japanese-style Lunar New Year Yee Sang (RM88) for the season.

I like the way the raw fish is arranged in a pretty fan and we can see the thick chunks of sashimi on the saucer.

Maybe the only thing absent is the typical Chinese way of chanting auspicious phrases for well-being and good fortune while various topping ingredients are added to the Yee Sang.

But it really doesn’t matter because we happily substituted it with our specific wishes for each other as we add in the raw fish and drizzle the plum sauce on the platter before tossing the salad together in the Lo Hei tradition.

Negima Nabe, tuna and leek soup,
served warm and comforting
At first bite, the tangy-crunchy flavours bursting in my mouth reminds me how Japanese-style Yee Sang wins hands-down simply because the serving consists of real raw fish in sashimi slices and not tiny slivers that would simply get lost in a pile of other ingredients. To me, this is the authentic way of enjoying raw fish, cleverly combined with Lunar New Year traditions.

The agreeable Yee Sang flavour certainly whets my appetite for more from the Chef’s recommendations.

Next is the comforting taste of Negima Nabe, tuna and leek soup, brewed and then steamed in a clay pot before serving. While the fatty parts of tuna are usually eaten raw, the leaner portions are gently brewed for its rich flavour along with leeks, shimeji mushrooms and tofu cubes.

Among the popular salads is the Soft-Shell Crab Salad or Sarada (Japanese word for salad) and here, it comes with deep-fried soft-shell crabs and crispy salmon skin tossed in fresh multi-greens with a side of Goma or sesame dressing.
                           
Chef Wong modestly explains that the Goma dressing is own-made as well as the restaurant’s ice-creams. When I hear him say that they make two ice-cream flavours, matcha or green tea and black sesame, I must confess that I cannot wait to taste it!

A side of Goma dressing to add
to the Soft-Shell Crab Salad
But first, I should take my time to savour all the Chef Recommended specialties that seem to come flying out of the kitchen. There’s Mixed Tempura and Salmon Spicy Maki.

And then fragrant Garlic Fried Rice. I consciously try not to finish the tasty rice just to save some space for the exciting pork dishes that Chef Wong has prepared for us.

I can recognise Buta Kakumi, slow-simmered Japanese braised pork belly served with a side of Japanese Yellow Mustard, in the deep bowl.

It somehow feels unladylike to bite into the multi-layer chunk of pork belly for its full flavour, so I politely dissect the portion, drizzle some sauce and mustard on it before popping bite-size pieces into my mouth. Mmm… tender and oh so delicious!

Looking at the grilled spare pork ribs, I can imagine how the marinated pieces of Buta Amiyaki is both tasty on the outside as well as inside and to do justice, I should hold the rib in my hand to savour its taste.

When I voiced my desire to use my hand, a waiter comes forward, proffering plastic gloves. As I hold a spare rib in my gloved hand, I forget my manners and boldly gnaw the tasty meat right down to its bone!

Dishes [Clockwise] Tori Piri-Piri Age, dip sauce for fish dish,
Chashu, Spicy Salmon Maki, Buta Spare Ribs Amiyaki, Karei Karaage or whole deep-fried flounder
Another specialty, Japanese stewed pork belly or Chashu, are slices of marinated pork belly drizzled with sauce. This is a popular ingredient for Ramen but equally good to eat with rice or as it is.

Own-made sesame ice-cream
Fans of fish will like Karei Karaage, whole deep-fried flounder, where pieces of fish fillets are served separate from its bones with a side of Ponzu dip sauce. Its bones, deep-fried to a crisp, are so enticing that I cannot resist plucking off a section to nibble!

Chef Wong tells me that many young diners like to order Tori Piri-Piri Age, deep-fried chicken in spicy sauce, so he reduces the Piri-Piri spice upon request to match their tastes.

The choices in its menu, the freshest ingredients, own-made sauces and dips, as well as delightful pork dishes, makes this charming Japanese restaurant distinctly different from the rest.

And of course, their own-made ice-cream.

I smile when a scoop of sesame ice-cream topped with a dash of red-beans is served. This is indeed a fitting end to an extraordinary Japanese meal.

Fukuzushi Japanese Restaurant is at No. 163, Jalan Sutera, Taman Sentosa, 80150 Johor Baru, Johor. Open daily from 11.30am to 2.30pm, 6pm to 10.30pm. For reservations, Tel: +607 – 3309777, +6012 – 777 2778 and +6016 – 209 3357.

Note: The restaurant is open throughout the Lunar New Year season.

My book with friends at Impiana Senai

Finally, the arrangements were made. Since the Impiana Hotel Senai opened last October, my Editor wanted me to do a hotel review* for Life & Times Jom.

Johor brand coffees served in the Living Room,
Impiana Senai Hotel, Johor
So once the hotel was up and running, I arranged to go to the hotel in Senai for a stay.

The drive from Johor Baru was smooth and quite straight from the city center via the Skudai Highway but I left a little late so with the pouring monsoon rain, I arrived just slightly later than planned.

They were waiting for me. Shirley Hoo, the hotel group’s Director of Marketing & Communications, probably thought I got lost so she called to check if I was on my way to the hotel.

“Yes!” I replied with my apologies as I drove into the hotel compound and found a parking space quite conveniently close to the porch.

Signing my book with friends at Impiana Senai Hotel,
[L to R] Shirley, Izwandy and Hanis] Florence [Right]
The rain was still beating down in a steady shower so I swept into the hotel in a rush of raindrops, closing my umbrella quickly and hoping it would not cause a puddle on the highly polished floor.

I could barely catch my breath when I was warmly greeted by Shirley and Hanis Hud, the hotel’s Marketing & Communications Executive.

As I registered for my room at the Reception counter, I was presented with a welcome drink and cold towel to freshen up on arrival.

We sat down in the lobby while the concierge team loaded my luggage on the trolley to wheel it to my room. Then the hotel group’s Director of Sales, Zane Nohr, introduced himself – with contrite apologies for his casual outfit (Read: shirt, shorts and loafers!) because it was his day off!

An autographed book for the hotel with
[L to R] Hanis, Izwandy, Zane and Shirley
Before my seat was warmed on the comfortable sofa, I was ushered from the lobby into The Living Room, a lounge located off The Tiffin, the hotel’s all-day dining café, for a cup of coffee.

The hotel’s Food & Beverage Manager, Izwandy Nordin, introduced their menu of warm beverages and highly recommended a choice of Johor coffees – either Kluang coffee or Muar coffee.

I’m familiar with the taste of both these popular local coffee brands and was glad that the hotel is promoting local fare to their guests.

I liked how it was served in traditional ceramic cups and saucers – just as in traditional kopitiam (coffee-shops) – and noticed how the coffee was topped by a layer of froth, probably because the barista could not resist pulling (tarik!) the coffee in the traditional way to create a better presentation!

When Shirley – who is based in Kuala Lumpur – learnt that I was coming for their hotel review, she did her ‘homework’ and came prepared for our meet-up.

Book-signing in the Living Room
So while we were sipping our coffee, she whipped out my book from her bag and requested for an autograph!

In her quest for a copy of my book, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage, Shirley confessed that she went to a total of six (6) MPH bookstores and was disappointed at five outlets because it was all sold out!

At the MPH Bookstore at Publika Mall – her sixth stop – she finally got her hands on one precious copy. This was the book she brought along for me to sign.

It was humbling to know that Shirley went through all that time and trouble just to get a copy of my book for me to autograph while I was in-house at their hotel. She certainly scored full marks for her dogged determination to get hold of it!

Then we talked about my book, in particular about how my Johor heritage stories are giving both local and visiting readers, fresh insights into Johor’s culture and heritage.

Waiting for our dinner [by the pool] served
from The Tiffin in traditional tiffin carriers!
Later I discovered how the hotel is also preserving Johor heritage in their own way – from the local food in their café menu as well as from the local names they had given to their event halls – Maharani (Muar!), Mersing, Endau and Senai.

That night, when we met for dinner at the airy poolside, Izwandy had arranged for a delicious meal of local Malay favourites from The Tiffin and it was aptly served from charming traditional tiffin carriers!

The next day, Shirley was with me for lunch at The Tiffin – a delightful buffet spread – and while we were eating, Hanis came to join us after she had completed her work.

When I saw her passing my book to Shirley, I realized that one of the errands she had accomplished was to drive to the nearest MPH Bookstore, located within the Senai International Airport terminal, to get another copy of my book!

Shirley and her autographed personal copy of my book!
Hanis confessed that she merely drove the car and it was Zane who hopped down to the bookstore (while she waited in the car!) to buy my book!

I was deeply touched by their effort and teamwork, and it was my pleasure to autograph it for Shirley who wanted a personal copy for her own collection.

Maybe after reading it, the hotel will favourably consider placing my book in their executive rooms and executive lounge for the guests’ reading pleasure, just as several other hotels in Johor have done.

Thanks very much, Shirley, Zane, Hanis and Izwandy for your kind hospitality at Impiana Hotel Senai and for your interest in my book, My Johor Stories: True Tales, Real People, Rich Heritage. Happy Reading!

*More on the hotel in a separate story.

P.S. I was notified by MPH Publishing that the stock of my books at the five MPH Bookstores in KL where it was sold-out last week, has since been replenished! 

Le Grandeur's Saturday Sino-Jap Buffet

When I saw the poster for the Sino-Japanese Saturday Buffet at Le Grandeur Palm Resort that featured the culinary delights by Chef Ravi and his team of chefs, I was intrigued at what they have in store for diners.
        
Chef Ravi [3rd from Left] and his team of chefs at
Le Grandeur Palm Resort Johor, presents an
exciting Sino-Japanese Buffet on Saturdays
So last Saturday, I was at Le Grandeur Palm Resort again to join the guests invited for a preview of this exciting spread of Chinese-Japanese specialties.

For a start, I know that the familiar taste of Japanese teppanyaki by Chef Nizam as well as tempura, ramen, sushi and sashimi from the popular Sobasei Japanese Restaurant and delightful Hong Kong dim sum handmade by Chef Cheng Wah Cheong at Xin Shan Long Restaurant, are some of the highlights to expect from this spread.

Just as I imagined, Chef Ravi was there, giving last minute instructions to his team who was busy setting up the buffet.

He told me that the chefs at the various resort restaurants had put their heads together and come up with over 100 items in interesting weekly menus, made up mainly of Chinese and Japanese dishes, along with a range of popular appetizers and desserts.

A range of appetizers in the buffet
Eager to explore, I spied the wide range of appetizers and desserts which looked both colourful and appetizing and I reminded myself to save some space for the sweet ending.

In the soup section, there was Japanese Miso Soup as well as Chinese Double-boiled Seafood Soup, chockful of ingredients like fish maw and dried seafood.

Another comfort food in the spread (which I saw many diners helping themselves to, repeatedly!) was the smooth Shredded Chicken Porridge, prepared in typically Cantonese tradition – in a congee.

I liked how they have live cooking stations in the Japanese section, where chefs serve freshly-made items like tempura, ramen, sushi, sashimi and teppan items like beef and chicken, upon receiving your orders.

At the Chinese section, a chef was on hand to chop roasted chicken or roasted duck from whole birds and let you pick your choice of condiments and sauces to savour your favourite parts of the poultry.

A selection of freshly-made dim sum
Fans of Hong Kong dim sum by Chef Cheong will be pleased that the buffet includes a menu of dim sum which are freshly made and served upon receiving the orders.

I spotted a small square clipboard on the table with a dim sum order form and pencil to indicate/place an order of dim sum listed there.

After a quick consultation with the others at our table, we decided on one order each to share of Steamed Crystal Prawn Dumpling, Steamed Chicken and Prawn siu-mai, Steamed Bao stuffed with barbecued chicken, Dumplings in Spicy Red Oil and Dumplings topped with Ginger, Spring Onion and Oyster Sauce.

The waiter collected the order form and in a few minutes, item by item was served at our table – steaming hot!

The Bao dumplings are what I call, ‘smiling bao’ because the soft pastry simply splits into a smile… and when chewing the pastry, it does not stick to the ceiling of my mouth.

Teppanyaki Chef Nizam in his element!
I particularly liked the Dumplings in Spicy Red Oil – an interesting and tasty, chilli oil sauce made with ground chilli powder, sesame oil, vinegar, garlic and soy sauce.

Speaking of what I liked from the buffet, I also found the Japanese Garlic Rice both fragrant and delicious but I refrained from taking a second helping because there was so much more to taste and enjoy from the buffet that I had to save my precious space…

Besides the platter of fresh fruits at the dessert section, I also discovered local kueh like serimuka and kueh kosui among the selection of cakes, tarts and puddings, and even an apple pie cut into wedges.

Beverages like a choice of Chinese tea and Green tea, chilled juices, beer and sake can be ordered from a separate menu (and is chargeable!) while the meal comes with free flow of plain water.

A section of the dessert buffet
This fusion lunch buffet, in an exciting menu which changes weekly, is served from 11.30am to 3pm every Saturday, except on Public Holidays.

Priced at only RM88 nett per adult and RM60 nett per child aged four to 12.

The Sino-Japanese buffet lunch is served at the Chinese-Japanese restaurant located at the lobby level of Le Grandeur Palm Resort Senai, Jalan Persiaran Golf, off Jalan Jumbo, 81250 Senai, Johor. No pork products are used.

For reservations, Tel: +607 – 599 6000 Ext: 8607 or email: fnbsec@palmresort.com

The resort is an integrated golf, leisure and business destination comprising Palm Resort Golf & Country Club and Le Grandeur Palm Resort Johor.

Pinewood Iskandar hosts inaugural T2APAC

Since June 2017, table-tennis legends, champions and rising stars were in Iskandar Puteri over a six-month period for the Asia Pacific Table-Tennis League (T2APAC) that culminated in a nail-biting, final showdown on Dec 10.

Studio audience captivated by the world-class table-tennis
match in the T2APAC Men's Finals (3rd & 4th placing)
between Jun Mizutani (Japan) [Left] and Chuan Chih-Yuan
(Taipei) [Right] at Film Stage 2 in Pinewood Iskandar
Malaysia Studios in Iskandar Puteri
In its inaugural season on the professional table-tennis calendar, T2APAC saw world-class players battling for an unprecedented prize purse of more than USD 1.5 million.

While I was aware of this event earlier on, my own schedule did not permit me to be part of the excitement.

So when I was invited to the finals, I did not hesitate to accept as it would be a unique experience to witness world-class table-tennis while it was being filmed and televised live to a worldwide audience.

I met with T2APAC, Chief Executive Officer, Jeff Chue, who shared his thoughts on why the organiser chose Johor’s Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios as their venue for the inaugural and Season Two games.

At the trophy presentation ceremony, Frank Ji [Left]
lifting up the trophy while the cameras rolled
Chue explained how they initially considered a venue option in Hong Kong’s popular TVB studios but as Pinewood Studios UK is world-renowned for filming blockbuster franchise productions like Star Wars and James Bond since 1936, it was easy to decide on choosing Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios.

He said that T2APAC was the brainchild of Frank Ji, a Shanghainese table-tennis enthusiast and serial entrepreneur.

Working in partnership with Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios and Astro Malaysia Holdings Berhad, T2APAC delivered the first-ever sports league to be televised entirely live at a world-class film and television production complex.

That's me with fellow guests during a break at the
Finals of the inaugural T2APAC in Pinewood Iskandar
When I found my way into Film Stage Two (FS2) in Pinewood Iskandar Malaysia Studios, I saw how this production facility studio was transformed into the T2 Cavern.

The design of T2 Cavern was inspired by The Cavern Club in Liverpool, England, an iconic stomping ground for up and coming artists which sparked a revolution in music and creativity.

This purpose-built area in FS2 was specially constructed with the competition field-of-play, studio audience lounge, hospitality suites, player training area and production sets.

I was greeted by the beat of throbbing music while an enthusiastic audience, being warmed up by a cheerleader, was clapping their cheering balloons and practicing a series of cheering waves!

T2APAC had certainly set a benchmark in sports with an aim to deliver to fans, the next generation of multi-media sport-ainment.

My eyes were riveted to a giant central screen on the wall and I also saw smaller screens situated at various points within the studio that gave the audience a clear, High-Definition view of the live action happening in the competition.

In line with their commitment to Corporate Social
Responsibility, T2APAC members visited Care Haven,
a children's home in Taman Bukit Rinting, Masai,
to share Christmas cheer with the young residents
The controlled studio size and limited seating created a sense of intimacy between fans and players in an immersive, in-venue experience that allowed the studio audience to get up-close with some of the biggest names in this sport and live table-tennis action.

The inaugural season featured 24 of the world’s top players, split into teams comprising three men and three women, to play singles matches over seven rounds a season, timed to fit into breaks in the International Table Tennis Federation calendar.

Instead of the best-of-five or first-to-seven matches, T2APAC players had to rack up as many game wins as possible in a fixed period of 24 minutes. The first player to reach 11 points wins the game.

Unlike the traditional format, there was no deuce when the score reached 10-10 and a player could win at 11-10. If time expires during a game, the player in the lead wins the game.

And if an earlier game was completed in the last two minutes of a match, the referee could call for a Kill Zone game where the first player to score five points would clinch the Kill Zone game.

The games were not only fast but absolutely thrilling to watch.

Some T2APAC members visited a durian farm
here for a taste of the King of Fruits
The four teams were led by Danish legend, Michael Maze, former Olympic silver medalist and German men’s team coach, Jorg Rosskopf, former doubles World champion, Jiang Jialing and Swedish legend, Jorgen Persson.

Major Top-Ten participants included former World No. 1, Timo Boll, and Dimitrij Ovtcharov from Germany, Jun Mizutani from Japan, Vladimir Samsonov of Belarus and Chuang Chih-Yuan of Chinese Taipei.

Women’s World No. 5 Cheng I-Cheng from Chinese Taipei and legendary defensive player from South Korea, Joo Sae Hyuk, who was ranked 5th in the world at his peak, were also here.

After months of grueling competition, Germany’s Timo Boll was crowned Men’s champion with compatriot Dimitrij Ovtcharov in second place while Jun Mizutani was third.

Bernadette Szocs from Romania clinched the Women’s champion title while women’s World’s No. 3, Feng Tianwei from Singapore was second with Liu Fei of China in third place.

The T2APAC event also presented a huge potential for sports tourism in Johor.

Some players were introduced to the flavours of local favourites like Kacang Pool and Air Batu Campur and even tried their hand at batik painting and playing local games during a visit to Kilang Bateri.

After visiting the oyster farm these member of T2APAC
enjoyed a sumptuous seafood dinner at
Poseidon Oyster Farm in Teluk Sengat
Other players visited a durian farm for a taste of the King of Fruits and also saw how an oyster farm was run before enjoying a sumptuous seafood meal at Teluk Sengat.

Not only were members of the Japanese expatriate community here turning up by the hundreds to cheer Jun Mizutani on since October, but fans of this 2016 Rio Olympics Bronze medalist, flew in from Japan just to watch him play!

I had the privilege to join T2APAC members on a visit to Care Haven, a children’s home in Taman Bukit Rinting, Masai, to share Christmas cheer with the young residents.

It was heartwarming to see how T2APAC contributed generously to the community.

Besides individual gifts, food products and a fried chicken lunch treat, they also presented the home with a TIBHAR table-tennis table complete with the game’s equipment!

While T2APAC was successfully televised and streamed live from a studio soundstage in its inaugural season at Iskandar Puteri, the time is ripe for the various agencies here to work in partnership, to draw more sports fans and tourists here for Season Two and beyond.

A version of this was published in the January 2018 issue of The Iskandarian