Decade milestones are significant. For Cilantro restaurant’s 20th anniversary, owner Tan Boon Lee decided to throw a party that stretched from lunch to dinner, and for guests not able to drive home that night, breakfast the next day as well. So it was a long, trippy party for the 40 or so (both invited and paying) guests.
The man loves to party. “As you get older, what do you treasure most?” he asked rhetorically. “Friends.” For his 40th birthday, his party of 40 drank 166 bottles of his favourite Champagne. For his 50th do, it was a more matured affair with the cracking of a nebuchadnezzar bottle equivalent to only 20 bottles.
“We must age gracefully and cannot be doing what we did a decade or two ago,” he quipped.
For Cilantro’s 20th, once again, Bruno Paillard Champagne was poured freely. This time, nobody’s counting; by night’s end, no one could.
Except for chef Takashi Kimura. “If Boon Lee has one soft point, it is this. He’s not interested in material things; only food and wine,” Kimura said fondly of his boss. “But he doesn’t drink at home.”
The two men have shared a friendship of 17 years, bound by their common love of good food and family. But not for one moment would Kimura get too familiar. He insists on maintaining a boss-chef relationship.
“I don’t want to be too close. If you become friends, your boss won’t be able to tell you off,” he said, only half joking.
Apart from Cilantro at the MiCasa All Suite Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, Kimura also oversees Tan’s other restaurants: Sage and Ri-Yakitori at The Gardens mall in Mid Valley City, and Le Petit Flot in Sydney’s Tank Stream hotel which is owned by Tan.
“I travel with his family and stay in his house when in Sydney. He treats my family very well,” said Kimura who has two girls aged 22 and 12. “We are closed on Sunday so we can have family time. He is very family oriented, like me.”
While Kimura likes to maintain a “me chef, you boss” stance, he said his boss is not bossy. “He can accept other ideas, wants to be a team player and likes to be kept informed.”
Tan on the other hand, said Kimura has a free hand in the kitchen. “I ask only that he keeps food cost to a certain percentage. But from Day 1, it has never been about profits. Cilantro was conceived as a marketing ploy to sell the rooms!
“To be honest, the hotel guests don’t dine here; it is too expensive for them. So it was a nice idea that didn’t work!”
The marketing ploy may be unrealistic but the restaurant has been a winner from the beginning, maintaining its position as one of the city’s top restaurants – some would even venture that Cilantro is Kuala Lumpur’s best restaurant, known for its excellent and consistently high quality of food and cooking that you can never fault.
But in the world of high-stakes dining, expectations are also sky high and critics can be unforgiving. For many years, the restaurant’s jaded looks – which underwent a recent renovation end last year – had been a point of contention. While heaping praise on its steak tartare and sea urchin pasta – which she ordered every time – one critic lamented that the menu had hardly changed over the years.
Cilantro, for me, is that special occasion place where you go when you don’t want to be disappointed by the meal. I have come to put my trust in Kimura over the years, and I am not alone; a certain gentleman with deep pockets is always sitting in his favourite spot every time I am there (you would never see such devotion at another restaurant).
Kimura thinks deep and long before putting a dish in front of guests. You won’t find half-baked, experimental food on your plate and you appreciate the respect and reverence the chef has for his customers. Like the best of hosts, he offers you his most brilliant creations – unagi and foie gras; wagyu tartare; lobster pot au feu; cold capellini sea urchin – best seen as an evolution over years. So each time you step into Cilantro, you will be experiencing Kimura at his utter best.
“Cilantro is not Noma or Gaggan where you find a new wow factor every time,” explained Kimura. “We tend to pay attention to particular ingredients, a new taste, or technique. Food is for eating; if possible, I want simplicity.”
Cilantro is synonymous with French-Japanese food and it’s French first, he will tell you.
For the anniversary menu, boss said to chef: “Use better ingredients” and chef said to boss, “Sure, sure, but look here boss-san, I probably can’t keep to the cost percentage this time.” Boss swallowed hard but accepted the pain stoically. And that’s probably a good way to put the economics at Cilantro. Like the man said, profit is not the raison d’etre for Cilantro. Sharing and spreading his passion for great food is.
The recent renovation also saw a 16-seater private room complete with sound-proofing and fully-decked kitchen built below the restaurant and it is Tan’s pride and joy.
The idea for Yuu@Cilantro was sparked by Tan’s love for cooking and entertaining. It’s where he cooks for his friends and guests at his monthly charity pop-up.
Invited anniversary guests sat with hosts Tan and wife Su Ming, and MiCasa general manager Gavin Fletcher at a long table at the back of the dining room.
Lunch started, without fanfare, with cold capellini with Oscietra caviar – the more atas version of the Cilantro classic, cold capellini with sea urchin. So chef had taken boss’ order quite literally. Personally, I prefer the sea urchin version as caviar and pasta together was just too slippery and elusive.
The flirting with symbols of prestige continued with autumn truffle and abalone consommé, with slices of abalone perfectly cooked to a toothsome tenderness. The last time I had such remarkable abalone was at Waku Ghin in Singapore – Tetsuya did it better with a whole abalone. One hazards what’s stopping Kimura was keeping to that cost ruling so his boss wouldn’t chew him up.
For main, it was a tough choice between Cod and Kinki with scallop and kegani (crab) sauce and Wagyu with seared foie gras. Since there would be beef for dinner, seafood won. It turned out to be a memorable dish and a perfect illustration of the kind of culinary poetry that Kimura is capable of.
He could have called it “fifty shades of white” for the subtle yet complex layers of flavours and textures. The plate came unadorned and your eyes focused on the play on shapes: the round scallop barely cooked and almost translucent, the cod a milky, opaque white cube, the Kinki fish cut a diamond shape, its red skin starkly contrasting the white flesh.
To this snowy trinity was cast a sauce of white crab meat consomme and roe thickened with kudzu starch; the Hokkaido crab’s the Japanese equivalent of Shanghai hairy crab.
Each element on the plate was more than competently executed – omne trium perfectum, as they say. The texture and taste of each varied by shades, playing out an exciting sea symphony that rose to a crescendo deserving of a standing ovation.
Kimura’s mastery of cookery shone in the preparation. The Kinki, a thornyhead rockfish, had an astonishingly smooth and gelatinous skin. To get the fish skin to turn into gelatin, the fish was steam-baked at a low temperature, 58°C for 10 minutes, before going under the intense heat of the salamander.
The cod was seared on one side for some caramelisation before grilling on a bed of herbs and garlic for a few minutes. Exactly how long depends on the thickness of the cut – you can’t put a time to the recipe, the chef said.
“It would take a very long time to understand why I do certain steps,” said Kimura. “I don’t have an exact recipe.”
That’s why it will take a trainee in his kitchen a number of years to learn from him as everything is made from scratch. And “there are no short cuts,” he said firmly.
Kimura and Tan like to joke about Cilantro being a training ground for aspiring chefs in the country.
“No matter what you learn in school, if you don’t go through the rigours of a professional kitchen, you will not get it. There is much to learn after school.
“You need to experience the various ingredients and skills. For each ingredient that you use, if you don’t know the result you want before cooking, you have failed,” he said.
“Without a firm foundation you cannot create anything,” Kimura added. “Any staff who leaves this kitchen finds it very easy to survive outside.”
Yet Kimura and Tan are not one bit bitter about it. “They should move; I am happy for them. Other restaurants may be excelling at skills I don’t have here,” said Kimura humbly.
The number one ingredient for success in this field is passion, he noted. “You have to love what you do or you won’t be happy. And if you are not happy, you won’t make the customer happy. Happy chefs make happy food and happy customers.”
Four happy canapes were rolled out before dinner, which started with a symphony of happy hors d’oeuvres – oyster, bluefin tuna, wild abalone, and confit of foie gras on toast, chased by Daiginjo sake.
This was followed by tarabagani (red king crab) and avocado potage (soup) and a second starter of cognac flambeed lobster claw.
Main was a tasting plate of three types of Japanese beef and four condiments of mustard, wasabi, chopped wasabi stem and yuzukosho, not forgetting the beef jus, shedding light on Kimura’s style of focusing on prime ingredients and educating palates.
I am not such a wagyu expert to know Kobe from Matsuzaka and Gunma, and after six or more glasses of wine, one can be forgiven for not being able to discern the differences terroir and feed make – but I’d vouch that they were all meltingly tender with an intense umami taste.
The wagyu was served – surprisingly – with a side plate of Chinese greens. This was apparently the chef’s gesture to make boss happy.
“Mr Tan likes this. Malaysians like extra vegetables so I serve it on the side,” said Kimura, who likes Chinese food (favourite restaurant: Oversea in Jalan Imbi) and living in Malaysia. He likes Malaysia for its sunny weather, “no winter”, and friendly people.
From Ibaraki, an hour north of Tokyo, he has been here long enough to feel slightly uncomfortable when he goes back to Japan.
“There is a strict culture of hierarchy and politeness in Japan that makes socialising very tough. I like the multi-racial mix in Malaysia and the relative freedom.”
The one down side about living in Malaysia? “Malaysian driving not so good. People like to share in the restaurant but on the road, they won’t share, they won’t give way – it’s scary!”
Good to know: If you BYO, there’s a RM100 corkage charge for wine and champagne, but if you order a bottle from the restaurant as well, the corkage is waived. Above six diners, corkage is RM75. The three course is priced at RM428, four course RM518 and degustation RM658. The private room Yuu can be booked at RM1,500 per day, inclusive of tableware and service staff.