THE moon is a brilliant orb in the inky sky, the ocean is glassy and calm. Occasional swells cause the seawater to slap against the wooden bottom of the sampan as the weathered old fisherman lights the torch. It only takes a few minutes before gleaming shoals of fish and translucent squid swarm towards the sampan. The night’s catch is in.
In the Japanese language, that luring light is called Isaribi.
Isaribi is an apt name for a Japanese restaurant that doesn’t compromise on the quality of its produce.
Located in two restored homes on Chow Thye Road, Isaribi was formerly known as Flaming Pot. When owner Y. Kayashima took over in May 2004, he added Japanese dishes to the menu. Eventually he changed the name.
Flaming Pot regulars will be glad to know that the beautiful interior has been retained, if not improved.
You can’t help but fall in love with the verdant garden as you stroll under the lush pergola. Leafy, dark palms sway in the cool evening breeze and striking fuchsia orchids bloom in their midst. Overhead the grapevine creeps, filling up the nooks in the trellis. Water gurgles out of the clay frog’s mouth into the little pond at the garden’s centre.
You enter through antique wooden doors. To the left of the entrance, colourful fish in an aquarium peek out.
Antique wooden chests and tables lend a touch of the old world while the warm soft glow from pretty lamps completes the homey, intimate ambience.
Isaribi stands out from the other Japanese restaurants on Penang island. They serve a regular Japanese menu with a twist.
The Saba (mackerel) Maki and Deep-Fried River Crabs are Japanese staples that are none too common here, and then there are the western specialities with a Japanese twist such as Salmon Lasagna and Seafood Rice Gratin.
There are some interesting offerings like Blueberry Lassi and Red Bean and Green Tea Smoothies on the beverage list, but we declined, choosing to stick to the fragrant green tea.
We started with Oyster and Scallop Gratin – fresh briny oysters and plump scallops topped with a cheesy becha-mel sauce and baked till brown and bubbly on top.
They were delicious, the sweet taste of the sea countered by the savoury cheese sauce. You can choose to have the dish with a drop of Tabasco.
We then moved on to the Sushi Supreme, a mixed platter of vinegared rice tidbits topped with raw salmon, tuna, scallops, barbecued eel, glistening pearls of salmon roe, shrimp and other tasteful delights. Dipped in the wasabi and soy-sauce mix, the sushi packed a toothsome punch.
The Grilled Rainbow Trout came with a potato salad and green vegetables. The flesh was moist and flaky, the skin crisp. It had been simply prepared, lightly salted then grilled, so fresh that we ignored the lemon wedge on the side.
I was not too keen on the idea of Salmon Lasagna but one mouthful converted me. Layers of fresh salmon, rich white sauce, sweet tomato puree and al dente sheets of pasta melded into a delicious mouthful.
The richness was countered by the refreshing green salad served with the lasagne.
The Saba Maki was by far the showstopper. Velvety pieces of raw mackerel sat atop glistening sushi rice. I was struck by the sheer texture, freshness and taste of the mackerel. The mackerel had a buttery, almost smoky flavour.
Though we were stuffed, we could not resist dessert. I had a slice of home-made, chilled cheesecake and my companions had the sesame ice-cream.
The cheesecake was light, yet creamy, not too cloying although I felt that a tiny bit of grated lemon zest would have given it the extra oomph it needed. The sesame ice-cream was nutty and sweet.
Isaribi has daily specials and reasonable set lunch options. Regular patrons favour it for its quality food, private and unique ambience and reasonable prices.
Happy Hours are from 6pm-7pm daily when fresh juices, sake and Chuhai are one for one and come with complimentary appetizers.
As we walked out under the green canopy, we were still marvelling at the tranquillity of the place. By the time we got into the car, we were already planning our next trip.