Chennai’s new Japanese restaurant has a steam punk setting


The Thirsty Crow lingers, even as Kabuki elbows its way in

Popular Nungambakkam neighbourhood pub Thirsty Crow, recently turned into a Japanese restaurant, which is a startling revamp, given the fact most restaurateurs are content with a food festival and refreshed upholstery when they want to shake things up.

Owners Paul Raymond and Nikhil Nath decided to reinvent the space instead — only, they have not had the heart to completely evict Thirsty Cow’s steam punk soul. The result is penny-farthing bar stools set against walls dizzy with dials, all jostling against a shower of cherry blossom.

While the schizophrenic décor is confusing, especially for new customers who do not know — or care — about the history of the space, it is also unexpectedly joyful. A happy mizutaki, bubbling with all kinds of disparate odd and ends that ultimately blend together into an umami-rich broth.

Chennai’s new Japanese restaurant has a steam punk setting

Which brings us to Kabuki’s mizutaki, or hot pot. Each room is divided into sections, for privacy. Cocooned in our corner, eavesdropping on the cheery table of Korean businessmen beside us, we sip a refreshing blend of kiwi muddled with soju, and topped with litchi juice.

In keeping with the restaurant’s name, Kabuki, which is a classical form of Japanese theatre, a waiter enters ceremoniously carrying a large pot filled with simmering dashi broth. He is followed by another bearing a tray with artfully-arranged Chinese cabbage, shiitake mushrooms, carrots, celery, tofu and thinly-sliced pork, jiggly with flavour-packed fat.

As the pot begins to bubble, the waiter carefully puts in each ingredient, leaving it to gently simmer together. The result is an elegant, nuanced and fairly healthy dish, ideal for a group of friends: After all, chasing mushrooms in a bowl with chopsticks forces you to be companionable.

There is more drama with flaming sushi, where a chef attacks a plate of sushi with a blow torch, then apologetically dabs it with soy. Great for Instagram stories, perhaps, but the result is a weak chaos of fish, soy and BBQ: the very opposite of the pleasingly austere clarity of flavour that classic Japanese cuisine represents.

Unlike many traditional sushi restaurants, Kabuki does not embrace minimalism. This is not a bad thing: Chennai has enough competent, straight-laced Japanese restaurants.

  • @ 54, Valluvar Kottam High Road, Nungambakkam
  • Hits: Kakiage, mizutaki
  • Misses: Flaming sushi
  • Meal for two: ₹1,500
  • 43562299

Instead, Kabuki’s team, lead by Chef Yasuyuki Tsuruyama, who hails from Akita, has chosen sections of Japanese cuisine that will appeal to a young, local audience hankering for a post-work space to kick back, Thirsty Crow style. Hence, expect fried prawn noodles, bowls of spicy chicken mince ramen and burnt garlic fried rice. We try the tuna teriyaki, featuring delicate slices of tuna framed in crisp skin, and served with a rich, sweet and salty sauce.

This is followed by seafood kakiage, an unsteady tower of julienned carrots, zucchini, capsicum and caramelised onions, interspersed with prawns and squid. It is unpretentious, and addictive in the way that only deftly deep-fried food can be, with crunchy corners, fluffy interiors and interlaced flavours held together by crisp tempura batter.

Chennai’s new Japanese restaurant has a steam punk setting

Refreshingly, in an age when food is tediously high brow, with chefs vying with each other to aspire for authenticity, Kabuki has decided to focus on crowd pleasers. Whether it is the music, which is defiantly all Ed Sheeran and John Legend, or the fruity cocktails, or the abundance of rice bowls, tempura and ramen.

Sushi is a demanding dish, and sourcing ingredients for it is both difficult and expensive. Retaining good chefs is every restaurateur’s biggest challenge, and gets tougher for speciality restaurants like this, where the pool of talent is smaller. In this setting, simple Japanese cooking that appeals to a wider range of people is a practical way to go.

When you visit, though the menu is exhaustive, pick simple, seasonal dishes. And remember, everything is better with sake. Or rather, Korean soju, which is much easier to source in Chennai. For Kabuki is practical, right down to its cocktails.

Chennai’s new Japanese restaurant has a steam punk setting

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Printable version | Dec 16, 2019 1:02:13 AM |

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