As is often the case on Sundays, we wanted to have lunch out, but were bored with all the potential prospects… So when friends suggested we try Jozu Kin at Fort Bonifacio, written up today in Margaux Salcedo’s article in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, we said we were game for that. Margaux’s column is one that I usually read, but hadn’t done so this morning, so I went in search of it to see what we could expect at lunch. The article struck me more as an ode to the Chef Jayme, a friend I gather, more than a review of the restaurant itself. With credentials including stints in the kitchens at Balthazar and three Batali restaurants in New York, expectations were higher than normal. And when the price of an average meal was estimated at PHP800-1,500, I was prepared to spend PHP1,500+ but be wowed vis-a-vis the normal run of the mill, what I like to call, “Filipinized Japanese” cuisine that is so common in Manila. But mention that this restaurant was owned by the offspring of Mr. Villavicencio (of Tripe V, Saisaki and Kamayan fame) should have tempered my heightened expectations somewhat. Four of us ate lunch today, and all are fairly experienced restaurant customers, and these are our collective thoughts on Jozu Kin…
The restaurant is located at Burgos circle in Fort Bonifacio, near all those new Megaworld apartment buildings. Constructed into a double height ceilinged ground floor rental space, the restaurant has a mezzanine where the bulk of the restaurant tables appear to be located. The ground floor houses more tables and the kitchen, I gather. It is bright and airy downstairs, dark and a bit claustrophobic on the second floor. I personally dislike mezzanines in restaurants, and while I understand they are an economic necessity due to the cost of rental space, they rarely, if ever, make cozy dining spaces wherever in the world you might be. The interior decor is unusual in that I had no idea what they were aiming at… Faux brick walls with cement oozing out was matched with dark wood veneers and a wall of quilted leatherette which was nicely intentioned to muffle out the horrendous noise levels so common in many restaurants these days. It was dark, masculine, almost club-like or bar-like in the upstairs dining area. A bar was in fact tucked into one corner of the mezzanine and we were seated close to it. With blenders going constantly to fill diners seemingly insatiable desire for high-mark up fruit shakes, the sound of the blender was deafening and frankly, truly irritating. And I am certain the entire mezzanine was treated to the constant cacophony. Yes, definitely, they need a sound muffler or case for that blender. The restaurant is quite new, so it was a surprise that they didn’t seem to have enough menus on hand, and I don’t like sharing menus unless I am on a date early in the courtship process and want to be brushing epidermis with one’s intended partner.
But once we opened the limited menus (our table first had to share 2 of the precious documents), the prices of the dishes immediately suggested we had perhaps arrived with the wrong expectations. Most of the dishes were surprisingly budget friendly, and given the location, the interiors, and the size of the dishes, this struck me more as an upscale Saisaki than a downscale fancy restaurant. One could easily dine here comfortably for lunch at the PHP400-500 average ticket per customer (unless ordering the really pricey stuff) and maybe just a bit more if you were having dinner. Whenever I go to a new restaurant, I try to order my “benchmark” dishes… to compare them to what I personally think is a good example of this dish, reasonable value, presentation, etc. So I started off with an order of tuna sashimi, photo up top. What arrived were 6-8 generous slices of a pallid raw tuna, more pink than red, and definitely not the finest you might find in the market, and probably even previously frozen. A plus was the nicely grated horseradish on the side, and the taste was fine, but if you can’t nail the tuna sashimi at a Japanese restaurant, expect other disappointments as the meal progresses. I thought this was a generous 8.0/10.0 for the price charged.
Our second starter was an interesting sounding dish name “Sake Balls” or something similar (sorry, my names might be a bit inaccurate and some prices unstated as the receipt was not itemized and I don’t take notes while eating). Sake is salmon in Japanese, I gather and a thin slice of salmon sashimi covered the top half the rice ball, perhaps 2/3 the volume of a golf ball, and was topped with a smidgen of cream cheese and a piece of fried salmon skin. We all thought this was awful. Far too much rice, no flavor of salmon coming through, and the cream cheese a bit odd. But worse, the fried skin was distracting and didn’t help the dish one bit. Ours was definitely makunat (unpleasantly chewy), and it was like having some rice tutong or burned rice bits stuck in one’s teeth. We wouldn’t order this again. This rated a 4.0/10.0.
The spicy tuna temaki, also mentioned in Margaux’s article, was very good and met RM’s expectations. At the price charged, he felt it was a strong 8.5/10.0. And would definitely order it again.
Mrs. MM is a linguine a la vongole fanatic, and makes it well herself, so she decided to order the Chef’s fusion take on this classic dish by using green tea? noodles, with lots of clams, shallots, etc. It looked pretty good. But it definitely lacked verve. It was bland. The absence of wine was not made up for by an alternative ingredient. And in Mrs. MM’s opinion, the use of chopped green onion in place of chopped flat-leaf parsley drew a wrinkled face. She still finished the entire order, and rated it a 7.0/10.0. At PHP290 for this order, it was a very reasonably priced main course.
Mrs. MM also ordered some agedashi tofu, a staple at our Japanese meals, and liked it a LOT. It was light and not oily in the least. It was a generous serving of six pieces and sat in a sauce that was well seasoned and flavorful. The grated radish was just the right amount for the liquid. Nothing fusion here, but they nailed it. We all rated this at 8.50/10.0.
I have stopped ordering gindara at all but the best Japanese restaurants as I find they tend to use a poorer quality of gindara, even a substitute for the original, but I was happy that MG ordered this as her main course for lunch. A relatively thin slice of gindara looked perfectly grilled and was smothered in teriyaki sauce that was just appropriately sweet. She was very happy with this dish, and would rate it a solid 9.0/10.0 and it was PHP440.
MG also ordered the garlic fried rice, and quickly noted that upon arrival, it had more color than the typical white rice served with some fried garlic on top. Some effort was at least applied to this bowl of fried rice, and the addition of soy and other flavorings made this another well-received dish, which she rated also at 9.0/10.0. It was PHP60 or so.
For my main course, I ordered cold noodles served with three pieces of shrimp tempura. The noodles (green tea instead of normally buckwheat noodles) were okay, and again the grated wasabi was a plus, but the noodles were laid on top of several tube ice pieces that were rapidly melting onto the serving box. Watery noodles, even though cold, are not the ideal way to enjoy this dish. The noodles are best served well chilled, in my opinon, but not dripping tube ice water. The water dilutes the dipping sauce, and as could have been predicted, dripped on the way onto the table and spilled on the way off the table. The raw quail’s egg was nice and the sauce well seasoned.
The tempura was competently executed and overall I thought this dish rated a 8.50/10.0 for the PHP290 or so price. I could see dropping in for this dish with a Diet Coke and leaving with a bill of less than PHP400.
RM decided to go for something unusual and ordered these jalapeno ebiko cha soba noodles. For someone used to serious spice, he found this “too spicy” and picked out the several pieces of jalapeno that remained in his bowl. He thought it would be improved a bit by a slight reduction in chili, and maybe just letting diners add more if they wanted to. In its current version, he rated this a 7.0/10.0. At PHP312 (bizarre price we thought), this struck me as being a bit pricey.
If there was one thing apparent at this stage of the meal, it was not what we had expected. Either the dictates of the owners regarding what would or would not be a commercial success or the dishes that we ordered did not exhibit the touch of a chef who came so well credentialed. There was no brightness to each order, no unique sharpness of flavor that is common in a Batali dish, no matter how plebeian. Things were muddled, unsure, insecure. It was neither a nailed example of Japanese cuisine nor a convincing example of fusion Japanese-French-Italian that would leave a strong enough impression. It was reasonable value for the prices charged, but maybe that just means the chef’s skills were poorly showcased in this setting. Chef Jayme was working the floor, even clearing trays, and was on the mezzanine a couple of times while we dined. And maybe they were just surprised by the relatively full house they had today, probably as a result of the review of Ms. Salcedo, as they seemed a bit under-manned and under-stocked, but it’s early goings and I hope things find their stride in the months ahead. They had no Coke Light, so I happily took a Coke Zero, only to order a second one, and they were already “out-of-stock”.
If we had a mixed review of the appetizers and main courses, we had a unanimous one on the two desserts we tried at lunch. And it was that we should have gone next door to Sugarhouse instead. The tapioca with brown sugar was okay, but it came with one of the most disappointing buko ice creams I have ever tasted. I suppose one could have been aiming at a lighter sort of buko foam, but this it was not. It was soft, probably unintentionally soft, and a result of a hot kitchen or weak freezer or both, less flavorful than it could have been, and had an odd mouth feel. I rarely say this, but serving a scoop of Magnolia style high carageenan and air pumped ice cream might even have been better. This rated a 6.0/10.0.
Finally, we ended on the worst note. How can one mess up an order of what is essentially banana turon and mango ice cream? An odd option in a Japanese-French-Italian fusion place, by the way. The turon was a whole banana cut in half, therefor seriously chunky, and it barely cooked all the way through. The skin was a vietnamese style rice wrapper that was not crisp or browned at all, more like a damp oily skin which held fresh mint leaves against the bits of jackfruit and banana. Mint and bananas did not seem like a good idea and this whole dish was poorly executed. And the mango ice cream was again unbelievably disappointing. This was a 4.0/10.0.
Overall, we averaged out all of the individual dish ratings to an aggregate 7.0/10.0, which I think fairly describes the lunch we had today at Jozu Kin. It could definitely improve, and I hope Chef Jayme takes comments from his customers into account when adjusting or improving dishes in future. As we were leaving, I dropped by a nearby table with over 10 guests, one of them a regular marketmanila.com reader and asked them what they thought of their lunch. Let’s just say it didn’t seem too far off the review I have just written here. Oh, and one last thing. A service charge was not included in the bill. To me, that says only one thing. The staff are likely to be undercompensated and it will be an uphill battle training everyone to provide a level of service that would leave a positive impression… Our total bill for all ten dishes plus several drinks was roughly PHP2,500 or PHP625 each, far less than the expected PHP800-1,500 range quoted in the article. We will go back at least one more time, perhaps to try the less common and more pricey offerings on the menu, and maybe then the influence and style of the chef will be more apparent.