Johor Baru is not top of mind when it comes to fine dining destinations in the country. Don’t get us wrong, the southern city is chock-a-block with great food. Besides the ubiquitous — and addictive — Laksa Johor and the amazing array of fresh seafood served grilled, fried, broiled and steamed, Johoreans generally have it made. The mere mention of Larkin Jaya’s putu piring, kacang pool for breakfast or perhaps the fish head curry from Kam Long in Jalan Wong Ah Fook will have foodies nodding their heads in collective agreement. Fine dining, however, is a different kettle of fish with Initial restaurant remaining the main contender in this still-lonely arena.
Helmed by the baby-faced Koh Chin Hong, 29, Initial opened for business at the tail end of 2018, taking its name from the Chinese phrase bu wang chu xin, which may be translated as “do not forget your original intentions”. The character chu (“first” or “beginning”) is auspiciously prefixed on the signage before the restaurant’s name, beckoning guests to step into the simple but welcoming interiors. “I chose the name to remind me why I wanted to cook … and to keep my passion for it,” says the modest and friendly Koh.
The location, in a nondescript shoplot surrounded by furniture shops in Taman Molek, is unassuming, to say the least. “I just happened to be passing by one day, saw a Starbucks and thought it just might work. I am a Johorean, so I really wanted and hoped to bring the fine dining scene here to the next level,” he says.
Although the signboard declares Initial’s cuisine to be modern European, a glance at the menu will tell you it veers strongly towards contemporary Japanese — which makes sense as Koh began his culinary journey at the Hattori Nutrition College, a culinary school in Shibuya, Tokyo. Fans of the Japanese reality game show Iron Chef would be familiar with its principal, Dr Yukio Hattori, who has served as the show’s culinary commentator before. Koh then made his way to Midtown in Akasaka, training under Tatsuaki Kasamoto, the sensei who helped The Ritz-Carlton, Tokyo’s Hinokizaka restaurant truly shine during his tenure there.
For first-timers, only set menus are offered at Initial, which range from eight to 15 courses and may vary daily, depending on the season and availability of produce. Many ingredients are flown in from Japan and even the names of the sets sport a decidedly Nipponese nuance. For example, Kisetsu is priced at RM298 per pax while Takumi is RM888 per pax. Chef Koh can also do a special omakase menu upon request, which is priced at RM1,488 per pax.
Deciding that the safest place was somewhere in between, we plumped for the RM688 Shun menu and were duly rewarded with a procession of delectables, beginning with an amuse bouche of edamame, green apple and Caspian Sea caviar, freshly baked brioche to be eaten with kombu butter and a small serving of dill-flecked house yoghurt, before kick-starting the meal proper in consummate style over an otoro tart topped with bafun uni (so much more umami than murasaki uni), caviar and a drizzle of lime juice. Gourmets would appreciate how Koh takes the trouble to hunt down one of the most famous purveyors of bafun uni, Ogawa (the other top name to look out for is Takasho) — a testament to his dedication to best-in-class ingredients.
The senses were cajoled a little more intensely next, with scallop in a cloud of cherry-wood-smoked wasabi cream, and topped with ikura and yet more uni. The hits kept on coming. Caviar and gold leaf-adorned botan ebi accompanied by yuzukosho and yuzu juice-seasoned Aori squid — one of the tastiest and most expensive of the hundred-over varieties found in Japanese waters — in cauliflower puree was revealed (and eaten post-haste) after scraping off a veritable bubble bath of homemade passion fruit kombucha foam as well as a truly masterful take on the simple but sublime savouriness of an onsen egg, cooked at 61.5°C for 1½ hours, which was served with dehydrated enokitake, charred baby corn and shavings of Italian black truffles.
Protein came in the form of black cod cooked with dried spinach powder in a zingy ponzu, kelp and yuzu dashi, followed by a decadent dish of unagi and foie gras atop a sable Breton surrounded by little jicama moons. Although we were full to bursting by this point, a refreshment of fresh grapefruit, homemade yogurt and lime granita snow was served to quickly revive and perk up the palate in time to tuck into the pièce-de-résistance: slow-baked, crispy-crusted A5 Miyazaki wagyu with sides of pickled white asparagus, baked garlic puree and its own jus.
Perhaps it was the richness and luxuriant qualities of the preceding courses but, with the unctuousness of the beef still lingering in our mouths, the caramelised walnut and Earl Grey madeline served with white strawberry slices somehow seemed wan in comparison. The second dessert, however, proved to be more inventive and delicious, featuring the popular and crowd-pleasing panna cotta but with pickled rose petals for an uplifting accent. A small piece of nougat, packaged like an old-school sweet, came with it and was perfect to stuff into one’s pocket for later enjoyment.
Those planning a trip down south to try Koh’s culinary prowess had better make haste. The gourmet grapevine has been buzzing for weeks now with speculation that Johor’s bright young star may be lured by a top dining group to relocate to Kuala Lumpur, with plans to open a new and interesting dining venture at Menara Hap Seng 3, to be precise. At press time, however, discussions were still ongoing. So, for want of a better phrase, perhaps “Watch this space” seems the most appropriate.
Initial, 9-G Jalan Molek 3/10, Taman Molek, Johor Baru. Daily, 6-11pm; closed on Mondays. 016 247 0977.
This article first appeared on Mar 21, 2022 in The Edge Malaysia.