The Land of the Rising Sun is not just a beloved destination, but a constant source of inspiration too. Its influence spans trends in food and fashion to profound philosophies and practices, such as ikigai (reason for being), wabi-sabi (the embrace of transience and imperfection) and cha-no-yu ,the meditative tea ceremony known as The Way of Tea.
This past year has seen a crop of local cafés and bistros weave components of Japanese culture seamlessly into their own concepts to infuse elements of minimalism, beauty or refined flavours. We tip our hats to choice venues around Petaling Jaya, Selangor and Cheras, Kuala Lumpur that have pulled this off with panache.
To the Japanese, nature is to be celebrated without attempts to grasp its fleeting brilliance. The turning of the seasons is a study of impermanence, in which the emphasis is on the moment. Enamoured with this philosophy as well as the dramatic display of changing leaves, or koyo, during autumn, the founders of Aki’s Kohi decided to name their café after the season.
Located in a remote part of Cheras, the corner shop is ideal for those who wish to escape the crush of people at eateries downtown. The café’s pared-down aesthetic with wood accents recall the minimalist vibe of a kissaten, although the coffee machine, dangling lights and glass cake display are products of urban culture. Steeped in quiet simplicity, the space urges one to leave their attachments and woes of the daily grind at the door.
Large windows in the shop invite not only natural light but also an opportunity to pause and drift into infinity over a warm cuppa, some buttery croissants and a smoked salmon pizza topped with lashings of bonito flakes. If time is on your side, partake in a mannered ritual of matcha brewing (tea by Matcha Hero Kyoto) or pour over with bean options such as Ethiopia Sidamo Single and Jack Fruit Libera.
Here, brownies with a bitter cocoa punch are sweet pleasures for stressful times, as are the dainty cakes — some of which are sourced from a local baker — that elicit awe on sight. Our pillowy black tea shortcake, layered with delicate cream, was the perfect scaffold to hold the mango chunks in between. Call us boring, but we can never forgo the unsurpassed joys of biting into a kopitiam staple like the humble marble cake. The version at Aki’s, undeniably rich with chocolate swirls, will not last before your next coffee order arrives.
We must remind you that savoury mains are very limited as the café only keeps your appetite primed for a finale of sweets. Not that we are complaining, since dessert is the only acceptable answer to cap off a Sunday afternoon before a new work week rolls around.
Aki’s Kohi, Ground floor, D’Alamanda Condo, Pudu Ulu Impian IV, Cheras, KL. Thurs to Tues, 9.30am-5.30pm. 016 301 8087.
W Café & Dining
Japanese minimalism is not about things, but about the space between things — a perfect metaphor for the era of social distancing. W Café & Dining espouses this philosophy, from the trim menu that focuses on quality to the flowing layout of the dining section.
The wooden furniture is custom-made and oh-so-clever. Each table has foldable chairs built into one side that can be tucked neatly away, and is paired with double-sided benches that create natural rows. The low-slung furniture allows the eye to glide over to the nondescript counter at the far end where the food does all the talking.
Inhale the aromas of coffee and bread, baked fresh on the premises daily, that collide and wind headily around the visitor. There are options for every palate and budget; cold brews and hot blacks or whites, tea and matcha for those seeking Zen. Focaccia fans can choose from Sumino roast beef, pesto chicken or chunky egg mayo fillings (RM9.90 to RM22.90) while those partial to sourdough could have grilled cheese with pesto or soup, or toast with butter and sea salt or seasonal jam (RM6.90 to RM18.90).
W Café & Dining is an offshoot of a chain of café-kiosks under Work@holic typically located at office buildings. A semblance of its roots remains in the selection of pastries and croissants, but while such grab-and-go convenience is handy at crunch time, the Malaysian way is to dine leisurely. Settle in with low-carb skinny pizzas or Eastern-inspired pastas that pair Japanese flavours with the spicy, crunchy elements of chilli pan mee.
Here, you are not compelled to leave work or worries at the door. Bring both in and sit with them. This is a place that celebrates clarity, that removes the superfluous and welcomes the unorthodox. Peace prevails throughout the off-peak hours on weekdays, but all bets are off come lunchtime or weekends. Pick your hour and poison, then bring out the stressor of the day. Or a book. Anything goes in this quiet refuge. A space of few things can accommodate most things.
W Café & Dining, 23-1, Jalan PJU 1/42, Dataran Prima, PJ. Weekdays, 7.30am-6.30pm; weekends, 9am-6.30pm. 013 608 9061.
Half & Hāfu
Originally appointed as the waiting lounge of the eight-seater hair salon, the café portion of Half & Hāfu (Japanese for “half”) has become a destination in its own right. It occupies a small parcel of the shared 1,500 sq ft and comfortably seats 20 around an assortment of bar stools, low rattan stools, leather sofas, folding chairs and a running bench.
Eclectic, but it works; think Kinfolk meets a great garage sale. Wood, glass and cement form a neutral canvas that is brightened by rugs, a russet-hued feature wall and a trio of digital prints by Eleen Tan (@misseleen_artist on Instagram) behind the coffee bar. Sunlight pouring in through the large windows not only nourishes the customary plants in full attendance, but also supplies ample natural lighting preferred for that perfect Instagram shot.
And there are numerous opportunities here. Desserts are sourced daily and the small menu simply means you can try everything. Most Instagrammable are the fluffy mini chiffon cakes (RM17), dainty enough to not have to share but sufficiently substantial to tide you over for an hour or two. The black forest variant, topped with chocolate shavings and maraschino cherry, has a surprise filling of dark cherries, while other popular flavours are the earl grey and melon, and seasonal rose and peach.
Purists may baulk at the idea of mixing coffee with anything apart from water or milk (choices include dairy or oat), but take a chance. The house special is the signature Half & Hāfu (RM14), featuring a mocha base topped with bitter orange, served hot or cold. Ask the barista about the staggered drinking method to best appreciate the complex mix of cocoa, chocolate and citrus notes.
The risk-averse who prefer to stick to staples will not go thirsty, with the usual list of black and white coffees as well as matcha, houjicha and hot chocolate. The Japanese penchant for minimalism with a warm palette, as opposed to the cooler hues and materials of the Scandinavian approach, imparts a cosiness that invites the visitor to linger long after glasses are empty and plates only carry crumbs.
Half & Hāfu, Lot B-1-05, The Hub SS2, 19 Sentral, Jalan Harapan, Section 19, PJ. Tues-Sun, 11am-8pm. 03 7931 1990.
A heavyset Mona Lisa holds court at Nippori Bistro, evidence of a fondness for carbs scattered on the table before her. The quirky mural is representative of the experimental tone the bistro takes, its fusion menu reflecting the British colonial architecture, French patisserie display and Japanese horigotatsu seating (wooden platforms with recessed leg space) that make up its setting.
The line snaking outside the monochrome-tiled entrance starts early and does not let up, but the floor crew gets top marks for swift and friendly service. Even before the eyes can really take in the lanterns and lamp posts or the green and gold accents that enliven the black-and-white interiors, orders have been noted.
Just as the interiors engulf the senses, so does the breadth of the menu. The juxtaposition of soups and salads, sushi and sashimi, galettes, pizzas, pastas and mains could overwhelm the indecisive, so consider closing your eyes and picking at random.
You may land on the light, sweet and savoury French onion soup (RM18), buttery trout sashimi (RM38) served on an elegant, gilded platter with matching chopsticks, or Flying Salmon Don (RM42) with firm salmon chunks, ikura and tobiko. Otherwise, let the chef’s hat guide you with options including salmon mentai maki rolls (RM38), deep sea kombu pasta with seaweed-infused heavy cream and seafood (RM39) or wagyu baked curry rice (RM38) topped with melted cheese.
Approach the pastry counter with caution for the sweet treats unabashedly tease and tantalise, promising pleasure to those willing to cheat on diets and resolutions made in the safety of lockdown. How dangerous could a bread pudding (RM8) or lemon loaf (RM10) be, they seem to whisper, as if we would not notice the rich, luscious bite of the former or the laudable crumbliness and zesty icing of the latter. A pairing of coffee or wine would increase the calorie count, but also exponentially raise the level of gratification. Is that not a worthy trade-off?
Fittingly, the name “Nippori” has several possible meanings, indicating a new town, where the sun sets or a never-ending day. Each interpretation could ring true in this curious melting pot of ideas, a place so beguiling that even Mona Lisa would shed her centuries-old inscrutability to let loose and savour the expansive offerings. Her unrepentant expression suggests she regrets nothing.
Nippori Bistro, Lot 2&3, B Land, Jalan 51A/225, PJ. Tues-Sun, 10am-4.30pm and 6-10pm. 011 5992 0379.
This article first appeared on Apr 5, 2021 in The Edge Malaysia.