Town & Country (Philippines) - - CONTENTS / AUGUST DEPARTMENTS - By Wil­liam Batchelor Pho­to­graphs by Kai Huang

Restau­ra­teur El­bert Cuenca comes up with a new con­cept, Kazunori.

Tucked away in the midst of blar­ing car horns and mud­dled pedes­tri­ans along what is fast be­com­ing the city’s most talked about food cor­ri­dor is Kazunori, a new Ja­panese restau­rant with three dis­tinct din­ing con­cepts. It houses a ca­sual cafe in the front, a high­end nine-seat omakase bar in the mid­dle, and a tra­di­tional din­ing room at the back that serves iza­kaya fare. Owned and man­aged by restau­ra­teur El­bert Cuenca of El­bert’s Steak Room fame and his part­ners in the pop­u­lar ra­men joints Men­dokoro and Yushoken, Kazunori brings au­then­tic Ja­panese cui­sine to the neigh­bor­hood once dom­i­nated by ware­houses and car show­rooms.

The ca­sual at­mos­phere in­side Kazunori makes for a de­light­ful din­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. A glass wall sep­a­rates the restau­rant from the ad­ja­cent Mazda show­room, and dur­ing the day, pa­trons of both es­tab­lish­ments can cross over from space to space with ease. Its sleek in­dus­tri­al­style in­te­ri­ors boast olive green and gray fur­nish­ings with pine wood ac­cents. Servers are clad in chic Uniqlo uni­forms and of-the-mo­ment Wataru es­padrilles. The cafe is bright­ened by nat­u­ral light that fills the en­try­way, while the in­ti­mate omakase room, par­ti­tioned by wood pan­els, is pleas­antly dim­mer, a wel­come char­ac­ter­is­tic that lends to its cozy at­mos­phere. The iza­kaya sec­tion’s open kitchen an­chors the din­ing space.

It is the qual­ity of its food and in­gre­di­ents that sets Kazunori apart from the hun­dreds of other Ja­panese restau­rants scat­tered around the city. To il­lus­trate this point, co-pro­pri­etor Ryan Cruz shares that the mar­ket price of a sin­gle slice of otoro sashimi that makes the cut for the off-the­menu sashimi plat­ter is equiv­a­lent to the cost of mak­ing a sin­gle bowl of ra­men at Men­dokoro. Re­cently a soba master paid a visit to the es­tab­lish­ment to as­sist the chefs in per­fect­ing the soba and udon dishes by ad­just­ing the thick­ness and tex­ture of the noo­dles. Clearly, scrimp­ing on qual­ity is never an op­tion here. Although the group has been mak­ing its own ra­men noo­dles for a while, it rec­og­nized that a greater level of ex­per­tise was re­quired to per­fect the qual­ity of the noo­dles, and in true Ja­panese fash­ion, an ar­ti­sanal ex­pert was called in. In ad­di­tion, its spe­cialty rice is sourced from Japan, and high-grade wasabi is never pre­made but pre­pared only be­fore it is served. Each area of Kazunori is man­aged by a sin­gle Ja­panese chef, and the three work to­gether to keep the qual­ity to a very high stan­dard. The sep­a­rate café and the iza­kaya menus can be en­joyed in­ter­change­ably, and it is only in the omakase space that a sin­gle menu is strictly ad­hered to.

It’s of­ten said that we eat with our eyes first. At Kazunori, the food looks just as good as it tastes—and all the dishes look spec­tac­u­lar. To start, try the crunchy veg­etable and prawn kaki­age that re­sem­bles a col­or­ful bird’s nest, or in­dulge in the chawan mushi, a sa­vory egg cus­tard with shoyu-mar­i­nated ikura. En­joy a burst of umami fla­vor in the spicy karai soba or sa­vor ev­ery bite of the spe­cial seafood omurice, a mound of fried rice cov­ered with a fluffy omelet served with curry and a fla­vor­ful squid ink sauce. Var­i­ous sushi and sashimi plat­ters can be or­dered and of­fer­ings are based on avail­abil­ity of the fresh­est fish on hand. Un­like many lo­cal Ja­panese restau­rants, soy sauce is not served along­side sushi at Kazunori. In­stead, sushi and sashimi are of­fered on their own and it is rec­om­mended to eat as served in or­der to prop­erly taste the fresh­ness of the fish and ap­pre­ci­ate the char­ac­ter of the rice. All dishes are best en­joyed with a re­fresh­ing cold matcha tea or a draft Sap­poro beer.

“You can’t be a jack of all trades and a master of none,” says Cuenca as he ex­plains the im­por­tance of re­fin­ing a set of dishes be­fore ex­pand­ing the Kazunori menu. Still on soft open­ing dur­ing our visit, the restau­rant’s menu was com­prised only of 25 to 30 per­cent of the dishes they plan on serv­ing long-term. Even­tu­ally, the cafe menu alone will in­clude 20 dif­fer­ent items in­clud­ing rice burg­ers, pas­tas, and Ja­panese pas­tries and desserts—some­thing we can all def­i­nitely look for­ward to. 2301 Chino Ro­ces Av­enue Ex­ten­sion, Makati.

thE FuLL EX­pE­rI­ENcE clock­wise from top: In­side Kazunori; dishes from the omakase bar, iza­kaya, and cafe.

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