[编辑 Editor 吕大人 英译 Translator 刘大人 摄影 Photographer 刘大人]
Throughout our career, we’ve been fortunate to have great mentors who were willing to take a bet on us and provide meaningful opportunities for growth. These mentors have not only taught us about what is essential, both personally and professionally, they have also given us several big breaks. While the same could also be said of a local boy from Yong Peng who had already decided that he wanted to be a chef at the tender age of 14, few can count iconic chefs and personalities such as Joël Robuchon and René Redzepi as their mentors.
When Chef Koh Chin Hong greeted Yoshiko, a native from Tokyo and resident in Johor Bahru for the past 6 years in fluent Japanese, we were taken by surprise. Turns out that soon after he completed High School, Chef Koh headed straight to Japan and completed a year in Japanese language studies and two years with a top culinary school in Tokyo where he mastered the art of Kaiseki. A further stint with Hinokizaka, a Michelin-star restaurant that served Japanese-French cuisine in the Ritz Carlton at Roppongi provided him with the opportunity to meld this traditional Asian art of fine dining with the art of Western haute cuisine.
A chance to work with Singapore’s only three Michelin-starred Joel Robuchon Restaurant in Resorts World Sentosa brought Chef Koh closer to home. Still, the desire to explore the world to discover more cuisine took him to New Zealand a year later where he worked in Huka Lodge, one of the best luxury family resorts in the world popular with royalty and Hollywood celebrities.
The chance of a lifetime came when Chef Koh was accepted to work with one of the world’s best restaurants in Copenhagen, Denmark. After all, it’s been a dream of ours to visit Noma ever since hearing about Redzepi’s cutting-edge restaurant, voted the “best in the world” by W50B no less than four times, a feat no other restaurant has equalled. “Noma only opens up its reservation system on the 6th of every month and receives over 20,000 calls on reservation day, so be prepared to be put on hold”, Chef Koh stated as a matter of fact. On average, Noma received over 4,000 CVs per month. Call it luck or whatever, Chef Koh receive a call for an interview in late 2017 before landing himself the job, a dream comes true experience for any aspiring chefs. Working an average of 16-18 hours per day under the instruction of celebrated chefs has shaped a sharp discipline in Chef Koh, and he’s more than ready to lead his own culinary team upon his return.
Until we’ve secured our own reservation, we can at least content ourselves with a meal here, the next best thing to savouring a taste of Noma, from a Johorean who spent over 3 months learning the skills back in 2018.
Being the youngest son in the family, few would probably allow their children to be away from home at such a tender age, so Chef Koh probably counts himself fortunate to have the support of his family, given his exciting culinary journey that spans almost a decade.
Today, young chefs are a rarity no more, and the time has come for him to return home and to make his mark on the local dining scene. Having accumulated an impressive resume at some of the world’s finest restaurants in such a short span of time, Chef Koh contemplated doing something on his own. Full of fresh ideas and energy, it’s a true homecoming for Chef Koh to open his “Initial” restaurant in Taman Molek to serve his culinary creations with the support of his family. Having learned cooking methodologies, exquisite presentation skills, knife techniques and specialist ingredients whilst gaining a more in-depth insight into the seasonality consciousness for which Japanese cuisine is so highly regarded, it came as no surprise that Chef Koh‘s first restaurant would serve modern European cuisine with a hint of Japanese – a reminder of his humble beginning, and where everything began.
Spotting a “hygge” inspired concept from his time in Denmark, the premises at 初 Initial comfortably seats 30 guests and the restaurant decor is clutter-free with much natural wood and stone elements, both inside and outside, emphasising indulgence without extravagance. The white gravel zen garden on the outside also create contrast against a bold black interior, giving this modern monochrome design equal parts cosiness and conviviality.
Taking our seats next to the semi-open kitchen, we can satisfy our curiosity and find out what’s cooking and see our food being prepared by Chef Koh.
From hawker stall to haute cuisine throughout our “Find-Dining” journey, our favourite food involves the least possible culinary intervention, i.e. dishes where the quality of the ingredients is allowed to speak for itself. Sharing our sentiments, Chef Koh emphatically shares about his daily routine in seeking different local produce, fresh from the sea and local farms, so that we will be served with only the best.
Drawing inspirations from his diverse culinary experience and borrowing flavours from other cuisines, especially Japanese, Chef Koh aspire to offer a new take on modern Malaysian food at 初 Initial, using only the freshest locally-farmed ingredients of the highest quality, so we can be sure we’re getting good food. Do not be surprised if you catch him in the local markets daily for the freshest produce possible.
Looking back at his days in New Zealand, “Some lodges have their own vineyards, extensive gardens or farm their own produce, and we even welcome guests into the gardens and kitchens to forage and learn alongside the chefs,” Chef Koh recalled. In fact, local farms are also capable of rearing high-quality pig and poultry, though their premium price tag can put off some restaurants due to a lack of critical mass at the moment.
As Chef Koh heads into the kitchen to prepare our meal, the Baguette slices baked in-house and served with a side of seaweed kombu spread offers a fascinating first taste of what is to come from the tasting menu at 初 Initial.
Our starter comprises two brainless large meaty PRAWNs on a bed of tomato salsa, drizzled with lime dressing and garnished with a piece of charcoal tuile. Turns out that the star of the show was actually the two stuffed crispy prawn heads (served separately) that burst into flavours of curry with hints of toasted dried prawns! What an explosive start!
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in DAIKON as a healthy food so we couldn’t be more pleased to see this Japanese white radish being served. Garnished with charred baby corn, Japanese fried tofu, eryngii mushroom and topped with sprigs of dehydrated enoki mushroom, we noticed that the chef only began pouring the miso dashi sauce upon serving. As part of his table service, Chef Koh insisted that the sequence is crucial so as not to “mess up” the dish, and provided him with the opportunity to explain the ingredients and techniques used that went into its preparation. Such was the attention to details cultivated during his formative years that we agree this has set his restaurant apart from his peers.
We have a soft spot for eggs, in particular, onsen EGG with partially congealed albumen on the outside and custardy yolks on the inside. By slow-cooking the egg at low temperature (between 60°C-80°C), the preparation has evolved into an art form perfected through experience and practice as the warm gooey yolk oozed out as we lightly broke it apart with our fork and knife. Together with the chunks of Pineapple Chicken, shimeji mushroom, snow peas and topped with genmaicha broth, this made for a very satisfying bowl of happiness. Just to make sure we heard him correctly, Chef Koh clarified that “this speciality chicken, was not flavoured with pineapple, but actually fed on pineapple to give it a unique tender texture!”
A new addition to the menu, the PORK BELLY comes with a generous portion of slow-roasted pork complete with crackling skin on a bed of apple puree, with a side of charred cube of croquette, minced pork belly wrapped in Chinese cabbage and drizzled with a savoury sauce. Free from any gamey scent, we could appreciate why Chef Koh insisted on serving this main course as the succulent fats and meat can put us in a slobbery stupor.
Crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, our FISH dish happens to be Sea Bass – the Catch of the Day – with a side of kale, semi-dried tomatoes and water chestnut. Drizzled with saffron beurre, the saltiness from the butter sauce provided on the side helped to enhance the sweetness of the fish further and worked up an appetite in us.
PS: The Sea Bass may be substituted by Snapper or Garoupa on other days.
It is hard to pass up this BEEF dish at such attractive prices, so we ordered the Australian Eye Fillet. As with most tenderloins, the meat had less marbling but remained deliciously tender and juicy, and the beef is done medium rare to our liking. Presented on a bed of mushroom puree and spruce up with marrow crumbs, pickled Japanese artichoke and wasabi lebneh with a multi-layered potato gratin, we could also make our steak otherworldly by adding house wine jus to enhance the flavour.
PS: For those who prefer your steak to be intensely marbled or richly-umami flavoured, you can ask for Wagyu!
Thank goodness, we manage to savour this PORK RIB for our first and final time, before making way for new items in the refreshed menu. Cooked sous vide with kakuni style with a medley of taro puree, Shaoxing pickled eggplant, taro chips and finish with pork jus, the meat fell right off the bones. To say the meat was tender would be an understatement as it immediately melted in our mouth.
Hopefully, the dish can still be available upon request. What say you, Chef Koh?
Alaska Bomb | Orange Madeleine | Coconut Mousse
At the end of our meal, we were served with Orange Madeleine, Coconut Mousse and Alaska Bomb stuffed with pineapple and strawberry sorbet. Upon serving the latter, Chef Koh slowly pours the gin on the meringue while flaming it with a gas torch. The gin fire will create trails on top of the dessert, resembling the aurora in the Alaska night sky.
MAGistrate 杂志大人 X 初 Initial
大人只能说，这名为 La Madeleine Pâtisserie 的下午茶让我破醣戒也心甘情愿啊！
For those of us with a sweet tooth,…
初 Initial also serves Afternoon Tea from 1pm to 5pm comprising freshly-baked cakes and pastries. Even with our tummies filled, we couldn’t resist and still manage to make enough room for a slice of apple tart!
Recognising that people like a taste of the traditional when it comes to many of the world’s great cuisines, Chef Koh prides himself at choosing and letting the locally-sourced produce take centre stage. Sometimes customers want traditional things with a nuanced difference, so it’s very much up to the chef to highlight the local ingredients without excessively complicating the dish.
MAGistrate 杂志大人 X 初 Initial
“I love the thrill of cooking, inventing and creating; and I enjoy doing it anew every time,” quipped Chef Koh. Talk about fortune favours the bold, and now, we favour you too!
📍 No.9-G Jalan Molek 3/20, Taman Molek, 81100 Johor Bahru, Johor
📞 +6016-247 0977
🕙 6:00pm to 11.00pm (Closed on Mondays)
💻 初 Initial