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A little patch of Japanese culture

The Japanese embassy
Tokyo Fried House
29, Ball Street,
Paceville
Tel: 2711 0760

Food: 7/10
Service: 8/10
Ambience: 8/10
Value: 7/10
Overall: 7.5/10

As dour and unpleasant as I am, people seem to want to speak to me. By people I mean relative strangers, those who don’t know me yet, so perhaps it is quite telling. I’ve been to restaurants and, within minutes of asking about the menu or a specific food item, I’m regaled with the entire story of the place.

Doing what I do for this column means I get to listen to quite a spread of experiences. It is beautiful to listen to the multitude of motivations behind the opening of a restaurant, to the deep convictions some owners and chefs have about their culinary styles, and to their exciting hopes for the future.

This does not exist in a perfect bubble of happiness. Buoyant on this stream of dreams and ambitions is also the gnarled log of disappointment. And while the good things vary from person to person, the gripes are very much alike. They are mainly to do with the relative difficulty with which anyone trying to open a restaurant is faced when dealing with the confusing and achingly slow official channels that one must navigate to actually start operating like a proper business.

When I heard Sicilian restaurateurs complain about how difficult it was for them to find people to help build the place to a respectable level of punctuality and finish, I was taken aback. Surely the denizens of the Southern Mediterranean are used to an easygoing pace. They had an easy solution. They shipped their own friends over and had the job done in no time. There were still all the other bureaucratic channels to contend with but at least the place was built and finished. Every time I feel a little embarrassed. I’m Maltese after all, and while I acknowledge our faults, it hurts to hear them so regularly articulated by foreigners.

This was topped last week when I heard the version as recounted by a Japanese man. The difference between what he is used to in a country that is essentially what the rest of the planet will be a century from now and what he experienced when attempting to open his own place on our patch of the earth is striking.

It started with him apologising for not being able to accept bank cards. He’d been trying for one for a while and, having overcome all the obstacles I’d heard about before, he decided to open his doors anyway, making up for the omission by speaking in a very contrite manner to his patrons. I felt like I’d just watched someone kick a wet puppy and could do nothing about it.

I don’t quite get it. It’s not like we’re sitting on a stockpile of natural resources. We depend on the people who live here and who visit us to reach for their wallets and keep our economy afloat. Is it a stretch to expect a system that actually works?

I’ll stop whining and get to the restaurant that spurred this. It goes by the rather unlikely name of Tokyo Fried House. Unlikely because in a day and age when the word ‘fried’ has been much maligned, we like to eat fried food but never to refer to it.

Whatever the name, I’m tempted by the notion of a new Japanese restaurant. While my weakness for Japanese food is no secret, I eat precious little of it. The food that is called sushi by most places in Malta is hardly ever more than a painting-by-numbers version of the real thing. The only place that does sushi in a way that’s uncannily close to eating it in Japan is Zen in Portomaso and as much as I love the place I can’t afford to visit as often as I’d like to.

The word fried could mean many things but this restaurant is focused on Tonkatsu, the breaded and fried pork cutlets, and other varieties on this theme. Now I have to be perfectly frank here. When doing my best to eat around Japan, I found Tonkatsu to be the closest there was to Western cuisine and this was a point against this style of dining. I eventually found out that it was, in fact, a recent addition to the Japanse cookbook and one that was imported from the West.

This wasn’t going to stop me. I popped by as soon as I could find the time to and walked into a restaurant that has been done to resemble one of the more humble eateries spread around the country. In true Japanese tradition, we were immediately presented with a warm, wet towel to wipe our hands with and then the menus.

I didn’t have to think much. I was there for the Tonkatsu, specifically the kind called Hirekatsu that is made with the tenderloin for a more succulent cut. The better half, quite wisely, chose the karaage, a marinated chicken thigh that’s cooked in the same way as the pork is.

All meat cooked in this style is coated in a panko batter and fried and usually served as part of a teishoku, a set meal that includes steamed rice, shredded cabbage, and either a soup or a little side dish. Priced at €15 for lunch, this is close to Japan pricing so it’s not exceptional value but it’s not like we have much choice short of shelling out for a flight to a different continent.

The first time I visited it was dinner time and I found that I had to assemble my own set while the lunch menu is oriented around the teishoku or the bento, a ‘box’ that contains all you’d need for a takeaway lunch.

I was spoilt for choice with beer because they had Asahi, Kirin Ichiban and Sapporo – the most widely exported Japanese beers. There is also a broad selection of sake, shochu, umeshu, junmai-shu and other distillates and fermented alcoholic drinks that soar well above my understanding of the differences between them. At this point, I’ve enjoyed almost every sake and shochu that came my way (sake being fermented and shochu being distilled) and I will, one day, drink enough of a spread to discern the good from the great.

That night, however, I stuck to beer because I intended to be lucid the next day. Beer is served in small glasses that are, as is expected, kept in the fridge. The decor is simple and functional, with plain, wooden tables and high-backed chairs. Japanese music plays at a gentle volume in the background. If you forget you’re in Paceville, you could be forgiven for thinking you’ve briefly escaped to Japan for a meal.

Food is served on a wooden tray and arranged fastidiously neatly. A tower of shredded cabbage forms the green part of the meal, the meat is cut into strips, sauce is served in a dipping bowl and miso soup in its own little bowl. As is the custom where food is consumed with chopsticks, most of the work has been done by the chef so all you do is use the sticks as an extension of your fingers. Rice is sticky enough to be pulled away in neat, bite-sized, blobs. Tokyo Fried House offer the option of cutlery so you can feel right at home if your mastery of chopsticks is still a work in progress.

The tenderloin, cooked inside its batter, remains tender and juicy and full of flavour. The sauce, the chef’s own concoction of the staples that make up most of the sauces in the Japanese kitchen, is savoury and packed with umami, the fifth flavour, thanks to the addition of dashi. A little goes a long way so don’t overdip until you know what you’re in for.

I sampled the chicken and it was better than I’d expected, juicy as ever on the inside and wrapped in its crunchy batter for texture and flavour. Drink miso soup from the bowl throughout your meal and don’t be afraid to slurp a little. Inside here, it’s like you’re on Japanese soil so manners are a little different.

A couple of days later I returned for lunch and skimped a little, going for a tonkatsu teikoshu. I’d recommend spending a couple of quid more and going for the hirekatsu. The tonkatsu is just fine but not special enough to warrant a trip to Japan, or to Paceville for that matter.

Is it the best tonkatsu I’ve had? I doubt it. Does Tokyo Fried House satisfy the need for Japanese food? I think it does a little more than that. It is a little patch of Japanese culture, with attention paid to the drinks and specialities popping up every week and vanishing as soon as they’re sold out. So be brave if you haven’t tried tonkatsu before and pay the place a visit. We’re used to fried food in the West so what’s the worst that can happen?

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