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Jan-ken-pon and a swig of shochu

Jan-ken-pon and a swig of shochu

I hear murmurs about Japanese drinking games first. Highballs and dice in a basement. In Vadapalani.

It sounds irresistibly outre, doesn’t it? A local version of Fight Club, perhaps? All bruises and sake. Alternatively, an underground dive with menacingly tattooed bartenders juggling wasabi cocktails and gambling debts?

The reality: grilled chicken and cold beer. But don’t lose heart. It’s far from prosaic. In fact, Kuuraku, set in the basement of GreenPark Hotel, is delightful. A part of a Japanese chain of restaurants, specialising in yakitori, it’s got an alluring vibe. Think friendly neighbourhood bar meets big, fat, family reunion.

Kuuraku

  • GreenPark Hotel, 183, NSK Salai, Vadapalani
  • Hits: Chicken yakitori, pork belly
  • Misses: California roll, Taj Mahal roll
  • Cost for two: ₹1,500
  • 7358039450

Following the noise, we gingerly descend into the basement, a cosy fug of meaty smoke and loud laughter. As each guest enters, the staff yell hello in Japanese. We weave towards a table, passing staid businessmen playing dice. Their waitress chuckles with delight when one of them wins, then slides over his prize: a super-sized mango beer cocktail.

Our menu suggests we play Jan-ken-pon, the Japanese version of rock-paper-scissors with our waitress, who’s petite, giggly and rocking a pair of purple Crocs. She looks surprised when we order sushi. Around us, tables are filling up with people ordering a slew of dishes, featuring grilled meat in some form or the other. The Japanese chef, stationed at the narrow display kitchen that runs behind a long bar, rapidly grills the skewers over charcoal with tongs. We deliberate briefly over the chicken aortas, chicken skin and intriguing ‘chicken tails’ on offer, then settle on the crowd pleasers — pork belly and garlic mayo chicken yakitori.

Then, since one must live dangerously sometimes, we order a Yakult mocktail with peach syrup, apple juice and soda. And sake. Except, they don’t have sake here. “Shochu?” asks our waitress. Sure.

Kuuraku was opened in 1999, in Chiba, Japan. The restaurant’s grilled chicken reportedly proved to be so popular they now operate 19 restaurants around the world, including in Canada, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Australia. “Kuu means eating. Raku means enjoyment,” says Saravanan S, the manager.

Jan-ken-pon and a swig of shochu

The shochu, a brisk Japanese spirit, is served neat and chilled. It’s tough edges complement the juicy chicken yakitori, which arrives artfully plated, crunchy with caramelised shards of garlic and sticky with soy. It’s topped with a thin, cool slick of mayo. The pork is simple but tasty, grilled with just salt and onion wedges.

There’s no sign of our sushi platter yet, so we order gyoza. Plump and steaming, it’s served with a spicy sauce that is so popular, the restaurant sells jars of it to diners. (Their hot sauce plug on the menu endearingly reads: Original crunchy chilli oil with fried garlic and onion. ₹280. Good for salad. Great for curry. Best with biryani.)

Post gyoza, we look around hopefully for the sushi. The waitress shrugs. “It takes time,” she smiles. So we order a yakitori don in the meantime. A simple and balanced bowl of sticky rice topped with spring onions and grilled chicken, it’s a great advertisement for Japanese fast food. And this, as precise and elegant as it is, is essentially a fast food restaurant: hence the focus on easy, quick cooking and unpretentious drinks like highballs, shandys and cocktails spiked with Yakult. Yes, Yakult! Clearly there’s nothing quite as effective as an army of vodka-fuelled probiotics.

The sushi, when it finally arrives, is disappointing. Chunky and surprisingly Americanised, it features a California roll greasy with mayonnaise, followed by a Route 66 roll with fried prawns and ketchup.

There’s even an inexplicable Taj Mahal roll, boasting cucumber and sesame seeds. This is clearly a restaurant that specialises in grills, with a sushi menu tacked on for diners who are overly attached to the ‘Japanese restaurant equals sushi’ cliche. But think about it: you wouldn’t expect a dhaba to make good dosas would you, even if they’re both Indian?

The meal bounces back with dessert. Sticky rice cakes painted with bittersweet caramel, and filled with vanilla ice cream. It’s late at night now, and the clientèle have gone from polite post-work drinks to raucous dorm room mode. As good a time to play rock-paper-scissors as any. Wish me luck. I have my eye on a giant Yakult cocktail.


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