PETALING JAYA, July 10 — The interior of the low-lit bar is subtly contemporary, infused with hints of 1970s retro chic. The staff, from the bartenders to the servers, all wear ties and neat black vests.
There are comfortable stools by the bar or more intimate lounge areas. It’s quiet enough for customers to have conversations and relax with jazz music in the background.
Those who sit at the bar may observe their bartenders — who take their craft seriously — go about their work with grace and skill. There is superfluously violent shaking of cocktails; there is no rushing.
You come here to enjoy your drink, always well-made, at your own pace.
Welcome to a classic Japanese bar... in Malaysia.
Opened in 2014, The Bar Kinugawa is a classic Japanese-style bar run by two Japanese bartenders — Osamu Kinugawa (or Sam, as he’s fondly known by his regulars), 42, and Tsutomu “Tom” Saitoh, 25.
Located on the first floor of Empire Damansara, the bar was originally simply called — you guessed it — “The Bar” but that made searching for it on the internet difficult, so Kinugawa added his family name to it.
Kinugawa had originally considered opening a bar in Beijing but after the 2011 tsunami, many Japanese-run shops in the Chinese capital closed. He says, “Therefore, I decided to look for another country to take this Japanese bar concept to. Malaysia was a great choice: everyone here speaks English and it’s easy to fly to from Japan. Many Japanese businesses had already opened here so there was an existing community.”
Though a thriving Japanese expatriate community in Kuala Lumpur attracted Kinugawa, his target audience has always been the locals. “There are many Japanese restaurants here but no bars run by a Japanese bartender so I wanted to share this with Malaysians. I love Malaysian food, especially bak kut teh and steamboat, which is not too different from shabu-shabu.”
The American and European styles of bartending are very different from that of Japan according to Kinugawa. He explains, “The Westerners place a lot of emphasis on showmanship and creating cocktails using unusual techniques and ingredients. For the Japanese, we focus more on craftsmanship and taking the time — years and even decades — to perfect the classics.”
An example of this never-ending pursuit of excellence or kodawari is how Kinugawa shaves ice-balls entirely by hand for beverages such as whiskeys served on the rocks. (A bit of trivia: if a whiskey is produced in countries with an “e” in their names, such as Ireland or America, it’s spelled with an “e”; otherwise, if its country of origin doesn’t have an “e” in the name, such as Scotland and Japan, then it omits the “e” too, i.e. just whisky.)
Using only a sharp bread knife, he transforms a block of ice into a perfect sphere — a skill honed through years of practice. Even the water is carefully filtered and frozen, first in an icebox for two days and then a day in the freezer, to make the ice crystal clear.
“Japanese bartending is all about technique,” says Kinugawa, “never about the performance. It’s not about showing off but rather, ‘How do you craft the best drink possible for your customer, according to his or her personal preferences?’”
Kinugawa hails from Tokyo; his father still runs a tuna shop at Tsukiji Fish Market. At 18, he started apprenticing at upmarket bars in Ginza and Roppongi, right after leaving school.
After eight years of studious training — he’d visit other bars after finishing work, to taste as many drinks as possible and learn from other bartenders — Kinugawa opened his first bar in trendy Nakameguro called Bar Nems, where celebrities number among his loyal customers.
All in all, Kinugawa has almost a quarter century of bartending experience yet he feels there is much to learn. “I have a few hundred cocktail recipes in my head but I haven’t quite reached a thousand yet,” he humbly confesses.
One way Kinugawa goes the extra mile in his drink preparation is to create some of the ingredients himself such as making their own in-house tonic and ginger ale. For the latter, which is used in the tequila-based El Diablo, he infuses fresh grated ginger with spices such as cloves and dried chilli, simmering them slowly to extract their full flavours.
Besides serving a variety of whiskeys (his favourite is Elements of Islay, a limited edition Scotch that doesn’t have any added water, colouring or filters, resulting in a fuller flavour) and classics such as the bittersweet and amber-hued Negroni, Kinugawa also has a seasonal cocktail menu.
“Right now it’s summer in Japan, so we have a summer menu,” he says. An original cocktail created for this is the Hanabi, a concoction by Saitoh that blends gin with lychee liqueur, Blue Curaçao, freshly squeezed pineapple juice and lemon juice.
The Bar Kinugawa also serves a small menu of canapés. These are smoked by Kinugawa himself, using cherry wood chips. From toothsome yet tender smoked octopus to deliciously aromatic smoked edamame (blanched immature soybeans in the pod), the canapés go wonderfully with drinks. The “once you pop, you can’t stop” pods of edamame, in particular, pair very well with the bar’s special frozen beer (basically Kirin Ichiban beer with a slushie-like ice cap).
Kinugawa still returns to Japan twice a year, to check on his business there (he still owns Bar Nems) and to visit family. But for now, he has made a life for himself here in Malaysia. After all, for lifelong bartenders, home is where the bar is.
The Bar Kinugawa
112, Empire Gallery Heritage Lane, No. 2, Jalan PJU 8/8, Damansara Perdana, Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Open daily 7pm to 2am
Tel: 03-2116 9680