I walk through the doors under the familiar arch and everything is pretty much the same. After a beat, Joy comes up to greet me, jokingly commenting on how long it has been since we last saw each other. She leads me to a private room, another familiar place where our family has celebrated milestones like birthdays and graduations. Right before we enter, she asks about my father. She wishes him well and expresses her hopes to see him soon.
No, I didn’t enter a relative’s home and Joy is not a distant aunt. It may as well have been, as my family and I have been coming to this place regularly for over three decades. Apart from the Plexiglas barriers, facemasks, face shields and gloves, Kimpura Greenhills looks and feels exactly the same.
This year, I’ve been particularly choosy about accepting invitations to dine out, especially when the COVID pandemic really hit us hard in March. To be perfectly honest, I live with seniors and I can pretty much cook everything we would ever crave for, so dining out always feels like an unnecessary luxury. The invite to grab lunch at Kimpura Greenhills to celebrate its 50th anniversary with some foodie friends, though, was one I just could not resist. As much as I missed certain people, there are certain places I missed, too.
In the private room containing two teppanyaki tables, I found my friends, Let’s Eat editor Spanky Enriquez, blogger Richard Co and his wife, Irene, of Indulgence by Irene cheesecake fame. Kimpura’s marketing manager Bong is also there and soon, Kat and Dexter Lee of the blog The Hungry Kat join us. Observing social distancing protocols, it was just the six of us diners in a room that could fit 24-28 people.
The meal started off with some classics: salmon sashimi, kani salad and a couple of beautifully prepared sushi rolls.
As we removed our masks and tucked into our food, another familiar face walked in. Rewel, who, just like Joy, has been a part of our family’s history, walked in with his spatulas and took his place by the teppanyaki table. We greeted each other and he started cooking.
I watched as he poured a bit of oil onto the table and started sweating the onions, peppers and garlic. I doubt Rewel knows that I have observed his fried rice technique closely for over two decades, and it was one of the building blocks of my former restaurant’s signature “drop dead” fried rice.
As bowls of fried rice were dished out, he continued cooking more favorites: steak and chicken teppan. Soon, a glorious pile of perfectly fried prawn tempura was placed on the table.
I asked Bong about how business was doing. Business has slowly been climbing back up, he says. Of course, this place has always been gangbusters for years, and while full-capacity seating is no longer possible, the trend of the ever-increasing number of diners is encouraging. The pandemic’s certainly taken its toll, but there are no signs of this 50-year-old (I mean Kimpura and not Bong) of giving up.
When the quarantine started, Kimpura understood what it needed to do. Locking down, adding Plexiglas dividers, setting up socially distant seating arrangements and ensuring all safety protocols are learned and observed; it was all put into place before opening to the public again.
Now the restaurant is ready to take on diners, particularly the loyal ones who’ve missed them dearly. Not bad for a 50-year-old, right? (Again, Kimpura and not Bong) Being immersed in this F&B industry, I know about the thousands of lost employment opportunities, and I voiced my pleasure that familiar faces like Joy and Rewel are still here, where they really belong.
Bong explains that it’s because of the symbiotic relationship of the owners and the workers. Management has always endeavored to keep the loyal men and women who’ve stuck with them, keeping them through the one-year rebuilding period of the Greenhills branch, plus the two-month ECQ. Workers have also stuck it out with the management team and restaurant they’ve been happy to work with for years, or, in Joy and Rewel’s case, over 30 years.
The lunch was, in a word, magical. Don’t get me wrong: none of the things we were served were uniquely different or avant-garde. In fact, you would not be wrong in calling them classics that a ton of places also make.
The room itself, while clean and regularly sanitized to meet with pandemic protocols, is not worthy of a feature in a design or architecture magazine. However, as I munched on those non-avant-garde bites of rib-eye steak cooked medium rare and delightfully crisp tempura, I sensed joy — not the doting manager herself — but the feeling. That warm feeling of spending a short afternoon with familiar people in familiar surroundings, allowing ourselves, even for a moment, just to catch up on each others’ lives without mentioning the specter of quarantines, swab tests or vaccines.
For just two hours, we got trade these stories while eating delicious, expertly made and comfortingly familiar Japanese favorites. That, I believe, is why this place has thrived for so long.
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You can catch Sharwin on his YouTube channel “chefsharwintee” and on the Sini Gang podcast on Spotify. Follow Sharwin’s food adventures on Instagram @chefsharwin and for questions, reactions, recipe and column suggestions, you can contact him on www.sharwintee.com .
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