Four Japanese Masters, One Amazing Dining Experience
Here's where you can savor Michelin-level katsu, Hall-of-Famer ramen, Hokkaido ice cream plus more authentic Japanese treats
Allow me to make a sweeping declaration: Kiwami Japanese Food Hall is the Infinity Gauntlet of Japanese cuisine in Metro Manila.
Let me explain.
Just like how the Infinity Gauntlet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) was created to hold all six Infinity Stones (Space, Reality, Power, Mind, Time, and Soul) to wield unlimited power over the universe and everybody in it, Kiwami Japanese Food Hall was designed to be home to some of the most beloved elements of Japanese food.
The concept for Kiwami started way before the pandemic hit and it was built under one roof by The Standard Group (TSG). Here, diners can enjoy the best of the best in the metro: Tonkatsu (deep-fried breaded meat, usually pork), Ramen (Japanese noodle soup), Yakitori (grilled meat, usually chicken), Tendon (tempura served on top of rice in a bowl), and Hokkaido-style ice cream (soft-serve ice cream made with dairy products from Hokkaido, which is famous for its creamy and remarkable dairy).
Now, you might say, “That’s only five items. The Infinity Gauntlet holds six stones! What’s the sixth ‘stone’?”
Well, the sixth element in the Kiwami Infinity Gauntlet is their authentic Japanese sensibilities. Japan is known for their all-out hospitality translated to impeccable service or “Omotenashi”, “a wholehearted sense of service is ingrained in food culture”, according to TSG. The staff at Kiwami are not just attentive, they are professional yet warm and personable — even with their faces covered by masks.
For The Standard Group founder and CEO John Concepcion, Kiwami continues to be an extension of TSG’s signature service. “To make the space feel more comfortable, we included our signature Standard Group hospitality of having our amazing staff serve the meals straight to the table. I really liked the feeling of a food hall but I didn’t want to lose the service that we’re known for.”
Just like the minimalist persuasions of most Japanese establishments, Kiwami’s subtle industrial interiors with wooden accents and Japanese patterns (as designed by Tokyo-based architectural firm Studio MYU) are simple yet inviting, so as not to distract the diner from the main reason why they left their caves after months of hiding: their exceptional food.
“Kiwami has a specific dining experience, we’re not quite a food court, but also not quite fine dining,” Concepcion points out. “I’ve seen a lot of food courts in my travels, and many of them would fail. From what I’d see, food courts would cram their spaces with as much variety as they could, but the quality of food would be subpar… I decided to create a space that had a curated handful of concepts, but with the best-of-the-best food.”
So they decided to bring four food masters, which is “Kiwami” in Japanese, in one place. Aside from TSG’s already beloved brands like Yabu: House of Katsu (developed with Michelin Bib Gourmand katsy master Kazuya Takeda) and Ippudo Ramen (founded by Japan’s “Ramen King” and three-time Ramen Master Hall of Famer, Shigemi Kawahara, in 1985), they brought two new Japanese-grown restaurants for the first time in the Philippines: Yakitori Hachibei and Hannosuke Tendon.
“When conceptualizing Kiwami, I knew that I wanted to get the staples of Japanese cuisine and put them in one space,” Concepcion explained. “After making that decision, it was only a matter of finding out which restaurants served the best of each cuisine.”
Yakitori Hachibei is a family-founded business that’s been serving yakitori since 1983. While most yakitori places would serve various parts of chicken, Yakitori Hachibei is famous for their pork yakitori. In fact, it was founded by Chef Katsunori Yashima, whose mission is to bring “Butabara to the world”, referring to his signature grilled pork belly skewers. Like most yakitori masters, Yakitori Hachibei only uses Binchotan charcoal made from oak trees, which “burns cleanly with dry heat instead of smoke and flame”, giving the yakitori a subtle smokiness so you can better appreciate the natural flavors of the pork and the chicken. It’s best enjoyed with Yuzu Kosho Shio (salt with dried yuzu and green pepper) or Tare (traditional yakitori sauce similar to teriyaki).
Concepcion fondly recalled his first taste of Yakitori Hachibei, which prompted him to bring the tradition to Manila. “Our friend Shigemi Kawahara (founder and owner of Ippudo) introduced us to the geniuses behind Hachibei. They are both from Fukuoka, so they knew each other prior. We were treated to a wonderful meal at his shop. He served us an amazing dinner, including a first course of horse sashimi, which I was hesitant to try, but I ended up braving it and giving it a try!”
Meanwhile, it was fate that brought them to Hannosuke’s doorstep. “We stumbled upon Hannosuke in Tokyo, it was a small space but the lines were spread around the block. I was amazed that there were long lines early in the evening and we decided to give it a shot. We ended up falling in love with the tempura and the whole experience, so we decided to bring it back to Manila. There’s also something very heartwarming about a family-run business with heirloom recipes that have been passed down through generations.”
Some say you’ll know you’re near Hannosuke when you see a queue of eager customers lining the block from the shop entrance. Founded by Chef Kaneko Hannosuke in the 1950s, he passed his signature tempura recipes to his grandson, Shinya Kaneko, who now runs the business. Hannosuke is known for its jaw-droping bowls of Edomae-style tempura tendon with unagi (eel) as the star of the dish, battered with delicate Japanese flour flown regularly from the Land of the Rising Sun. Kiwami only uses fresh eels (never frozen) for their tendon and I was told you’ll find a tank of live eels somewhere in their kitchen. The tendon is served in thoughtfully designed aritayaki porcelain bowls, which are built to retain heat. Each rice bowl is served with a splash of fragrant sesame oil, a jiggly soft-boiled egg that almost serves like a creamy sauce, and of course Hannosuke’s heirloom tendon sauce — a sweet and savory potion that transforms any tempura into an experience.
The new restaurant’s signature dishes remain faithful to their Japanese ways, but Concepcion says they still kept Filipino palates in mind while building Kiwami.
"Yabu is a great example of Japanese food created with the Pinoy tastes in mind. A lot of our menu was made to appeal to the Philippine market,” he shared. “For Kiwami, we made sure to add rice options for all of our dishes and we created platters and sets so that everyone in the family could enjoy our dishes. We don’t want to discriminate tastes in our restaurants. We make sure there’s something for everyone to love.”
There really is something for everyone at Kiwami, whether you’re craving rice, looking for something light and satisfying, longing to satiate your sweet tooth, or (soon enough) jonesing for a potent Japanese cocktail.
Soon, Kiwami will literally welcome diners with a Japanese-inspired bar as they step through the main entrance. They are currently working with Filipino-Japanese mixologist Francis Hasegawa for their signature cocktails.
To end your meal at Kiwami, they also have a Hokkaido Milk Soft Serve Ice Cream Bar where you can savor the creamiest and smoothest soft serve ice cream in a hand-rolled lengua de gato cone or served in a cup with Kuromitso Boba for an even more indulgent twist.
“Our family would travel to Niseko, Hokkaido fairly often, and whenever we’d go, we’d make sure to visit this one place that always served the freshest Hokkaido milk ice cream. Then in Tokyo, we would have the best lengua de gato cones,” Concepcion said. “It only made sense for us to put it all together and create the perfect dessert. And as someone who’s spent his life in the ice cream business, I think I have a pretty good gauge on what good ice cream is!”
While other businesses are struggling or closing because of the pandemic, here comes The Standard Group — opening not just a new restaurant but an entire food hall. Wanting to know the secret to their success despite the uncertainties brought about by the pandemic, Concepcion shared with Metro.Style, “The secret lies in consistency: consistently good food and consistently good service. Once you have these two main factors, success is always possible. With the pandemic, we are extremely grateful to our loyal customers from day one who have always shown us such love and support.”
So what exactly is the power of Kiwami, the Infinity Gauntlet of Japanese cuisine? One taste and it’ll keep you coming back for more. You’ve been warned.