Why Yabu is Manila’s must-try restaurant

By Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBNnews.com

Posted at Oct 18 2012 12:10 PM | Updated as of Oct 18 2012 08:10 PM

MANILA, Philippines – The Japanese restaurant Yabu is all set to open its next outlet at the SM Mall of Asia next month -- its third since debuting at SM Megamall in November last year.

And three more are already scheduled to open in the months to follow: one at SM City North Edsa in Quezon City, another at SM Southmall in Las Piñas and in the soon-to-open SM Mall at the Bonifacio Global City in Taguig, which will be Yabu’s flagship restaurant.

For the restaurant’s owner, John Concepcion, who is also the chief executive officer and managing director of Unilever RFM Ice Cream Inc., Yabu’s success isn’t surprising.

“I saw it,” he told ABS-CBNnews.com in an interview at Yabu in SM Megamall, citing that he likes the product it offers and believes that they have found the right price level for its offerings, which includes unlimited Japanese rice and cabbage salad.

Yabu opened its first branch at SM Megamall. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBNnews.com

“And the third (reason) is it’s the first one in the market and the only one in the market. This is the first authentic katsu in the Philippines. The idea there is to make katsu like a hamburger, make it as popular as a hamburger. And that has been the response so far. People are lining up to try the first authentic katsu,” he said.

Concepcion considers katsu, which is Japanese for cutlet, an “international” dish that has a very wide appeal. “Think about it: It's like a fancy McNuggets, it’s a wiener schnitzel, it’s basically pork chop that’s breaded. So it has a broad range of appeal -- from child to a lolo. Filipinos also like rice and it goes well with it. It's a great product. And we like fried (food) also. It's a very good comfort food,” he said.

While other Japanese restaurants also offer tonkatsu bento or the cheaper katsudon rice topping, Yabu is so proud of its katsu that it’s practically the only item on the menu. Apart from the tonkatsu sets and the katsudon, there’s the pork katsu served with Japanese curry, plus chicken and seafood – and even oyster -- katsu variants. As such, Yabu calls itself “the house of katsu.”

“I think that's the trend, to be honest with you. I see the future moving towards specialization,” Concepcion said about the focused menu. “People, in our time, they will ask where do you want to eat, Japanese food or Chinese food or Italian food. I think that will evolve. So when you want to eat, your kids will say, ‘Dad I want a burger, I want the best burger. I want to go for ramen, I want the best ramen.’ So it becomes more dish-specific.”

And if there are customers looking for, say, sushi? “We say no because we are a specialty restaurant,” he said.

“If you focus on one thing, and you make it the best and you're very passionate about it, it will be good. The quality is good,” he explained.

Homegrown concept

The concept for Yabu was created by Concepcion and his partners -- katsu chef Kazuya Takeda, who the head chef of Tokyo-based Tonkatsu Takeshin, and restaurateur Teiji Nakamura.

The veteran ice cream executive recalled that he was in Osaka, Japan when he tried a katsu restaurant at a train station while his wife was out shopping. He was so impressed by how good real Japanese katsu tasted like – at least compared with those served at Japanese fast food restaurants in Manila – that he flew back to Japan a few months later just to look for a partner who is willing to open a restaurant with him in the Philippines.

While Yabu offers a premium tonkatsu that uses kurobuta pork, which is often described as the wagyu of pork, the challenge is how to prepare katsu using local pork and chicken, which make up the bulk of its sales.

Kurobuta pork tonkatsu at Yabu. Photo by Vladimir Bunoan, ABS-CBNnews.com

“Our price point here for a complete big meal, with unlimited rice and cabbage, is P350. You got to use local ingredients there,” Concepcion explained. “Doing that is a trick. How do you get it to be very tender? That’s the challenge. How do you cook katsu that's not too oily? And how do you do it such that it's still crispy? So all that is science and art.”

The key, he explained, is to cook the meats, which have just the right thickness, at a precise temperature. Yabu also uses fryers that were brought in from Japan. And since the kitchen basically churns out only katsu dishes, the staff can be very focused on the cooking process. And he doesn’t scrimp on ingredients, using, for instance, canola oil and real breading to coat the meat.

Rituals and experience

Concepcion said specializing in katsu also allows the restaurant to tell a story.

And this begins as soon as you enter the restaurant. Yabu outlets have manga panels that illustrate different stories. (At SM Megamall, the art talks about katsu preparation). There is also a wall made from actual sake cups, as well as a “testimonial wall,” where customers can leave their comments.

Diners are also taught by the staff how to prepare the katsu sauce. Customers are given a bowl of toasted black and white sesame seeds, which they have to grind using a special pestle to coax out the aroma. Then they add around three scoops of the katsu sauce and mix.

Each table also has two dressings for the cabbage strips (the sesame dressing is more recommended), as well as chili powder, chili oil and Himalayan pink salt to be used for the edamame appetizers. (The other starters are the hiyayakko tofu, wakame salad and Japanese-style potato salad.)

The tonkatsu sets come with soup, fresh fruit slices and unlimited Japanese rice and cabbage, which Concepcion noted, is organic and thinly sliced.

“It’s served cold so it breaks the umay,” he said of the cabbage, which has become one of the come-ons for fans of Yabu. “It cleanses your palate. And the fruit that we serve here basically just washes down your mouth so when you leave here you don’t have to get dessert anymore.”

“Typically with the Japanese, they plan everything, each thing has a role -- the soup to start you, to keep your stomach warm. Then you have your main course and your cabbage and you end with a fruit. They're very meticulous about that,” he added.

Although tonkatsu is the specialty, Concepcion reported that the katsudon is Yabu’s best-seller. Apart from the traditional rice topping dish, Yabu has a “special” katsudon, which is a dry version.

There are also kiddie meals and even takeout sets.

Brand building

Yabu was immediately accepted by Filipino diners such that one month after it opened, they decided to expand the SM Megamall restaurant, taking over the space next door. A few months later, it branched out to the newly opened Robinsons Magnolia mall where it has become a crowd-drawer.

Yabu's newest branch at the Robinsons Magnolia mall. Photo by Karen Flores, ABS-CBNnews.com

Because of the restaurant’s success, Concepcion expects other katsu eateries to open.

“That's why we try to build a brand and that's where my background in Selecta comes in. In business, it's all about building brands. And that's where you focus on,” he said.

‘We don't do coupons, we don't do deals but we're big in social media. We like to be crazy and passionate about the guest and serve them well. Give them constantly new innovations and good food and expand the distribution and make it more accessible,” he said.

Just like his experience with the phenomenally successful Magnum ice cream bar, Concepcion is toying around with social media to spread the word.

“I like social media. I think it's a great equalizer. You don't have to have a lot of money to get your word out. You can now compete with the big boys,” he said. “That's a new way of doing business now. I try to redefine the market, change the rules of the game.”

Concepcion said they are now developing an app similar to Instagram for those who like to take their pictures at the restaurant. He is also planning an online magazine that talks about Japanese art, fashion and culture.