16 Feb 2016
Full steam ahead
We adore Japanese food. But authentic shabu-shabu is kind of dull. A pot involving little more than boiled water with a weak whisper of kombu (kelp) tastes as about as exciting as it sounds. The idea is to concentrate on the quality cuts of beef dunked in it. But why can’t we have our (beef) cake and eat it too? We prefer our hotpot broths a bit more robust, something that starts off gently flavoursome, maturing into a thing of beauty as the meal progresses. What luck then, that Fukuoka-born, French cuisine-trained consultant chef Masashi Horiuchi, seemed to have read our minds.
A year after revamping French bistro Shelter in the Woods next door and consistently churning out stellar roast meats and quiche, the gentle, genial 42-year-old, formerly a chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, has opened a restaurant in collaboration with wine distributor Wine Culture with his personal stamp on it: Sakurazaka. It is an elegant — yes, shabu-shabu — restaurant, but with an unusual twist of both Japanese and French techniques to the broths, coupled with traditional Japanese ingredients.
16 Feb 2016
The deserted, now-defunct Giuseppe Italian restaurant has morphed into this stylish wood-driven space with a minimalist Japanese aesthetic. We pop by for dinner on both its second and third day of opening and the place is quiet — for now. Sprays of cherry blossoms on the ceiling hint at the eatery’s moniker, a nod at chef Masashi’s favourite sakura tree-lined district of the same name in Fukuoka (Sakurazaka means “cherry blossom hill”).
The Service: While the waiters are earnest, they seem almost afraid whenever we ask them a question about the menu. Pesky queries such as, “What exactly are ‘egg noodles’ (wanton mee, apparently)? How do you cook foie gras in soup without it disintegrating (very quickly, a la French pot-au-feu)?” are met with tremulous looks and a “let me check”, followed by a long wait. That being said, Sakurazaka is only in its soft-launch phase. And a slightly harried chef Masashi later admits, “We still need to let our staff try the food and train them”. Luckily, the servers are quite likeable. “How was the service? Did we speak well?” asks one sweetly at the end of dinner.
16 Feb 2016
The food makes up for any service lapses. There are six types of soups here. You could order a la carte, but it works out to be a bit more expensive. Go for one of the four set meals, which comes with an appetiser, meat or seafood, veg, a carb and dessert. There’s a choice of two soups each. The cheapest is the Pork Set ($95 for two pax). We pick the Pork Bone Tonkotsu and Ago Dashi stocks, and they arrive in gleaming silver pots. The pork bone stock is gorgeous. It’s one level down from a full-bodied ramen soup (which means you can slurp more of it without filling ill), yet still brims with the essence of meat. Meanwhile, the ago dashi, a signature in chef’s hometown featuring dried flying fish, is quite pleasant if you’re in the mood for something cleaner. The soups make lovely baths for the pink curls of pork belly and loin from Kyushu, both exceptionally fresh and tender, especially the fat-striated belly, which needs no more than a few seconds of gentle swishing to cook.
There are three house-made dips, and the maddeningly fragrant yuzu ponzu is so exquisite we want to steal a bottle of it. The priciest set meal here is the Sukiyaki Set ($150 for two), and the quality of the beef is top-notch. Rosy, well-marbled sheets of Japanese wagyu crossbred with European Holstein rib-eye that’s sweet and melts in the mouth, and a leaner strip loin. But while the savoury sukiyaki gravy is tasty, we prefer the soups. Such as the intense stew-like Bouillabaisse featuring umami lobster heads and fish that are roasted then boiled with tomatoes. And the Soy Milk Soup. It’s not thick and milky like those we’ve tried in Japan, but a nuanced, smoky fish stock with a discreet, soulful splash of soy milk. We cannot stop drinking it. Our least favourite? The Beef Consommé, which our dinner partner sagely remarks, “tastes like atas Bovril”.
16 Feb 2016
Sweets are a fun affair centred on the classic Japanese Kakigori (from $12 a la carte; smaller portions free with set meals). It’s Japanese “ice kachang”, jokes chef, but with a gourmet French flourish. The Mango one is especially refreshing. A mound of shaved ice drizzled with fruit compote and condensed milk, its crunchy texture is softened with a dollop of super silky mango ice cream, juicy cubes of mango and zingy passion fruit pulp.
VERDICT: Excellent Japanese ingredients simmer in a refined blend of both French and Japanese soup stocks to become an irresistible one-pot wonder. It’s chef Masashi’s ode to his French culinary training and Japanese roots, and you can taste the love and talent in every soul-lifting, sophisticated spoonful. But perhaps give the restaurant some time to improve its service levels before dropping by.
24 GREENWOOD AVE, S289221. TEL: 6463-0333 (NO RESERVATIONS TAKEN).
OPEN DAILY 6PM - 10.30PM (CLOSED FEB 8). LAST ORDERS 10PM. WWW.SAKURAZAKA.COM.SG