18 Nov 2015
Rice, fish, water
We walk up a dainty stone-paved pathway, the kind you see outside a posh Ginza sushi restaurant. The wooden door slides open and a regal Japanese hostess in a lovely pink kimono greets us in fluent English. Inside, it’s traditionally staid. Just monk-faced chef Taku Ashino, 34, working behind the blonde wood counter, with one assistant. Some interesting features: instead of plates or trays, sushi is served on a communal cypress wood plank that sweeps across the entire counter. Also, behind the chef sits a bincho charcoal grill, which he occasionally uses to toast seaweed or flash-grill sashimi to add smoky soul.
We are here at the five-month-old sushi specialist after hearing rave reviews about its Edo-style sushi. Edomae sushi refers to the traditional style of sushi popular during the Edo period in the 1800s in what’s now known as Tokyo. Because refrigeration wasn’t available then, methods such as marinating, braising, salting, grilling and ageing were employed to prevent fish from spoiling. And the rice is usually served warm.
We were in two minds about dining here initially. Tokyo native Ashino after all, is not a known name. His last place of employment was Hide Yamamoto at Marina Bay Sands, not, say, Shinji by Kanesaka. Yet prices here are almost as steep as the famed Shinji: from $220 to $400 for an omakase dinner. We thought it safer to have lunch on our virgin visit: $120 for 11 pieces of sushi (which in retrospect seems like the best value) and $180 for 10 pieces, with extra sashimi. We opt for the latter. The 10-seat counter is filled with corporate high-fliers this Friday, including a politician (there are another six seats in the private room).
18 Nov 2015
“Would you like sake?” asks the hostess. “Just green tea and water, please,” we reply. It’s a weekday lunch after all. We’re served our tea and iced water and take a couple of sips without much thought. The idea of aged fish may sound unpalatable to the uninitiated. But what it does — coupled with other methods like marinating — is make the texture of seafood more yielding and its flavours deeper and rounder.
For instance, the Botan Ebi here is aged for at least three days. Its slippery flesh is more sticky than crunchy, sweet and succulent. Dreamy on its bed of flawless sushi rice: warm, nutty, softly chewy yet al dente. It’s a mix of Niigata and Hokkaido grains cooked with “air-flown Mount Fuji water” in a kettle. We’re tempted to ask for a bowlful of it but exercise some restraint.
18 Nov 2015
Two fat slices of one-week-aged Kinki (above) are briefly seared on the charcoal grill before being served as sashimi. The cool, clean fish is softly springy, with an alluring suggestion of smoke.
Akami Tuna is aged for 11 days, then quickly plunged in sake, mirin and shoyu. It’s smooth, mellow and well-seasoned with no trace of iron. The only thing we don't enjoy today is the Murasaki Uni from Hokkaido. While it’s fresh and as creamy as curds, it tastes disturbingly like old cupboard. It could be a seasonal thing.
18 Nov 2015
Perhaps the well-spoken chef could sense our disappointment with the uni. So he asks, “Want to try the aka uni from Kyushu?” Before we can decline, our hungry lunch partner nods, and chef deftly plops a paler orange blob dappled with salt on rice and cloaks it with nori. Mmm, much better. It’s intensely sweet and lush.
We’re thirsty, so we ask for a refill of water. The hostess complies and says demurely, “This water is from Mount Fuji”. This is the first time we are told about the water’s provenance. How charming, we say, as we politely drain our glass while secretly thinking that it tastes like tap water, or garden-variety mineral water at best.
THE BILL: What a special lunch. But then the bill arrives. We are somewhat surprised to see that it cost $534 for two set lunches and two cups of green tea. Of course, we’re charged $50 for the two extra pieces of uni sushi. And the water, which apparently trickled from the bowels of the sacred Fujisan (there was no bottle for us to appreciate this fact as it was served in regular glasses), cost... $32 for two glasses. Well, we did ask for a refill, so that’s $8 per glass.
VERDICT: Excellent, lovingly made Edomae-style sushi that’s among the best in Singapore. But being quietly (sneakily?) charged for “Mount Fuji water” when all we asked for was iced water isn’t very cool.
#01-23 Chijmes, 30 Victoria St. Tel: 6684-4567. Open daily except Mon. Tue–Sun noon–2pm; 6pm–11pm. Last orders 2pm & 10pm.