Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Omakase in Singapore - Dinner at Ikyu

I was eager to try out some Japanese food in Singapore to see how it compared to the ones at home, so I started googling around looking for a decent place. Of course there are the likes of Shinji by Kanesaka (at the Raffles) or Shiraishi (at The Ritz) or the two at Marina Bay Sands (Waku Ghin and Hide Yamamoto) but I am not looking at that kind of ridiculous price range. At the end I found this relatively new restaurant right in my favorite neighborhood and I gave it a try.

Ikyu (一休) is one of the latest additions to the hip Tiong Bahru area, opened about 9 months ago. It's on Yong Siak Street, sharing the same block as other trendy spots such as 40 Hands Coffee (Cafe), Open Door Policy (Bistro), Books Actually (Bookstore) and many others. Chef Takuma Seki came from Hide Yamamoto at Marina Bay Sands, and the restaurant serves "sexy", "daringly different" Japanese cuisine, as mentioned on the website, with most of the ingredients flown in from Japan direct.

I understand what they meant by "daringly different" as I walked in. The place features a rustic decor that assembles more of a industry building-inspired dance club than a Japanese restaurant. There's a sushi bar that can sit 8 people on one side, and then there were rows of tables in this dimly-lit space with hip wall art and video wall.

When I arrived at around 8pm on a weekday, it's not packed but had quite a number of tables filled plus a few sitting at the sushi bar. Since I was by myself, I asked for a seat at the bar. For dinner, they have a good selection from a la carte menu - the items are listed in different sections depends on how they were cooked - Otsumami "Japas" (snacks), Agemono (fried), Robata (grilled), Meal (rice/noodles), then sushi (rolls and nigiri) and sashimi, plus desserts. I was curious to get a good sample of stuff Chef Seki can do, so I went with the omakase menu, with a bit of items from each section essentially. The menu was more than reasonably priced in Hong Kong standard (SGD$128 which was around HK$800).

First course was a marinated squid with flying fish roes, a typical omborato that supposedly went with alcoholic drinks. It's marinated to the right sweetness and flavors and I also like the texture of the squid and just the balanced amount of saltiness. That was followed by four types of sashimi. Akami (lean tuna) was served with a quick dip of the soy sauce, along with the in-season kanpachi (Amberjack), kinmadei (goldeneye snapper) and a small piece of hokkaido uni (sea urchin). The akami has good texture, I was wowed by how oily and tasty the kanpachi was, and both the kinmadei and uni was also surprisingly good (except both portion being kinda small). That said, I bet it's hard to find something of similar quality with similar price in Hong Kong.

After the sashimi, I moved onto several cooked dishes. First was a kinki nitsuke served with vegetables and sweet ponzu sauce. The kinki - in tasting portion - was deep-fried then braised in ponzu sauce and has such delicate flavor.

Then it's the robata dish - beef with deep-fried garlic and lotus root. I opted for Miyazaki beef for SGD$10 extra, and I am glad that I did that. It's well-seasoned, cooked just right and melted in my mouth with that heavenly sensation as I chewed and tasted. Then there's also the tempura platter and a small dish of grilled squid tentacles - they were alright but nothing to write home about.

After that I was served several sushi by Chef Seki-san. They didn't have a wide selection of fish so some of them were repeated from the sashimi course, but with little variations in preparation style. I finally got a bigger piece of kinmadai in nigiri, then followed by aburi kanpachi with a dollop of yuzu kosho. The oily kanpachi was torched hence giving it a really rich flavor which was further enhanced with the subtle, aromatic spiciness from the yuzu kosho paste on top. The most interesting sushi I have tried that evening was karei engawa, or flounder fin, which wasn't on the a la carte menu. It has a funny texture - a mix of crunchy and chewy with lots of flavors, especially after flash-grilled by the torch and with a touch of Japanese chili paste. Almost like a more tender squid with stronger taste. The other 3 nigiri sushi - mirugai, uni and ikura followed a more traditional trails but they were all fresh and wonderful, especially the uni. Chef Seki stressed that all the fish was flown in regularly from Japan - except the Salmon, which was from Tasmania - and it's clear that the restaurant did have good source for its ingredients.

The Niigata-born Chef Seki-san uses rice from Minami Uonuma near to his hometown, a region close to my heart too given we have just traveled there a couple months ago. His style of rice has more a neutral flavor (not a lot of vinegar) and the rice was served slightly warm and loose. It works particularly well with shellfish and those oily or aburi ones (blow-torched).

The omakase menu came with a soup (matsutake mushroom and leek broth) and dessert. They made a special wasabi cheese souffle for me, which I must say tasted better than it sounds, though it's a bit too salty. Reckon if they used freshly-grated wasabi it would have been much better. According to the couple sitting next to me (who seem to be a regular here), the shochu cheesecake is a must-try. Too bad I was too full to order more this time.

During the meal, Seki-san and his sous chef Alex-san were chatty and making jokes with customers and staff, so it's quite fun sitting at the bar talking to them and chit-chat (and he spoke perfect English). Towards the end of my meal, Seki-san asked whether I would like to try the off-menu grilled anago (sea eel) as they got a fresh batch flying in from Hiroshima. It's hard to say no given Japanese eel was kind of hard to come by outside of Japan. The eel was huge and it's nicely done with the meat just the right balance between being firm and tender and perfectly grilled on open fire, and the sauce was good to bring out the flavors. I particularly love the tail where it's burnt crispy. I wish I had more space for rice at this point - this would have been a perfect combination to conclude the meal.
I didn't expect I could find something decent like this at last minute, so I enjoyed the dinner very much. Well the anago did unexpectedly set me back a little bit when I received the bill, but I still think it's reasonable in terms of price, and the omakase menu was well worth it and I would recommend it to anyone who happened to be wandering in this neighborhood and craving for a decent Japanese meal. Something for a change from Hainanese Chicken Rice or Chili Crabs, something "daringly different".

Where? Ikyu, 5 Yong Siak Street, Singapore 168643
Menu Highlights? Kinki Fillet Nitsuke Cooked with Soy, Engawa Nigiri Sushi, Grilled Fresh Anago
Web: www.ikyu.com.sg

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