Rising ambitions of kaiseki restaurants in Singapore

Kappo Shunsui’s seasonal assorted sashimi and sushi. — Picture courtesy of Kappo Shunsui via TODAY
Kappo Shunsui’s seasonal assorted sashimi and sushi. — Picture courtesy of Kappo Shunsui via TODAY

SINGAPORE, June 18 — Japanese fine dining restaurants are finding a place on this island. Just this year alone, at least four new kaiseki restaurants have opened here.

At a recent meal at Kappo Shunsui which opened in April, a Japanese expatriate asked: “Do Singaporeans really like Japanese food?” He was not convinced there is enough local support to sustain Japanese restaurants.

But, 37-year-old executive chef Tomo Watanabe thinks otherwise. He thinks there is demand to be tapped in the Singapore market. “There are many Singaporeans here who appreciate Japanese fine dining but may not be able to find the experience they had in Japan,” he said, and he hopes to bridge the gap while also familiarising Singaporeans with kaiseki.

So confident is Watanabe that he closed his own restaurant Shunsui in Tokyo – which was awarded a Bib Gourmand listing on the Michelin guide from 2015 to 2017 – to come to Singapore to helm Kappo Shunsui.

Watanabe was offered the job by the owners, who are also behind Japanese-European restaurant 999.99 (Five Nines).

While Singaporeans are sophisticated diners, he feels there’s still more to be done. “I want to showcase the finer points of Kaiseki to Singaporeans, such as in eating seasonal produce at their best and sake pairing,” said Watanabe, who is a certified sake sommelier. These “finer points” include presenting the daily menu in Japanese calligraphy, pairing sake with food served in handmade pottery from a 300-piece collection.

Kaiseki refers to a multi-course meal with a strong emphasis on seasonal produce and prides itself in the entire meal experience, which includes attention to details down to the crockery and wine, or in this case, sake pairing with each course. The degustation experience typically lasts over two hours and does not come cheap; a dinner meal usually starts from about US$200 (RM855), much of it due to the use of fresh ingredients flown in directly from Japan.

Kappo Shunsui, a 19-seater restaurant at Cuppage Plaza that opened in April, specialises in kaiseki, kappo-style, which is the use of the five main cooking techniques of steaming, simmering, grilling, frying and preparation of raw food.

Watanabe uses ingredients from Japan such as salt from Ehime, and eggs from Oita, and selects the best seafood. In order to do so, he makes daily 4am calls to his buyer at Tsukiji to prepare his bi-weekly import.

The meticulous attention to ingredients is evident to the taste. For instance, the well-marbled A4 Omni Gyu Sirloin Roast Beef from Shiga is a subliminal mix of beef fat and sweet Saga onion puree that melts in the mouth; Hokkaido white asparagus juxtaposes the robust umami tastes of onion and beef. The multi-step preparation of Watanabe’s signature dish of claypot rice also showcased his attention to detail. And the wild caught red snapper is first seared over white charcoal until about 80% cooked then placed over cooked Yumepirika rice from Hokkaido.

The appetite for a kaiseiki experience in Singapore is burgeoning. Besides Kappo Shunsui, two other Japanese fine dining restaurants have been booked solid since opening in the last six months.

One of them, is Sushi Sabu-Roku. Diners should not expect to simply walk into this restaurant located on Circular road in the CBD without a reservation.

This 10-counter-seat restaurant with a private room officially opened last March and is helmed by Chef Koji Koike, formerly of Tamaya Dining. The 41-year-old Tokyo native, who has been in Singapore for six years, started helping out at his father’s sushi restaurant when he was just six.

His style is edomae, which means raw fish is marinated before being made into sushi and served. Guests here are expected to trust the chef to know what works best, and add no other condiments. Fresh seafood is imported from Tsukiji two to three times a week.

Koike is adept at juxtaposing textures and tastes, leaving diners guessing what to expect next in a well-timed omakase meal. For instance, a simple dish of chawanmushi was given a twist with the addition of the bland-tasting but crunchy water lily stems.

Although Koike is worried about surviving in what he deems a “tough market”, he is still buoyed by Singaporean’s appreciation for good Japanese food – something he acknowledges he has to work hard to keep serving.

Another restaurant that serves edomae cuisine is the 22-seater Sushi Kimura (with a 12-seater counter and two private dining rooms that seat four and six respectively). It is helmed by an executive chef known for his exacting attention to details. Alumna of Hashida, Tomoo Kimura flies in seasonal produce from Tsukiji market four times a week, and Hokkaido and Kyushu twice a week.

All cooked food is prepared using Hokkaido water which Tomoo insists on using because the softer water enhances the taste of the ingredients such as organic rice from Yamagata. Even the Kumamoto seaweed used here is of no ordinary lineage – it was the winner in a 2016 seaweed competition. And Tomoo insists on using only the first cut of the first growth every season, which he claims yield more intense and complex flavours.

While Tomoo, Koike and Watanabe all felt the local market can be tough, the chefs also agree that there is still opportunity for kaiseki restaurants in a Singapore where diners enjoy fine dining.

As Tomoo puts it: “The Singaporean plate for Japanese fine dining is evolving to be more sophisticated. I hope to share my skills and also grow with them while improving.” — TODAY

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