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An oyster-centric izakaya experience at Kakiin

Gruff service but satisfying cooking are served up at this hole-in-the-wall oyster bar.

Kakiin Oyster Bar
#01-37 Orchard Plaza
150 Orchard Road
Singapore 238841
Tel: 9644 2487
Open for dinner only Mon to Sat: 5.30pm to 10.30pm.

When it comes to being master of your own universe, size doesn’t matter. Who needs a galaxy when you have a 200 sq ft shoebox that you command like a minor feudal lord whose menial serfs slog in a hot kitchen, feeding itinerant strangers who willingly pay more than a few coppers for the favour of a few oysters and a plate of grilled chicken liver?

Welcome to Kakiin Oyster Bar where, unlike the TV show Cheers, nobody wants to know your name. Certainly not the boss man who, when you enter, looks at you the way you look at relatives whose existence you don’t want to acknowledge, ie, not at all. He has the PR skills of a shiba inu – not friendly but will engage if he feels like it – so if you’re a glutton for social punishment with a side of shellfish, step right in.

That, in itself, may be the appeal of this Japanese dive in Orchard Plaza, where we seem to keep gravitating in our search for nourishment if not aesthetic pleasure. Kakiin – Japanese for oyster – has no shortage of fans either, although we can’t tell if the boss man is happy or annoyed at his popularity.

However, what he lacks in happy disposition he makes up for in excellent space planning skills. Only a Japanese mind can pack in a full working kitchen, a counter seating up to eight socially distanced diners AND a long storage shelf for alcohol – in a space that would fit one single bed in our house and a very disgruntled occupant.

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The kitchen is surprisingly not helmed by the boss man but two pint-sized ladies who are pleasant but just too busy to engage in any chit chat. They work like short-order cooks with one of them manning a large hot griddle from which she dispenses everything from sauteed oysters to grilled steak and garlic fried rice. The menu is fairly extensive, straightforward but well-executed izakaya fare prepared like clockwork, as if the ladies are manipulated telepathically by their boss who stands silently in one corner watching them but doing nothing.

He does snap into action when an order for oysters comes in, when he swiftly shucks and washes a selection of Japanese (S$9 each), Irish (S$6 each) and American oysters (S$5 each) and personally serves them to you on a platter complete with dry ice effect. He also shows flashes of geniality throughout the evening especially when he’s telling you the origin of the oysters he’s serving you.

And they are good. Fleshy, minerally for the Irish; creamy for the Japanese; and middle of the road for the American ones. They’re fresh and satisfying, not cheap but somehow it doesn’t feel so bank-breaking in a place like this. You can also try the scallop carpaccio with a dollop of uni and some ikura (S$18) which is pretty run-of-the-mill.

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There’s no crab in the crab croquette (S$9 per piece) per se, but it gets its name from the crabmeat piled on top of a commercial but very good deep fried croquette that tastes like creamy chowder wrapped in a sound effects-worthy crunchy crust.

As its name suggests, oysters every which way are the speciality here. Oysters are grilled (S$12 for two) in a tiny toaster oven and emerge as sophisticated shells of plump mollusc bathed in your choice of garlic butter or sake (pick the sake) that mingles with the residual juices for a shot of mellow brininess. Before we attack, though, boss man lurches out of his inertia and retrieves them with a stern grunt at the lady before grabbing a blow torch to singe the oysters for more colour. It’s clear this is no layabout who looks like he just emerged from a public bath still slightly damp in a crumpled yukata (blame the heat and lousy air conditioning) – but a chef who clearly knows what he wants.

From the griddle, you can get creamy sweet chicken livers (S$10) in a tangy ponzu sauce and raw onions; chewy-smokey jerky-like grilled outside skirt slices (S$25) which are so-so; forgettable steamed clams (S$16), and buttery-peppery chicken soft bone (S$11) cartilage that aren’t really worth the chew. But save some room for the garlic oyster fried rice (S$19), if only for the handful of tender oysters on top.

Nothing fancy, but still quite enjoyable. And you end off with a hearty arigato gozaimashita from the boss man – either because he’s happy you had a good meal, or he’s glad to see you go. Go figure. We might come back again to find out.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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