A common reaction to the term ‘bread sushi’ is one of confusion. Bring it up to companions and see the wheels in their heads turn and the questions follow shortly after: Is it made of bread? Is it sushi? How can bread go with sashimi?
Well, it sure can, if you ask the madcap chef and MasterChef Singapore judge, Bjorn Shen. Bread Sushi is a term he’s coined to describe the second iteration of Small’s pizza omakase that’s now the Doughmakase – a multicourse meal of bite-sized flavour bombs.
Like Small’s V1, in a small apartment that’s accessed by a nondescript back door, guests sit around the U-shaped counter where dinner begins at the same time for the whole seating (there are two seatings per night). Without a proper kitchen, most of the deep-frying and cooking is done in the afternoon before diners stream in as two moderately-sized fans work overtime expunging the smell of grease in the air.
From the rundown back stairs to penis cushions, everything in the experience prepares you for Shen’s unique flavour of the unorthodox. He and his team don bucket hats as they assemble the courses under dim blue and pink light from the neon signs on the wall. The warm hostess slips in and out of the prep area to make sure you’ve always got a strong glass of Small’s highball (umeshu and whisky) on hand. And on the glass window looking down to The Refinery below, are white scribblings of an old prep list.
An evolution of the pizza omakase before, variations of bread sushi come from one or two types of dough that are fermented for five days. Bread is very much still the main ingredient as schiacciata (a spongier version of focaccia), montanara (a deep fried cone), lavosh (thin crispy flatbread), savoury bread pudding, or in ice cream.
It’s an idea that’s taken Shen and his ‘bread sommelier’ six months to realise including many rounds of R&D to determine the types of fish to use and what breads to pair it with. Think: Asian interpretations of crostinis, smørrebrød and pintxos.
We found altogether up to seven different ways bread appeared in the menu, but there’s one that’ll be more familiar to patrons of Small’s V1 – a fatty slice of aburi engawa (flounder fin) with stir-fried papaya salad on charcoal grilled bread topped with frozen ankimo (monkfish liver) shavings. An item from the earlier menu, it was so well received (no surprise, it was my favourite too) that Shen took it as an affirmation to change the omakase.
Unlike traditional sushi, however, Shen’s offerings don’t rely on the fish’s natural flavours or a light brush of soy sauce. In fact, raw fish or seafood functions as the base for which other punchier condiments get to shine. The Striped Jack & Tomato on a slightly charred dough base is a mouthful of ginger-scallion relish, reminiscent of Hong Kong eateries. While the Kingfish & Kumquat Kosho hides a thick wedge of cold nori butter that lends a boost of umami and fattiness.
Towards the end of the omakase, he ramps up on flavour with more adventurous combinations such as the Akami comprising lean tuna on pizza bread with heart of palm (the shoot of a young coconut tree) and sambal matah. Somewhere, a sushi chef wonders why his eye is twitching as the subtle taste of lean tuna takes a backseat to the party of coconut and aromatics that happens in the mouth.
The last of the savoury dishes, a Vegetable Hot Pot & Bread Dumpling, is a take on the nabe and Shen’s way of closing off a meal with something hot after a series of cold to lukewarm courses. Using the offcuts of bread he amasses from each seating, he makes Parmesan cheese and bread dumplings cut into flat rectangles that are cooked in dashi broth with mushrooms and cheekily-shaped daikon. It takes top spot as the strangest item of the night with a pairing that should work in theory, but leaves me undecided.
The dessert of a Black Truffle Ice Cream & 20-year Mirin, on the other hand, easily won me over. Here, ice cream is infused with burnt bread then hollowed out in the middle to make room for mirin that’s been aged until it’s turned brown and acquired a syrup consistency. Placed on our outstretched hand, it’s showered with fresh truffle shavings (also a great video op). Not only the night’s most interactive course, its light sweetness and umami is a welcome respite from the big ticket dishes prior.
After the meal, lounging on the sofa with a drink in hand as Shen and team prepare for the next seating, we let the experience fully sink in. No doubt novelty is the name of the game at Small’s, given that its conception came from a desire for experimentation, but it is his undeniable ability to make good tasting grub no matter how wacky the methodology. It is the reason why Shen continues to be a celebrated chef, with Singapore’s culinary scene becoming all the better from it.
115 King George’s Avenue, 02-02, Singapore 208561. Make a reservation at www.bjornshen.com/smalls
Photos from Small’s.