By traditional – read rigid, “a rule is a rule but I don’t know why” – Japanese standards, Kenjiro ‘Hatch’ Hashida has always been a bit of an outlier. Too playful to be a straight-laced sushi chef, but too good at it to go the full kappo route, he sits in a happy – to us – space where both sushi and contemporary Japanese cuisine add up to a couple of hours of culinary showmanship.
Whether he’s taken seriously by his by-the-book peers or die-hard purists is another matter, but taking the tried and tested road has never been his style. For him, it seems like he would prefer public approval to come for his original approach, than at the expense of it.
His constant need to explore new ingredients, techniques and presentation underscores chef Hashida’s latest private dining outfit at OUE Social Kitchen — a temporary arrangement with his new business partners before his proper new outpost in Amoy Street opens at the end of the year.
It’s hardly a fitting space for the kind of eloquent, fine dining cuisine he’s known for. Previously a kitchen studio set up for cooking classes, you expect to go in for a takeaway grain bowl rather than a dinner omakase costing upwards of S$300. But the genteel manner and Japanese lilt of the casually black-clad staff (who are all chefs from the previous Hashida restaurant in River Valley) help you get your bearings, along with the tell-tale table settings and ubiquitous wooden cutting boards.
The man himself has eased into his informal surroundings with ease. He’s even a little more hirsute than normal, with a thick mop of hair and when he lowers his mask for just a brief moment, you swear there’s a chinchilla clinging to his chin.
The new menu he’s dreamed up for this private dining concept shows that he hasn’t been cooling his heels since the abrupt closure of his River Valley outlet after a parting of ways with his former investors. Strictly omakase, lunch is priced at S$120 to S$300, with dinner from S$250, but the full immersion priced from S$300 is a better indication of his prowess. If you’re prepared to spend S$350 for a sushi meal, that money can get you a much more varied meal with well-paced cadence.
Deconstructing classic dishes without mucking up the tradition behind them is his forte and you see it right off the bat with an amorphous blob of slippery, chewy white sesame paste swimming in a pool of soba sauce. It takes its cue from sobagaki – a buckwheat dough ball served in traditional soba restaurants that you eat with the dipping sauce instead of noodles. The tasteless ball is an acquired taste but Chef Hashida’s version is much more palatable with his riff on sesame tofu.
Next up is a gentle twist on tempura with a super crunchy, rice krispie-like battered shiitake mushroom above a cube of yam, paired with a mackerel-filled burdock ball decorated with chrysanthemum leaves.
Autumn chawanmushi sees wobbly super smooth egg custard with an extra layer of mashed new-season chestnut for sweetness, and a crunch of water chestnut for a welcome bite.
Other little touches include saba or mackerel, a naturally funky fish usually subdued with vinegar but this time marinated in sauce. Acidity instead comes from calamansi lime in the sushi rice that the saba is pressed into. Folded into a toasted sheet of nori, you don’t get that jarring jolt of vinegar but just the pleasant fishiness balanced out with rice. Wash it down with a little cup of sake-enhanced dashi made with the mackerel bones which explains the chef’s rather gimmicky title “fish head to tail”.
Other tricks up his sleeve
His dabbling in fermentation results in a successful cashewnut miso made with the remaining pulp after squeezing cashew milk. He adds some butter to the nine-month fermented miso and combines it with steamed uni, tender abalone, firm squid and seaweed bundled together like strangers in a seafood speed dating ritual. Showered with cashew nut shavings and a dollop of caviar, this wacky mix is a perfect marriage of umami, salty, briny joy.
There are other tricks up his sleeve that unfold over the course of the meal. Hokigai clam that’s blanched and lightly grilled so its juices seep into the sushi rice. What looks like raw beef is actually slow cooked and frozen before being shaved into thin slices and coiled into little mounds served either with a ponzu jelly or sprayed with sukiyaki sauce.
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And of course there’s a round of sushi, including plump botan shrimp with its green roe and a highlight of uni and squid topped with homemade shio koji. And, to end off, a wagashi platter of traditional sweets which are new to us – whipped sweet potato and mochi, a kind of steamed layer cake and a chewy rice flour cake which are slightly lost on us.
Of course, chef Hashida clearly knows how to put on a show, and in this case, the price is in the manageable region of S$350, a far cry from his former S$500 blowouts. He’s making a new start, and for all intents and purposes, it’s a fitting comeback.
OUE Social Kitchen
#03-02 Downtown Gallery
6A Shenton Way
For reservations, WhatsApp 8129-5336 or Instagram Direct Message @hashidaprivatedining.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.