There are several reasons to eat Japanese food in Singapore: (1) you can ask for salmon sushi and not get thrown out of a sushi joint – you might even get some if the chef is more Edomae-pliable outside his home turf; (2) when you’re suffering Tokyo withdrawal symptoms and even an “Irasshaimasu!” exclaimed by a server whose Japanese vocabulary ends there is better than nothing; (3) you can step into a Japanese restaurant helmed by a lady chef and it would be a pleasant surprise rather than a cultural aberration.
And so it is that Akane Eno breaks new ground as the chef-owner of Ichigo Ichie – which started as a weekly pop up at Sushi Kimura and is now a full-fledged upscale kappo at the InterContinental hotel in Robertson Quay.
If you couldn’t get enough of Chef Eno’s omakase before, now you can get it for lunch and dinner, served personally by the earnest, smiley chef who seems both elated and yet slightly stressed at the pressures of holding up a restaurant on her own shoulders.
Too formal for kappo but not as stylized as kaiseki, she strikes a comfortable middle ground with high-end uncomplicated cuisine. Her mantra is that she cooks what she herself likes to eat, so you get a mix of familiar and inspired original creations.
Chef Eno’s disposition totally epitomises the concept of omotenashi or Japanese hospitality – her gentle and genuine manner lends to the calming ambience of the compact eatery where she slices and composes her dishes behind a counter that seats 10 people, or a maximum of 16 with an extra table.
While she’s open for lunch where she serves a truncated omakase, she is more in her element at dinner, where S$268 gets you the full treatment.
She kicks off with a cold, perky starter of tender Spring greens topped with tiger prawns from Kyushu – sweet and firm, with a bonito jelly that has just a hint of acidity to take the bitter edge off the vegetables.
(Related: Getting your sake fix in Hiroshima)
In between the banter, she’s toasting fat cubes of bread over a charcoal hibachi – we’re not sure what she’s up to but it sure takes a long time for the bread to brown. So while we wait she serves us one of the night’s hits – a fat scallop that other hotate should aspire to be, sweet and fleshy and coated with a perfect crinkly crunch of rice cracker flour. Part Two of this treat is the toast — finally browned and smeared with a good dollop of ankimo or monkfish liver, cooked in dashi and blended into a rich, savoury umami-filled cream. To counter the richness is a candied kumquat that brings out the savouriness of ankimo.
A soupy chawanmushi yields a surprise of baby anago and bamboo shoots, and a dab of ume plum paste for variation.
Thick slices of Meiji maguro tuna and yellowtail follow, which have great texture but little character. But a follow up of glistening sayori and akagai make up for it.
Her signature cold prawn somen well deserves praise as her take on Hokkien prawn noodle soup. Cold somen stays resilient and chewy in a cold prawn broth that’s both light and intense, while chilled cooked botan ebi, uni and vegetable ‘caviar’ or tonburi complete the transition. We would love to see what she can do with bak kut teh.
There’s a little hiccup with the next dish – dried radish strips are rehydrated and stewed in a soy sauce base with bits of Omi wagyu that releases fat and beefiness into the mix. It’s a traditional dish that’s lost on us plebeians who feel like cows chewing really salty, leathery cud that aren’t a very good match with the overcooked beltfish either.
We’re more familiar with kaburamochi – another Japanese tradition of making mochi-like sticky dumplings out of grated turnip and glutinous rice flour and served in a clear thickened soup. Chef Eno’s version is a rough ball mixed with amadei fish and gingko nut – it’s good enough but not our favourite.
She also prepares a pleasant shabu shabu of French duck slices which are juicy and served with its ‘best friend’ negi (leeks) – a kind of arranged marriage in a savoury sauce.
If you’re not a fan of leeks, such relationships tend to be over-rated.
Finally, the donabe of rice from Nagano is a low-key affair – no fancy ingredients, just rice mixed with finely crumbled tofu and topped with bamboo shoots. Dessert is a luscious smooth white coffee pudding that’s silky smooth, and a dry homemade dorayaki that needs remedial lessons in fluffiness at pancake school.
Perhaps we were spoiled by her largesse during her once-a-week pop-up days — the stakes are higher now that she’s doing this every day as her own business, so there is a slight loss in the transition. But she’s only just started and, given the unseasonably warm weather in Japan now, top quality ingredients seem to be harder to find and more expensive than usual.
But we’re confident that Chef Eno will pick up speed soon. Forget about the lady chef label. This chef can hold her own and and is set to blossom soon enough.
Photos: Yen Meng Jiin
This article was originally published in The Business Times.