Akane Eno

Ichigo Ichie

#01-07 Palais Renaissance
390 Orchard Road
Singapore 238871
Tel: 84567141 or email akanejapanesecuisine@gmail.com
Open on Monday only: 7pm to 10pm

When the cat’s away, the mice – come out and open their own restaurant?

From Tuesday to Sunday, sushi chef Tomoo Kimura helms the counter of his one Michelin-starred eatery, doling out Edomae delights while his lady sous chef Akane Eno toils silently in the background. But every Monday, when Sushi Kimura is closed and Palais Renaissance looks as sleepy as we feel on the first day of the work week, something happens.

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At the stroke of 7pm, lights flicker from within Sushi Kimura. A kimono-clad lady slides open the wide wooden door and bustles about. The Sushi Kimura name has mysteriously disappeared and in its place, a light box with the words Ichigo Ichie in vibrant red. We enter and lo, it’s not Kimura-san but – like Cinderella with a very sharp knife – Eno-san, all ready to cook you her very own style of omakase.

This weekly “private dining” set up is a great platform for the talented chef Eno – a bona fide sushi chef whose gender has been a handicap back home in Japan, where male chefs are more likely to welcome pink unicorns in the kitchen than the opposite sex.

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That’s not the case here, where chef Eno has gained a following for being one of a growing number of female chefs carving out their own space in the local F&B scene. As equal opportunity food lovers, we only care how the food tastes, not who cooks it. We would accept a Tasmanian devil frying up a mean plate of wok hei-infused char kway teow – so long as we know he’s had all his shots.

Thanks to Kimura-san allowing his lady chef to take over his kitchen on his days off, we get to taste the full spectrum of chef Eno’s skills, combined with her own innate warmth and hospitality. Suddenly, we like Mondays a lot more.

She isn’t taking this opportunity for granted either. The name of her pop up, Ichigo Ichie, is carefully crafted and translates into “once in a lifetime”. She’s been in the trade for a good 20 years now – no way she’s going to blow her chance at starring in her own show.

The price of a ticket is S$250 – not cheap, but not overpriced. And you get to taste how  those years have culminated in a unique style of cuisine that is clean on the palate, but belies the complexity of the preparation. A prawn and tomato cocktail? Sounds easy enough until the tomato explodes in your mouth. It’s not just ripe and sweet – the conditions for Japanese citizenship. There’s more to it, an umami that comes from being soaked in kombu dashi and a hint of vinegar. Then there’s the broth – a cold consomme of kuruma ebi, aka intense shrimp stock with all the flavour and none of the “prawniness”. And of course, the ebi – firm, meaty and topped with a dab of yuzu chilli paste.

It takes a while for the courses to come – and chef Eno can’t be more apologetic that she’s short of one assistant that night. But the chawanmushi that comes next comforts us. The quivering egg custard is reassuring, and the thick slices of tender Hokkaido abalone are a luxe touch, if not exceptional.

Chef Eno’s guiding principle, she says, is to cook what she herself likes to eat. But she doesn’t say it in a know-it-all manner. She has an almost apologetic air, the kind that says, “I spent a lot of time cooking something I really like, so I hope you like it too”.

Of course we do. A clear dashi of dried tuna rather than bonito flakes has more depth, and a bouncy Sazae dumpling is a pillowy ball of fish paste and chunks of topshell clam you want to hug and bite into at the same time. If you love Japanese clams, you’ve come to the right place. Slippery seaweed strands in the soup and shredded leeks add to your vegetable quota.

The hits keep coming – slowly, but surely.

A raw-seared sashimi trio of esaki, nodokuro and aji offer varying degrees of translucence and silken tenderness. Anago is done two ways – grilled with salt and with a slick of teriyaki sauce. The salt is better, followed closely by the non-cloying sweet-soy glaze.

Then there is somen – a luscious tangle of noodles in an ice bath of dried shiitake-infused dashi, amped up with udon soup made from a mother broth that’s been nurtured for months. Crunchy-tender pieces of Shitobaigai – another variety of clam – and shaved sudachi ice that melts into the broth for a citrusy tang, complete this noodle wonderland.

A large fillet of kinmedai is quickly turned into a still art of identical thin slices awaiting a quick dunk into a steaming pot of dashi, emerging with shredded leeks and vegetables as a simple shabu shabu. To cleanse the palate before the final rice dish, tofu is whipped with mirin into a mildly sweet paste and paired with crisp, candy-sweet grapes.

And finally – a choice of beef sukiyaki or tai (sea bream) ochasuke – ends off on a comforting, if not a high, note. But there’s still room for a delicate soy bean custard not unlike tau hway, lightly sweetened with frozen pomelo segments on top.

The charms of Ichigo Ichie come not just from the food – which is meticulous and well-executed and appeals to the heart rather than the intellect – but also from the humble, sincere and sheer hardworking demeanour of chef Eno. It’s time for her to move from a weekly pop up to a permanent space. Here’s hoping this culinary Cinderella finds her Prince Charming soon – an investor who can make her dream a permanent one.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Jaime Ee/BT