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At Koma, dinner theatre is served

The mod-Japanese restaurant at Marina Bay Sands serves up a visual feast.

KOMA Singapore

#B1-67,Marina Bay Sands
2 Bayfront Ave
Singapore 018972
Tel: 6688 8690
Open daily from 5pm to 12am

We’re listening out for the gong. They should have a gong. Something dramatic to accompany our walk down a darkened walkway lined with enough Torii gates to make a Japanese temple jealous. We’re so wowed by this brazen onslaught of faux Shinto-ism, we need a gong to complete the imagery. A low hypnotic, Zen-inducing bongggg – summoning us to prayer at this temple of va-va-voom.

But there is no bonggg to announce our entry into the modern Japanese eatery KOMA – which translates into cultural appropriation of Las Vegas-eque proportions. There is only a large bell. One that makes no sound, but leers at you from its multiple eerie faces trying to press their way out of the bronze mould. The kind that would creep you out if you get locked in here alone after closing hours.

There is the bell, a real red bridge you can walk across, “floating” paper lanterns and a dining room so big you could fit an orchestra where its sushi bar is. No wonder – KOMA was carved out of the original Sands theatre, which is now smaller and has Aladdin grinning from the marquee a couple of doors away.

No surprise then, that KOMA is a co-production of Marina Bay Sands and American nightclub impresarios, the Tao Group. Devotees of the god of kitsch, they invite you to get off your minimalist high horse and immerse yourself in this visually stunning piece of dinner theatre.

No surprise, either, that while they are big at over-the-top concepts, they lose steam when it comes to the food.

It’s modern Japanese, which means just about anything goes so long as you pepper the menu with words such as maki, sushi, tempura and robata-yaki in all the right places. So you basically take your definitions of authentic Japanese cooking and lower your expectations a couple of notches.

(RELATED: How chef Shigeru Koizumi of restaurant Esora is pushing the boundaries of Japanese cuisine)

  • KOMA

    Dramatic Japanese torii gates - a Shinto transition from the mundane to the sacred - greet diners at KOMA.

We rather like the Salmon Pillows (S$14) though. Crisp pastry shells filled with creamy guacamole burst into satisfying crunchy-squishy mouthfuls, topped with smooth slippery raw salmon. And we can almost understand the ahi tuna pizza (S$24) of thinly sliced maguro layered over a sheet of tortilla skin and decorated with squiggles of avocado cream, spicy jalapeno, leaves and puffed crispy bits. Why the chirashi maki (S$36) also has to be wrapped in tortilla in denial of its heritage, we don’t know.

Robata-yaki is a quick way to escalate your bill, with a single lamb chop priced at S$20 and Hokkaido scallop at S$24. We hedge our bets and pick a S$9 chicken thigh, the lamb chop and unagi at S$15. For a grand total of S$44 we get a mixed grill of decent chicken, sticky sweet eel and a gamey lamb chop left to marinade so long it borders on funky.

While we usually enjoy charcoal-grilled yellowtail cheek (S$36), this particular specimen must have been on a a low-fat diet. Combined with an extended time in the coals, picking out the moist bits from the dry is a tricky challenge.

On the other hand, we quite enjoy the wok hei we can discern from the wild mushroom fried rice (S$25). It makes good use of bouncy Japanese shortgrain rice that is coloured grey by the mushrooms but tastes better than it looks. It’s topped with large pieces of nicely grilled maitake and king oyster mushrooms, which are wasted because someone in the kitchen forgot to season them.

We wonder if someone also lost the salt shaker in the kitchen when our spicy tofu hotpot (one of the cheapest “mains” on the menu at S$25) arrives attractively bubbling and steaming but with neither spice nor seasoning.

We brace ourselves for dessert, although we’re won over by our earnest server’s recommendation of jumbo sesame profiterole (S$18) that’s packed with white sesame ice cream and drizzled with chocolate sauce. We know it would hurt him to know that the choux pastry tastes like chipboard ripped from a false ceiling, so when he asks, we merely nod and mumble “very nice”. We badly want to like it – we understand that they want exclusivity, but would it really hurt to just get a bulk order from Beard Papa?

In contrast, we’re bowled over by the Bonsai (S$17) – an achingly cute rendition of a potted plant with torn matcha sponge cake acting as the bonsai, with chocolate trunk and ice cream, and a super-realistic pot that’s actually edible. For some reason we become irrationally emotional at the dessert chef’s uncanny skill at replicating the exact shade of cheap plastic terracotta pots that the plants we buy at the nursery come in. We love it.

For this reason, we would give KOMA some time to get its food act together. It’s so rare in Singapore to have the kind of space to create such a visually entertaining dining theatre that we want to come back. Just make the food better, and maybe add some sound effects too.

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This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: KOMA Singapore