Japanese restaurants are synonymous with injecting craftsmanship and precision into the art of dining.
Whether it’s to hunt for special ingredients from Japan, painstakingly source for unique tableware and authentic décor, every element in these three Japanese restaurants has a story to tell.
1. Chef Hirofumi ‘Hiro’ Imamura, Imamura
Chef Hirofumi ‘Hiro’ Imamura (main photo) teamed up with Japan-based hospitality group GHS Inc. to open his first eponymous restaurant on the grounds of Amara Sanctuary Resort Sentosa in early 2022. The small restaurant is located in a standalone building, once home to a colonial-era chapel. “My first impression of the venue is that it’s similar to a place in Kyoto prefecture. When approaching the restaurant entrance, you walk through a small road that’s surrounded by nature,” he says.
Chef Imamura has over 20 years culinary experience in sushi and kaiseki preparations. He’s worked in different countries including Macau, Las Vegas, New York and Tokyo, and earned his Michelin star during his time at the now-defunct restaurant Kazuo Okada in Hong Kong. The chef is not just meticulous about preparing the dishes, he’s fastidious right down to the temperature and different components of each ingredient. “I love science and chemistry right to the exact degree. But what’s very important is consistency.”
5 is his magic number
His ‘Philosophy of Five’ is based on the ancient Japanese culinary principle of ‘Gomi, Goshiki, Gohou’ (five flavours, five colours and five cooking methods). Everything is harmonious just like a symphony. The dining experience here is meant to engage all five senses.
For instance, he serves five kinds of turnip, and uses five different cooking approaches for this vegetable. “The baby turnip is deep-fried, purple turnip is grated, regular turnip is stewed, red turnip is raw, and big turnip is made into a sauce,” he says. The turnips are served with prawns from Kumamoto, and seasoned with sea salt from the Kumamoto prefecture too.
The chef procures 50 types of salts from Japan. “The salts come from Hokkaido, Honshu, Shikoku, Kyushu, and Okinawa – all these areas have different temperatures, different bacteria in the ocean, different minerals and different taste in the salt. I will match my dishes with salts from the respective regions,” he explains.
For his sophisticated 10-course omakase menu, Imamura incorporates premium, sustainably sourced seasonal ingredients; 90 to 95 percent are imported from Japan, and the rest sourced from Europe. “If there’s good quality vegetables locally, I would like to source from nearby – it’s better for the environment and more sustainable,” he says. For the wagyu, the chef works with an exclusive farmer in Mizusako Farm, Kagoshima. “We use only female cows as their bones are smaller and meat more tender. The cows listen to classical music and drink beer,” he elaborates.
Beyond that, every detail matters here, including the hand-crafted tableware as well as the antique bowls and glasses. There’s even a range of chopsticks in various wood, length, and shape for diners to select. “I love to think. I’m always thinking. But I want people to understand our passion and story,” he adds.
Find out more: Imamura
2. Chef Kenjiro Hashida, Hashida Singapore
Chef Kenjiro Hashida’s culinary principle is simple. “Sushi is so much more than just ‘raw fish on rice’, he says, adding that it is functional and edible art. “Authentic sushi is a subtle balance of texture, colour and taste. A good balance gives it flavourful character and depth. All this to counter the minimalist yet vibrant simplicity in presentation. To achieve this, excellent craftsmanship and precision is very essential,” he shares.
The chef continues to thrive in Singapore’s dining scene over the years since he first launched his restaurant here in 2013.
During a chance encounter at Hirsinger, a chocolate shop in Tokyo, the chef learnt that the current chocolatier has a very famous chocolate recipe that was passed down to him from his great-grandfather, and till today, he still makes chocolates following that recipe.
Yet, he also introduces his own creations. “This makes me realise that there is more than just adhering to making things according to family recipes; it is also about the connection to previous generations. Therefore, when I ventured to Singapore and opened my own restaurant, I decided to keep the Hashida name. In addition, the shari (rice) and pickled ginger are made using my family recipe, together with the showmanship of carving the otoro in front of the customers which are passed down from my father to me,” shares Hashida.
As for his current philosophy of ‘Shu Ha Ri’, he explains that the Shu part is about preserving tradition. “Without this stage, I could not have moved forward into the next two stages of Ha (innovate) and Ri (transcend).”
Continuation of craftsmanship: the rebirth of Hashida Tokyo
In May 2022, the chef launched Hashida Tokyo – a lifelong dream of his. “To realise the rebirth of Hashida Tokyo is definitely a defining moment in my life,” he says.
“I opened Hashida Tokyo at the same location where my family had the former restaurant, Hashida Sushi Tokyo for over 55 years. It took us six years to tear down the former restaurant and build up the new one.”
The new Hashida Tokyo comprises three storeys and each floor has a distinct character and ambience. “There is so much to learn about our culture and history and I want my customers to always feel intrigued each time when they come. To me, the new Hashida Tokyo represents a cross-over of generations, techniques, philosophies and directions.”
Meanwhile, the chef is always on an unceasing quest to deliver outstanding omakase meals. He constantly scours for the best ingredients in Japan. The chef is also highly interested in by-products, and sake lees is one of them. “I have been using them to create sauces to enhance my dishes. I recently received some sake kasu (lees) from Nagai Sake Brewery in Gunma. It is a dessert sake lees so it is not the same as the regular sake lees, and I am going to make a new sauce with it. I am certain the flavour will enhance the dishes.”
Aside from this, the chef also learned about the Japanese way of ageing pork. “Even though I don’t use or cook pork in my restaurant, as a chef I want to gain an insight and knowledge of such a significant cooking process.”
Find out more: Hashida Singapore
3. Suguru Ishida, Yakiniquest
Suguru Ishida and his wife, Tomoko, relocated their restaurant Yakiniquest from Boat Quay to Mandarin Gallery in early 2022. The omakase menu features only premium grades of Japanese wagyu beef, planned and designed by Ishida himself. He’s a self-taught yakiniku expert whose experience is the culmination of his visits to over 2,000 yakiniku restaurants in Japan over the span of 15 years.
“I believe we are the first yakiniku restaurant in Singapore serving omakase-style yakiniku. And the grilling is done by skilled staff,” says the founder-owner who constantly checks his team’s grilling techniques to ensure consistent quality.
There is a huge difference between eight years ago and now when they first opened in Singapore. “I remember some guests used to request chilli sauce or mayonnaise even before they taste our beef. Or they only wished to order what they want to eat even though our menu states ‘omakase’.” He adds that these days, guests are more used to Yakiniquest’s unique omakase style menu.
Signatures offered here include niku somen (beef noodles), thick cut wagyu tongue, aburi sushi, and yakisuki (sukiyaki-style yakiniku). New items offered at Mandarin Gallery include beef tail soup chawanmushi, and grilled beef with mixed spices.
The craftsmanship of wagyu omakase
The passionate restaurateur elaborates that every part of the cattle has its own unique taste and texture. “We recently updated our omakase menus to feature choice selections of wagyu beef parts through multiple courses, which will be served to guests in a sequence designed to maximise the characteristics of each cut,” says Ishida.
Many people think that procuring high quality beef is the most important thing for a yakiniku restaurant. “But to me it’s just the beginning. Having the knowledge of how to handle, cut, and marinate each cut with right seasoning, and, of course, how to grill make a whole lot of difference in the taste,” he shares.
He continues, “We use wagyu mostly from Miyazaki, sometimes from Kagoshima and other prefectures. But honestly how you handle the beef is equally, or perhaps more important than, which beef you get. If it’s Kobe or Matsusaka, it’s a different story but the price could be doubled, which I do not wish to charge.”
With travel borders opening up, Ishida and Tomoko plan to continue their quest to dine around Japan, and also offer the best yakiniku experience here in Singapore.
Find out more: Yakiniquest