He may come from a multigenerational family of chefs, but Fukui-born Nobuhiro Nishi doesn’t fit the bill of stern, tradition-bound, cut-your-fingertips-off-if-you-slice-a-radish-wrong type of culinary craftsman. With a playful demeanour and floppy dyed hair, he’s got the air of a Japanese game show host with his good-natured quips and jokes – even if he understands some of them more than we do.
But he’s clearly king of his court at Nishikane, a sleek modern setup complete with dark granite and selective lighting. All the action takes place in the large open kitchen, with a dining counter between you and Chef Nishi’s team. All the hot cooking is done behind a clear partition, by chefs silhouetted against a backlit shoji screen. For an extra sense of place, Studio Ghibli music plays softly in the background.
Now that Chef Nishi’s got you in the groove, the show begins, for which the price of a ticket is a choice between S$220 and S$320. It appears that the cheaper set doesn’t include sushi, so we decide to put our money on the full performance.
While Chef Nishi looks pretty chill, his actions say otherwise. Especially when he literally plucks one appetiser back from under our nose when he notices his apprentice hasn’t plated it to his standards. He painstakingly reworks it and gives it back – a cube of braised wagyu and wintermelon, both braised to the same melt-in-the-mouth texture, topped with a dollop of clean, creamy uni. It’s a mild-mannered sidekick to the livelier marinated aji – slices of smooth horse mackerel in a vinegary seaweed sauce garnished with a spear of pickled ginger flower and glittery gold leaf.
A hot bowl of dashi holds a smooth fillet of cod-like greenling, lurking underneath finely julienned vegetables tangled in a swirl of orange and green that still hold their crunch. The soup itself lacks purity and clarity but makes up for it with a stronger flavour that appeals more to local palates.
The ubiquitous sashimi platter is about par for the price point, so you get Ishigakigai, a live clam that Chef Nishi slams onto his wooden board to make it curl into submission. Violence aside, it’s a deliciously crunchy critter. There’s also a smooth-textured piece of menuke or rockfish that might be the kinmedai’s second cousin, and the usual chutoro and akami.
The sushi course is more memorable partly for the performance of Chef Nishi’s sushi chef – chosen possibly for his matching theatrical antics. He doles out marinated tuna and sardine sushi with dramatic flourish, hamming it up with piercing eyes and dancing manicured eyebrows that would make a wayang performer flick his robes in jealousy. Oh, the sushi isn’t too bad either.
Sushi guy’s act includes searing fatty otoro sushi under blistering hot burning charcoal until the fat sizzles and splats with satisfying sound effects; and moulding a mixture of minced tuna and pickles over rice, topping it with caviar and wrapping it in nori before beckoning you to take it off his hand. Unfortunately, his cameo ends before we know it. We think sushi guy should get his own show.
The follow up is a magic trick of sorts – a tray of stones, among which sit some edible ones, namely a couple of deep fried charcoal batter-coated fish cake that’s stuffed with scallop. A nice idea, but underseasoned and generally underwhelming.
But, it paves the way for Chef Nishi’s next two signature dishes.
First up, he brings out two giant ice cubes with a dug out crevice in the middle. You’re not sure if he’s going to make you a giant cocktail or shave you a kakigori then and there, but then he fills the crevice with dipping sauce and cold somen, topped with slippery ladies fingers and shredded egg. Chewy, slurpy goodness. The second is a composition of thick wedges of chewy tender abalone, shrimp and uni, a combination that can’t go wrong.
Since you can’t have an omakase without some fancy wagyu, you get thick slices of A5 Omi wagyu grilled and layered with slow-cooked eggplant and drizzled over with ponzu sauce to lift the richness of the meat. It’s nice enough on its own, but no fireworks here. The same with the finale of claypot crab rice – picture perfect hairy crab shell perched atop finely shelled meat and sweetcorn studded rice. Chef Nishi grabs a little Gucci bag which reveals plump Australian black truffles that he proceeds to shave furiously over the rice, akin to an impresario strumming flamenco on a miniature ukelele. It looks luscious for sure, but the rice lacks bite, and the flavour lacks the umami of crab.
Dessert is fun, since we’ve never seen a whole dessert tray in a Japanese restaurant, much less had an invitation to sample everything on it. It’s a pretty display of little pastries and ice cream, decorated with paper umbrellas and origami cranes. The best is the monaka, crispy wafer sandwiched with sea salt ice cream – really good grainy, milky ice cream with hints of salt. Next best is a parfait glass of clear jelly and pear cubes with a single Shine muscat grape. Little cheescake cubes are creamy sweet, while the banana bread tastes of banana first and cake second. But it’s a commendable effort by Chef Nishi’s young hardworking apprentice who made everything, and whom the chef clearly gives credit to.
It’s not a cheap meal at Nishikane, but he makes sure you get full value for your money. While we would expect more in terms of polish, technique and finesse, we can appreciate how Chef Nishi isn’t about slavishly pursuing authenticity but crafting his own identity. We’ve seen the first act, let’s see what follows next.
10 Stanley Street, #01-01
Tel: 9117 6264
Open for dinner only Mon to Sat: 6pm to 10.30pm. Closed on Sun.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.