YOUR PLANNED TRIPS to Japan have been cancelled and even getting a full refund doesn’t make you any happier. Yes, you wish you could be in Tokyo now, basking in the bright lights of Ginza or dashing across the famous crosswalk of Shibuya. But going by the number of Japanese restaurants in Singapore that have thrown open their doors since Phase 2 began, there are enough sushi and izakaya chefs around determined to bring their country to you instead.
The much anticipated reopening of Esora, for one, took place last week on July 10 with the return of head chef Shigeru Koizumi, while ex-Shoukouwa head chef Yoshio Sakuta moved to the Orchard Road district to helm the new Sushi Kou at the Holiday Inn Singapore, serving only omakase priced from S$350 minimum. While there are several more still in the works, there are at least three eateries that you can now add to your must-try list.
SUSHI KENJI #06-03 Cuppage Plaza, 5 Koek Road. Tel: 9012 3151
Kenji Nakagawa came to Singapore in 2013 to be part of Kenjiro ‘Hatch’ Hashida’s opening team when the latter made his debut with his eponymous sushi restaurant at the Mandarin Gallery. Pals since their days in culinary school in Japan, Chef Nakagawa left Hashida in 2017 to join Sushi Jiro at the former Marina Mandarin hotel, but is now the proud chef-owner of his tiny solo venture Sushi Kenji.
At the tiny eight-seater (more like five or six seater because of social distancing measures), he serves affordably-priced omakase at S$88 and S$128 mainly for dinner (lunch is by appointment only). It’s a deliberate decision to go with this price point, so “I can look for great quality but not items that are too premium priced”, says Chef Nakagawa. He explains that his decision to strike out on his own was a case of “timing and opportunity to take over this ready-to-operate former sushi restaurant”. He didn’t have to do any renovation as it’s a small set up and already done up, he adds. “It’s an ideal space and the right pace for me to venture out on my own.” The 40-year-old bachelor does not have any partners.
Since he only offers omakase, his menu is dependent largely on what’s in season. The focus is on sushi, but he offers some small cooked dishes as part of the set. That would include the now-in-season nodoguro or black throat perch, served grilled to enhance the rich, creamy flesh. While seasonality is his guide, he will still tailor his menu according to request. With a strong local following along with some Japanese guests, it looks like this affable chef made the right choice to run his own show.
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NISHIKANE #01-01, 10 Stanley Street. Tel: 9117 6264
Japanese craftsmen are known to pass down their skills through the generations and it’s no different when it comes to restaurant chefs. Nobuhiro Nishi’s chef lineage can be traced back six generations through his family-owned restaurant Nishikane in Japan, and it’s his culinary roots that he wants to showcase in his newly-opened restaurant in Stanley Street which bears the same name.
Of course, his career path has been different from his ancestors. He arrived in Singapore two-and-a-half years ago to work at Kappo Shunsui – a position that he found over the Internet when he was still based in Tokyo. He already had an impressive resume at the time, having been the second in command at the three Michelinstarred restaurant Ishikawa from 2010 to 2014, where he picked up everything from “cooking knowledge, kitchen management and the importance of service”. Adds Chef Nishi, “I owe my style of cooking to Chef Ishikawa as well as what I picked up from dining at other restaurants.
But a big part of my cooking comes from my roots and this is the kind of cooking I want to serve at my restaurant – Nishikane-style omakase using seasonal ingredients and serving the food in a high-end style.”
Partnering with a close friend of his, “running my own restaurant comes with bigger responsibilities but it’s more rewarding because I can do more things compared to before”.
The 18-seat restaurant boasts two signature dishes: Iced Somen, served in a real ice bowl, and ‘Nobu’s Imagination’ – “an abalone dish with additional special ingredients”. These are dishes you won’t find anywhere else, he promises. “Most of our dishes are special because I’m here,” he quips.
ARAKI #04-23 Orchard Plaza, 150 Orchard Road. (Opening in August/September)
Issey Araki and Nobuhiro Nishi were fleetingly colleagues when the former was the sous chef of Kappo Shunsui, before moving on to become head chef at KYUU by Shunsui and subsequently Shun X Sakemaru – all restaurants under the same owner, Stylez. The group’s owners were regular customers at the restaurant in Tokyo’s Azabujuban neighborhood where he was working, and invited him to some to Singapore to work three years ago – an opportunity he jumped at as he was already looking for overseas opportunities then.
But he reckons the time is right to venture out on his own and “pursue the style of cooking that I like”. Together with a Singapore partner, he is in the midst of renovating his new eponymous restaurant, which was delayed because of Covid-19.
“The renovation started just before Circuit Breaker so work stopped for two months.” The restaurant concept is “casual kappo, Japanese fusion and sushi, but focusing on simplicity,” explains Chef Araki. “Fish – fresh and aged – will be the main ingredients in my dishes. I will use a few ingredients from my hometown Amakusa in Kumamoto, but it won’t be the main focus.”
He expects his pricing to be around the S$200 mark for omakase, with some ala carte items. If he were to pick a signature dish, “I think it would be my special claypot.” And of course, with his unique touch, Araki will be a kappo to look out for.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.