Sushi Chiharu by Tamaya Dining
45A Cuppage Road
Tel: 9101 3407
Open for dinner daily: 6pm to 11.30pm

Cuppage Terrace is not Cuppage Plaza. They’re just steps apart, but somehow the grubbiness of Cuppage Plaza has more cult appeal. Japanese chefs who operate there have more gritty street cred, an authenticity that comes from word-of-mouth recommendation, insider knowledge and, most importantly, the patronage of Japanese people.

Cuppage Terrace, on the other hand, is just tacky. You smell dried pee and cigarette smoke in the air, co-mingling with food smells – Indian, Korean, Thai, you name it – depending on which eatery you’re standing in front of. It’s like beer garden central, with large open-air public seating for the myriad stalls that cater to that crowd, and the string of shophouse eateries vying to lure indecisive tourists or passers-by through their doors.

We gingerly squeeze through the cramped, dingy entrance to Sushi Chiharu on the extreme end of Cuppage Terrace. It looks more like a budget bento shop than an Edomae sushi restaurant. And it’s not as new as we think either, as it has been open for just over a year.

Venture a few steps further and a wooden slatted door slides open to reveal a proper sushi counter, complete with two chefs sharply dressed in shirts and ties under crisp white coats.

Sushi Chiharu is an offshoot of its namesake in Osaka, whose claim to fame is a spot in the Bib Gourmand section of the Michelin guide for three consecutive years.

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The Singapore link is Tamaya Dining, which accounts for the suffix in the name.

Helming the sushi counter are an unlikely duo – Issei Taba, who is all of 21 years old, and his counterpart Nakahara Saya, who is 28 and among the rare breed of female sushi chefs.

They lack polish and maturity – there are shy attempts at customer engagement by Chef Taba – and their presentation isn’t quite as slick as that of more established chefs, but they have strong core skills and impeccable manners in their favour.

We find out later that the pair are graduates of Insyokujin College in Japan, a well-known training academy for sushi chefs, and were hired by Sushi Chiharu in Osaka, which posts its chefs to its restaurants overseas if they’re good enough.

Chef Taba must have graduated at the top of his cohort to have been sent out when he’s barely out of his teens, but the Okinawa native acquits himself well, turning out decent, if not precise cuts of sashimi, sushi and cooked dishes.

The good thing is that the restaurant knows it can’t charge top dollar, so it caps its pricing at S$140 for an 18-course omakase. It sounds like a lot of food but isn’t, since a piece of sushi is considered one course, but at this price, there’s not a lot you can quibble about.

The price is something we have to keep reminding ourselves about as we start off with a rather mediocre hirame nambansuke – cold fried pieces of flounder marinated in a vinegar sauce – and an anaemic curl of grilled belt fish that’s tired and dry.

It has all the hallmarks of being prepared by a chef on a tight budget and wants to provide a nice, varied meal – but falls just short.

Slightly better is the grilled tuna cheek. It’s oily and almost meaty, but with not much flavour, which the chef overcompensates for by slapping a large dab of spicy citrusy yuzukosho on it. But the very sweet grilled Japanese tomato wedge on the side is delicious.

One bright spot is his kinmedai sashimi – two bouncy slices torched on top and eaten with either a bit of salt and lime juice (preferred) or shoyu. Chewy but palatable flounder sashimi round off the sashimi course.

A tiny bowl of chawanmushi that is more soup than egg custard hits the spot, even if the little bits of fish, crab and matsutake mushroom don’t excite.

We don’t understand why he starts the sushi with hot anago sushi (usually served towards the end), nor do we like the mushy-textured, steamed sea eel with an odd musty-metallic aftertaste, as if the eel swam a long distance to get here in a hurry and we’re tasting all the stress in its flesh.

The sumi ika or squid sushi gets an interesting twist from a sprinkle of squid-ink salt, and the seasonal Hokkaido clam is fresh, crunchy and sweet. It’s followed by a mixed bag of rich and creamy chutoro and otoro; so-so barracuda and salty sauce-coated scallop, ending with the same musty anago, masked a little with sweet sauce but not much better.

Check out Chef Taba’s spongy, airy tamago “cake” at the end, and a refreshing matcha “water jelly” in black sugar syrup. For his age, he shows clear promise. His polite demeanour and attitude shine, and Sushi Chiharu’s unpretentious ambience is a welcome respite from the cacophony outside.

It may not have the street cred of Cuppage Plaza, but who needs that when this place has enough to build its own identity?

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This article was originally published on The Business Times.

Photo: Sushi Chiharu