If there’s one thing the pandemic has done to us, it’s made us all exceedingly hungry. We’re like Pacmen with wallets – chomping our way through restaurants as fast as they can open; gobbling up reservations as if we only have a few months left to chew. It’s worse when Japanese restaurants come into the equation. With every second person suffering acute I-miss-Tokyo-itis, you have a higher chance of reaching JLPT N5 proficiency than scoring your sought-after sushiya reservation.
To think that Masaaki Sakashita was worried he wouldn’t be able to get back into the sushi game after Covid-19 sent his plans for a new eatery spinning into limbo-land. Now, less than two weeks after finally opening, he’s fending off sushi zombies who’ve eaten nigiri all over town and are jostling to try his.
They have good reason to. Sushi Masaaki may be new in town, but the chef himself is not. You would remember him from Sushi Ishi at the Intercontinental Quayside – the affable Kyoto native who knew how to stretch your tuna dollar, fleshing out your S$120 to S$180 set menu with a clever mix of medium to high quality ingredients.
He’s lifted his game at his namesake restaurant, doing away with chirashi sushi and wagyu bowls and going the upscale, course-only route, starting from S$120 to S$250 for lunch and S$280 to S$380 for dinner. A portion of which no doubt goes to paying for his impressive one-piece hinoki counter, and the pretty-in-pink wallpaper with painted cranes at the reception area.
Even so, he’s kept pricing below eye-watering level, giving you good value for what you pay, delivered with his engaging, hospitable manner that makes the whole experience worth the expense.
He certainly knows how to make a good first impression, with a starter of snow crab and roe in a dashi vinegar jelly. At its best, this classic winter combo would feature rich creamy flesh that’s countered with cool acidity of vinegar jelly. The version we get is from frozen rather than freshly picked flesh, but it’s still acceptable for what it is. For good measure, the chef brings out his pets – male and female snow crabs matsubagani and seikogani that are still alive, and probably destined for a premium omakase, not us.
Both the S$180 and S$250 lunch sets have similar starters and sushi, but with some fancy add-ons for the more expensive set. For both, the crab is followed up by a shallow chawanmushi with a delicate brininess from hamaguri (clam) broth instead of the usual dashi, topped with a blob of bafun uni.
The chef keeps up the banter with an entertaining narrative about his ingredients such as unagi that he says are fleshy and oilier after the summer. And as proof, he hands us fat grilled eel glistening with oil wrapped in nori.
An elaborate sashimi platter is composed of kinki fish slices lightly blanched, shabu-shabu style, botan ebi, fleshy chutoro and kue (grouper) bathed in a fruity irizake plum sauce.
A bowl of large cooked abalones beckon, and if you spring for the S$250 set, you get two wide, thin slices with a knob of liver on top. The abalone is deliberately sliced thin for better flavour and bite, so he says.
A highlight is his sushi rice, which he describes as “opposite aldente” meaning it’s firm on the outside and soft on the inside. So the initial bite is almost hard but softens into a chewy sweetness that’s seasoned just right and topped with an array of fish cuts prepared in interesting ways. Hirame, for example, is topped with an extra tiny piece of fin or engawa for a crunchy bite. Ika is sliced very thin and then minced, so it’s easier to chew and you get the sweetness of the squid. Akami, too, gets a lift with yuzu, and smoked sawara gets a strong sharp bite from crunchy mustard seeds. The fish itself is not stellar in quality but it’s what the chef does with it that maximises each bite.
Other perks from the S$250 set include steamed nodoguro with grated white turnip, and an elaborate ‘three layer’ bafun uni on rice that’s sweet and creamy, although the caviar on top is more distracting than luxe. And to end off both sets is an intriguing hand roll of ankimo mixed with rice, pickles and miso for a funky, salty and fun last bite.
Chef Masaaki is clearly at home in his own space, and with his inventive formula of technique and creativity, this is a reservation probably worth waiting for.
#B1-17, South Beach, 26 Beach Road
This article was originally published in The Business Times.