Accessible. That’s the word that keeps popping up all night at the media preview of the spanking new Wakuda – now occupying the cavernous space in Marina Bay Sands’ lobby – in speeches by chef Tetsuya Wakuda, John Kunkel of restaurant partner 50 Eggs Hospitality Group, and introductions from PR and wait staff.
Indeed, the theme of the night seems to be how one can finally get a taste of the Michelin-starred chef’s food, sans the wait and price tag involved in dining at the 10-seater chef’s table in two-star Waku Ghin (also in MBS), or the plane ride to Tetsuya’s Restaurant in Sydney.
Wakuda offers many more seats, and instead of a course menu, a smorgasbord of 90-odd Japanese dishes, spanning appetisers, sashimi, sushi, tempura, rice bowls, soba and dessert. Though the draft menus they hand out to media have no prices, expect to spend about $30-40 a dish, and $20 per cocktail. Another outpost will open in Las Vegas this year.
Make no mistake about it – Wakuda is just as pretty as its sisters. Designed by Rockwell Group, it takes cues from Waku Ghin’s atmospheric lighting, wood flourishes, and luxe seats, and does its own spin on the Japanese garden in Testuya’s with a large artificial maple tree beyond its glass windows. The interiors feature natural stone, brushed bronze and intricate kumiki, a Japanese wood joinery craft.
On stepping in, though, your attention is first drawn to the spacious main dining room, anchored at one end by an arch-backed bar groaning with bottles of amber nectar, and the other by a low marble counter, sans glass partition, where chefs perform finishing touches with laser concentration. You can get so close as to breathe on the food.
On days the joint is packed – which is likely to be often, with bookings almost full for April – there’s a buzziness not unlike an (upscale) izakaya. And that’s exactly what the restaurant wants: a “fun, vibrant” concept, appropriate for a hotel lobby, that’s easy to get in and out of, and serves tasty nibbles to share.
Expect the same treatment to Wakuda’s food as its interior: nearly equal to the chef’s other concepts, but slanted towards a premium mass market offering. Being a chef Tetsuya establishment, it features seasonal ingredients sourced from exclusive producers in Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe.
The kitchen, led by the chef and former Waku Ghin executive sous chef Sufian Zain, serves up generally faultless Japanese dishes bursting with fresh, quality ingredients, and some inventive combos, but nothing particularly avant garde.
The sushi is a delicious, safe pick, boasting well-seasoned shari (vinegared rice). The Hokkaido scallops are sweet and fat, the soft shell crab crisp and savoury, and the maki stuffed with juicy shiitake, meaty crab stick, and braised kanpyo (gourd).
The standout is the akami, which employs in-house curing to produce meat that’s silky and dense, melting away to leave behind pure, light flavours. For something a little more fun, the same tuna comes over a piece of bread with wasabi mayo, a smidge of briny caviar, and a branch of Okinawa umibudo (sea grapes).
For something to share, opt for the organic chicken – fatty, tender, deboned and fried wings – or the crisp shishito, grilled sweet peppers tossed in a salty, spicy mix of shichimi and fried bonito.
If you’re feeling fancy, there’s artisanal yuba (bean curd skin) from Kyoto with dashi gelee, mountain caviar and Hokkaido uni, served in a single cocktail glass.
For proteins, a pat of tarragon risotto sits atop a roasted carabinero prawn split in half, while saikyo yaki involves a thick slab of grilled patagonian toothfish, rendered alarmingly sweet after marinating in Kyoto miso.
If carbs are the order of the day, try Wakuda’s spin on truffle mushroom pasta: cold soba with black truffle, raw botan ebi, paper-thin slices of button mushroom, Oscietra caviar and chives. It’s more slimy than creamy, but the familiar flavours work.
Also a Japanese spin on a familiar Western favourite is the house special: miso soft serve (chef Tetsuya’s favourite pick), a riff on salted caramel ice cream. It comes with an extra lemak dimension from the addition of coconut. Traditionalists will like the green tea and azuki terrine, which features a thick, appropriately bitter matcha mousse studded with red beans.
Though known for his love of sake, chef Tetsuya takes a backseat at the bar, leaving the mixology to 50 Eggs. Among the cocktails on offer are Japanese-themed creations like Stone, Water, Plants (Roku Gin, cucumber shiso, green tea, cucumber tonic), Lady from Shizuoka (Roku Gin, strawberry sake, sakura liqueur, frozen strawberry lollipop), and Yuzu Garden, (Haku Vodka, St. Germain, yuzu). Sake is available, of course: over 100 picks, including rare, small batch options brewed especially for the chef.
An accessible place
Maybe its possible that the popularity of Waku Ghin’s small-ish bar, which offers the same quality grub as its restaurant, might have been a testing ground for Wakuda’s concept. Certainly, the bar menu and price point looks like it could work for both places, and on its opening last year, chef Tetsuya said: “You can come to the bar, have a cocktail, have some snacks or one or two dishes. It’s much more approachable.”
Approachable (read: affordable) is the name of the game at Wakuda, and it’s a clever one too, slashing the entry point for Tetsuya Wakuda food down to five times less than the tasting menu, and leaving the quantity up to the diner.
In case you miss the omakase, a private room in Wakuda is in the works, but for the most part the crowds here are not seeking a life-changing, Michelin-star meal – just a swish place to delight in quality, elevated Japanese classics, and bring along the entire gang – friends, family, business contacts – for a bottom line that won’t bust the budget.
Reserve here or call 6688 9992.
(Related: A Day in the Life of Tetsuya Wakuda)