Little Tokyo

The toughest restaurant to get into in Singapore is not a particular sushi bar, Michelin-starred restaurant, Mustard Seed or some Nonya private kitchen that claims a two-year waitlist. It is Bistrot Etroit, a nondescript seven-seater eatery run by a notoriously temperamental Japanese chef who seems to be better known for rubbing his customers the wrong way than for his French omakase which he single-handedly prepares from scratch, right down to his signature homemade brioche.

Attitude or no, a seat at this bistro is next to impossible to come by, with no lack of diners in pursuit of bragging rights and a few extra likes on Instagram. The lucky few will find Etroit in an unlikely location – the street level of the ageing Orchard Plaza, which has been steadily accumulating an eclectic collection of Japanese speakeasies, wine bars and crammed eateries with a grungy, edgy vibe, built on a cast of colourful characters and equally vibrant food and drink.

The return of Little Tokyo

In just the past year or so, no fewer than seven – and counting – cramped, no-frills Japanese food and beverage (F&B) concepts have popped up among the street-facing shops of Orchard Plaza, imperceptible behind barely-there signage you have to scrutinise if you don’t want to walk into a KTV lounge by mistake. They form a gloomy warren in the barely lit, outdoor annexe of the 40-something-year-old shopping centre still showing some signs of a seedy past, but which mainly looks old and stuck in the era of its heyday.

But flanking what looks like a giant plastic tented Korean pocha (but with Chinese lettering) hogging the walkway, these tiny doors open up into a whole new experience of intimate counter-style dining and watering holes.

There is Apollon – a sake bar that pulls fresh sake from kegs, with a wall of whisky bottles that pushes in to reveal the connecting AmBar which specialises in aged sake. Next door to Bistrot Etroit is Fukuda, a yakitori shop. On the other side is Kakiin Oyster Bar, helmed by yet another geniality-challenged Japanese chef who shucks the freshest oysters and serves short-order izakaya bites. A couple of doors down is a natural wine bar, Mezame!. Around the corner from that is the fusion Bistro Du Le Pin, a new offshoot of its original second-floor eatery, and the Spanish Ao Ringo on the other side of the building facing Hotel Grand Central.

But while the latest activity has been on street level, scattered within the building itself are even more – Araki, Piu-M and Al Solito being among the more recent and established entrants.

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The vibe of yokocho food street

Orchard and Cuppage plazas used to be a magnet for Japanese expatriates, be it the lower rentals or off-radar location that drew entrepreneurial Japanese chefs to open late night ramen shops or booze-centric izakayas with Japanese-only menus. That scene largely dwindled as more expatriates returned home, leaving a large captive market of Japan-starved Singaporeans for these chefs to tap.

While Bistrot Etroit’s infamous chef Doi declined an interview, his Singaporean partner Leng Hoe Lon – a veteran banker by profession – says that the idea was to open “a quirky small French restaurant”, preferably with a street-level entrance, and Orchard Plaza fit the bill better than Cuppage Plaza which is more enclosed.

It may look like a motley collection of F&B operators gathering by coincidence, but there is method to the growth of this new enclave, says Mr Leng, who was offered the Bistrot Etroit opportunity by Sunrise Japan Holdings, a low-profile investment company which has restaurants around South-east Asia including Singapore, as well as beauty salons. The Singapore office did not respond to queries, but Mr Leng explains that Sunrise is behind the bulk of the street-level eateries including Fukuda, Ao Ringo, Apollon and Kakiin, and a new Chinese-Japanese diner is opening soon.

The idea is to style Orchard Plaza as a Tokyo yokocho – highly popular, colourful and bustling alleys in districts such as Shinjuku, Shibuya and Ebisu, filled with bars and izakayas and an element of grittiness.

A throwback to Tokyo of the 1950s when yokocho were the norm, the retro-inspired, rowdy and tight alleys are only for adventurous tourists and locals looking to drink, eat and let their hair down.

While the Singapore version isn’t quite that raucous, the enclave has spawned creativity and camaraderie among the chefs of the enclave, with friendly cooking competitiveness and borrowing of equipment and ice being the norm.

Growth potential

Mr Leng used to be a regular at the original Bistro Du Le Pin on the second floor, so he was already familiar with the area when a mutual friend introduced him to Sunrise.

“Having been in banking for 20 to 30 years, I thought it would be an interesting investment,” he says. “The attraction wasn’t Orchard Plaza but a small unique place that didn’t cost a lot of money and that I could be involved in.”

In fact, he is so bullish on the area that he subsequently opened a separate venture, Mezame! – Japanese for “awakening” which was inspired by a Japanese wine manga that he’s a fan of. “A foot reflexology shop wanted to close down, and because of Covid the rent was about 30 to 40 per cent lower (than the market rate), and I thought about opening a nice small restaurant with a wine cellar.”

He’s proud that it’s run by two young Singaporeans – one an ex-Prego and Les Amis pastry chef and the other his best friend who manages the business.

The dingy environment is what adds to the appeal, and Mr Leng feels that there’s a lot of potential to grow as a Japanese enclave in the same way that, say, Tanjong Pagar has become known for Korean restaurants. “(Orchard Plaza) used to be about ramen for night owls but now, with more specialised eateries, we’ve seen the clientele changing in the past year. For people who are not familiar with the area, being on the street level makes it less daunting for them.”

He sees the place growing from the outside in, with Sunrise planning to open more eateries as spaces open up for rent, and as other operators come into the picture and move inward into the mall itself.

“Right now, we are dealing without tourists. My speculation is that when they come back, it’ll be even more popular. I see exponential growth in this area because rental is still cheap and it’s within walking distance of ‘proper’ places.” He reckons it also has more upside than Cuppage Plaza because of the unique street vibe.

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Platform for chefs and new concepts

For Daisuke Tohyama, director/sake master of Apollon/AmBar, the street-level concept was also what attracted him to open a new outlet after the success of his MOBOMOGA sake bar/izakaya in River Valley. Most of his customers are now local, with “about 20 per cent Japanese and the rest locals and non-Japanese foreigners”, he says. “I used to work in Cuppage Plaza and knew a lot of the customers there, and I think they will like a Japanese side street atmosphere because it’s like the yokocho which is very popular.”

The bow-tied, fedora-wearing Mr Tohyama himself lends authentic Tokyo appeal to his bar, and stands out for serving Apollon nama-shu, which is different from regular fresh sake because “it is bottled directly from the brewery’s tanks,” he explains. “Because it is always in a vacuum, it is less likely to deteriorate than a regular sake bottle and stays fresh longer. So this allows us to offer something that can usually only be tasted in a sake brewery.”

Within Apollon is another speakeasy AmBar, which serves aged sake as old as 42 years, “so customers can taste the contrast between aged sake and very fresh sake.”

On the other end of the spectrum is the 300 sq ft Mezame! – where chef Manfred Liew and partner Dannon Hong are the rare non-Japanese in the enclave, making their professional debut serving pesticide- and chemical-free natural wines from around the world with a matching menu devised by chef Liew.

Homemade foie gras terrine and Taiwanese lu rou fan are just some of the disparate dishes “created from the heart” by the former pastry chef and ex-cabin crew who started a home-based business selling cakes during Covid and got to know their investor Mr Leng when he became a regular customer. Together with his best friend Dannon Hong – a former financial planner – they were looking for a space to open a high tea cafe when Mr Leng offered them the Mezame! unit.

“The ambience at Orchard Plaza is more edgy and unique, and the vibe changes with each new restaurant opening,” says Mr Hong. “The surroundings may not be that glamourous but once you go into the restaurants, it’s a whole new world.”

On the experience of working in a Japanese enclave, Mr Hong says: “We have customers who come in and immediately speak Japanese to us, and there was even a social-distancing ambassador who spoke solely in Japanese.”

But most of all, “the Japanese chefs have shown us great hospitality and our Japanese customer base has been very accepting of us too”.

The attraction for Japanese chefs

On the fourth floor of the mall, looking almost like a scene from Midnight Diner, chef Jun Matsubara and his wife Masako tend to guests in Piu-M – a simple, Japanese-Italian eatery with just two tables, serving a comforting menu of pasta, croquettes, antipasti and stews.

Chef Matsubara opened last February before attention turned to the first floor, and it was more a question of timing and availability than anything else.

“There are many old Japanese restaurants in Cuppage Plaza which is why I wanted to open a new concept in Orchard,” he says, adding that “Piu” is Italian for “plus” and “M” is a nod to his and his wife’s name. While he’s an independent owner who’s not connected to the restaurants downstairs, “we are all friends” and he’s also done collaborations with some of them as well.

Besides the ease of starting a small business like his, he naturally gravitated towards this location because “Japanese people have liked this area for a long time for the convenience of transportation, housing and the stores.”

Of course, the lower rental is the main attraction, says Issei Araki of his namesake venture on the second floor, which has been fully booked every day since he opened after last year’s circuit breaker. “Like the saying goes, ‘old is gold’,” he adds, of wanting to open in Orchard Plaza. “I wanted it to be a secret hideout where I can focus on creating special dishes and my diners can also have privacy. We’re like a huge family here, with everyone looking out for each other. Sometimes I even help to order special ingredients for the other restaurants. It’s a good sign that more Japanese restaurants are opening; it brings more crowd exposure to Orchard Plaza.”

A changing customer profile has also seen some older restaurants in Orchard Plaza change concept, including the popular Italian bar restaurant Al Solito on the third floor which started out as a karaoke lounge four years ago.

Manager Hiromi Ono, who joined when it became Al Solito, says the atmosphere at Orchard Plaza was more distinctively yokocho previously because it was “more retro and weird last time” when there were more karaoke bars around. “There are more fancy and stylish shops now”.

Still, it has a regular clientele who come for its Italian-style izakaya served with wine and Japanese highballs, lemon chu-hi – a shochu and soda concoction with a whole lemon- and sake from her hometown of Niigata.

Ms Ono says that their customers were 90 per cent Japanese before Covid-19, and the balance has since shifted towards a 50-50 ratio of Japanese and Singaporeans.

A hit with locals

Nicholas Ng, business development manager of the Ah Yat restaurant group, has been a regular at Bistro Du Le Pin and is a big fan of the enclave whose edginess reminds him of Golden Gai, a yokocho in Shinjuku, in the red light district of Kabukicho “where people can go bar hopping and eat”.

He counts Piu-M, Apollon, Fukuda, Al Solito and Araki among his favourites. “I’ve just been slowly discovering the restaurants on the street level and there are many gems within the building, too. The variety has just grown from strength to strength.”

For private investor Chan Kwai Sum, “Bistrot Etroit is reminiscent of my culinary experiences in the narrow alleys of Pontocho in Kyoto. In Singapore, popular restaurants don’t have to be in an enclave because people will travel far and wide to them, but Orchard Plaza works (as a food street) because of the size of the units and the optimal rents in a central location.”

For die-hard food lover Nicola Lee, the managing director of a property development company, “I have known of Orchard Plaza’s existence since my teens. I love the vibe there. It’s like Singapore circa 1980s. There is the smell of an old building, stuffed with mom-and-pop shops and small restaurants; the latter emitting the scent of cooked food. It is all very nostalgic and atmospheric!”

That’s why, she feels that even though there’s an exciting mix of restaurants now, “I would hate to see Orchard Plaza become just a mall of wall-to-wall restaurants. Part of its attraction, colour and vibe is due to the mixed use of retail space within it.”

That may be some time yet but for now, with its heady mix of grunge, creativity and yes, “misunderstood” chefs like Bistrot Etroit’s chef Doi, the new improved Little Japan is still ripe for discovery.

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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