Kumo – A Meditative Kaiseki

DC and I were celebrating a special occasion and, having been there once and enjoying the food immensely, we chose Kumo. We opted for the kaiseki menu at $168 per person. The chef showcases the ingredients of the season and his skill with the various courses. He also checked whether we had any particular dislikes or preferences before starting our dinner.

The first course came as a tasting appetiser platter. Unfortunately, the waitress wasn’t very experienced and didn’t give an description of our dish before disappearing to fetch our sake. We started from right to left, tasting the unagi topped with kinome leaf (it’s a kind of pepper plant and the aroma was similar to kaffir lime leaf, with hints of mint), then a jumbo-size broad bean that was half sprouted, a sweet vinegary lotus root, some kind of soft brown shoot, a boiled prawn that was a bit too sugary for my taste, something quite familiar – choy sum – that’s apparently a spring delicacy in Japan, and scallop with sweet yuzu sauce. It was all halfway decent, and would probably have been more interesting had I known what they all were without having to figure it all out with a Japanese cookbook on seasonal food at home. One problem was that the scallop was on the verge of being unfresh, forgivable in lesser establishments, but certainly not at a kaiseki place that’s celebrating the freshness of seasonal produce (and also the former fatness of one’s wallet).

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By then, the sake arrived and we were distracted by the not-quite stellar start. DC chose a bubbly sake, something we’ve not tried before. It’s called Takara Mio ($28 for 300ml) and scored -7 on the dry-sweet scale, the numbers decreasing as it got sweeter. The first hit of the sake gave the immediate impression of 7-Up, except with a sake nose. It’s hardly made for the connoisseur, and with only 5% alcohol, could well pass for a girly alcopop. We enjoyed the floral fizz, it was a lovely change from the usual sake.

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But I jumped ahead too fast to the sake. The sake bottle was accompanied to the table by a tray of pretty sake glasses and we each chose a unique one from which to enjoy our sake. What a lovely touch.

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The next dish was explained by a more knowledgeable waitress. It was sesame tofu and icefish in dashi. I wasn’t sure about the tofu on its own, because it was somehow rather bitter, but I liked the texture and aroma combination that made it very reminiscent of our local ahbaling (glutinous rice balls stuffed with black sesame). It was much better taken with the soup and smushed in the mouth so that it became creamy and fragrant. The icefish was quite like local white bait, just a bit bigger – rather like an intermediate between local and western white bait. Soft bones were part of the deal and it was a bit weird to feel them going down. The icefish had a nice delicately fishy flavour but wasn’t very special. The kinome leaf featured again, to my delight and the fern was only okay. I was a bit disappointed that it couldn’t last long enough from its trip from Japan as it was already browning slightly and wasn’t super fresh.

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Now the sashimi course was what grabbed my attention. Oh my, how many ways was it divine? The fish, for a start. Just three kinds, but fantastically chosen to showcase delicate white fish in the form of hirame (flounder), then oily white fish in the form of hamachi (yellowtail) and oily red fish in the star of otoro (tuna belly). First of all, the sashimi was supremely fresh and faultless. It was also cut perfectly – no sinews, no weird bits marring the pure taste of fish. Then the soy sauce. It had a deep, almost smoky flavour and really brought out the flavour of the fish. As if that wasn’t enough, the garnishes came into play too. There were pretty pink turnip slices, sour-savoury marinated chrysanthemum petals (not the usual bitter, yum!), mouth-numbingly hot mustard sprouts, marinated seaweed and freshly grated wasabe. The star of the garnishes was the sprig of pink flowers. Eat them on their own and it’s nothing special. But drop them into the soy sauce and you get an unexpected fragrance when eating the sashimi. And the otoro part – it was stunning with lovely marbling and flavour. I don’t even need to say it hardly required any chewing. Beautiful.

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The next course, while not as headline grabbing as the sashimi course, was nonetheless stunning. I loved the salted grilled hamachi cheek. The insides were very soft and flavourful from the fish oils and the salty-sticky-chewy-crisp bits of the skin was a lovely contrast. For the inside flesh that needed a little lift, there was some grated daikon that had a dash of soy sauce added to the top. The sideshows were stellar, with three kinds of tempura and four kinds of boiled items. The tempura was very interesting, all of vegetables that aren’t in your regular tempura set. There was a type of shoot with a delicate garlic-like flavour, a chrysanthemum flower (cooking seems to cook out the bitterness, and baby cabbage that was essentially a brussels sprout without the bitterness. Of the boiled items, the sweet potato tasted as if it had been soaked in pure sugar, which was such an oddity (assuming of course that the sweetness was all natural). Otherwise, the sweet bean, Japanese red carrot, and konnyaku (yam jelly) weren’t particularly special. I never quite understood the point of konnyaku in savoury dishes anyway.

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The performance started to sag at this point. It was still interesting, because they served different parts of the boiled octopus. There were the usual tentacles, but also part of the head, which contained tightly-packed roe. It was topped with the same creamy yuzu sauce as the scallop in the first dish. I wasn’t too enamoured by the flavours and textures of this dish, but it could in part be due to my guilt for eating octopus. See, I don’t normally eat octopus. When I went diving in Komodo, I was told that octopi are generally almost impossible to catch because they are so intelligent and are masters of stealth and disguise. Only female octopi get so hungry while tending their laid eggs that they throw caution to the winds and move out to get food. This is when they get caught, and the result is that the next generation of octopi die too, because their mother isn’t around to oxygenate the eggs. But I dunno, seeing that this octopus had unlaid eggs inside, perhaps it was simply a dumb one caught unawares? Who knows.

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The next dish was the weakest link in the menu. It was a seaweed stew with bamboo shoots and grilled scallops. We first tasted the seaweed stew, which was essentially pureed seaweed. It was strongly umami-flavoured yet strangely not very salty. Then I tasted the grilled scallop, but not before appreciating the delicate grill markings on it. This time, the scallop was top-notch fresh. The downfall were the bamboo shoots as they were way too salty, so much so that even a prolonged dunk in the seaweed stew didn’t do it any good. The balance was completely off, and hardly saved by the aromatic kinome leaf. Bad move.

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The next dish got a little better. It was done super simply – just boiled and dribbled with a delicate goma sauce. The green vegetable was Japanese butterbur, which is very much like celery except that it was tubular o-shape rather than celery’s c-shape. It was similarly fibrous, but hadn’t any particular flavour. The mountain yam was starchy and very slightly sticky, so DC initially thought they gave us potato by mistake.

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The tempura course was where things started to really pick up. I’ve not had wagyu tempura before so this was quite the revelation. The batter was very delicate so that it would complement the soft beef that was slow-cooked till the tendons were melting. I was glad to see the garlic shoot-like plant feature again. It was especially good with the dipping salt.

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By now, I was so full that the sushi course, signalling the end of the savoury courses, was a big relief. The chef cleverly left the best to the last. The first thing about the sushi was how prettily it was plated. Then as I ate each piece, I realised that the rice was firm and had a mouthfilling savour rather than the typical vinegary aroma of the regular type of sushi rice. By this time, the sheer number of courses and the effects of the sake had kicked in and I don’t remember each bite as clearly as earlier on with the sashimi. As expected, the fish was top notch fresh. What I liked was that each piece of sushi had some kind of topping as a play on the texture. The anago was delicately tender, going well with the crisp cucumber slice and the smoky aburi tai (torched seabream) came with a few strange chewy sticks of (yam? seaweed?) on the top. The kohada (gizzard shad) came with ginger and spring onions on top and was very lightly vinegared, unlike the usual sharp blast when other places do it to less than fresh mackeral. There was a seasonal fish called sayori that had a shiso leaf and some of its own bones, deep-fried, on the top. It was rather special. The otoro came with an interesting chopped wasabe leaf topping that gave a whole different perspective of how we usually see wasabe. The best part was that they gave an extra dollop of wasabe on the side to dip the sushi with impunity. Yum.

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Dessert really was pretty much an afterthought. The sakura cheesecake was frozen and decent enough, but nothing special. Similarly, the fruits were only decent. I found it a waste to spend money importing Japanese strawberries only to find mine tart: it was hopeless to fight against the strawberry coulis. Aside from that, I liked the sweet-tart mango, which quite definitely didn’t come from Japan. And the mochi was decent with the red bean.

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I can’t decide whether the dessert was a letdown or a soft landing for the dinner. It definitely clarified how good the sashimi and sushi courses were, and in a way reset the palate back to the real world. I wish I had more occasions and a fatter wallet to have this more often.

Kumo
12 Gopeng Street, Icon Village, #01-58
Singapore 078877
Tel: +65 6225 8433

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Isetan Supermarket’s Hokkaido Fair

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Isetan Supermarket has quite a few themed fairs and the Hokkaido Fair is a regular fixture there. I try to get there for it’s always dependable sushi sets. This time, there were snow crab boxed rices. DC’s was the bigger one. It had uni (sea urchin), my favourite ikura (salmon roe), sake (salmon), cooked salmon, and crab claw pieces.

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Mine had mainly shredded crab, lots more ikura than DC’s box, and uni. It also had more pickles, which I liked loads. The crab was juicy and delicately oceanic, and the uni was creamy and had that characteristic almost-ammonia whiff. I guess I’m not the biggest fan of uni given that smell. But of course, it was the ikura that sends me to heaven. I cannot say too many times how much I love the bursty-salty fish egg goodness. Coupled with the perfectly cooked rice gone a touch beyond al dente and the lovely pale pink daikon pickle, this rice box was so good I didn’t even need the soy sauce to go with it.

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Because we both skipped breakfast, we thought it perfectly reasonable to order Hokkaido ramen too. Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite as wow as we thought. Fortunately, we only ordered one bowl, the special seafood ramen. Only 50 bowls of this flavour were made each day. It had a fair bit of seafood in it: crab claw, uni, shrimp, squid and a skirted scallop. It was all pretty agreeable, but not so exquisitely fresh or flavourful that I would devour the whole thing by myself. I liked the noodles a great deal though. They were done perfectly al dente, just the way I like it, and I guess just the way the Japanese like it.

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I can’t wait for the next Hokkaido Fair!

Isetan Supermarket
50 Orchard Road Shaw House
Tel: 6733 1111

A Tatsuya Birthday Dinner

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In a fit of extreme generosity, Dad brought us to Tatsuya’s for my birthday dinner. We went for the seasonal omakase, which was many kinds of sublime. The thought that all the seafood had been flown in either fro Tsukiji or Fukuoka fish markets made the food even more delicious.

The first course was a duo of anglerfish liver and fresh ikura (salmon roe). The anglerfish liver was made into a pate. Smooth and unctuous with just a touch of fishiness to remind you that it’s fish not fowl, it was contrasted delicately with a light vinegar sauce. Sorry Kiraku, this version rocked my socks. And the ikura! As it is, ikura is one of my all time favourites. This version came with every single delicate egg sac intact and only very lightly sauced. The only pity was that there were two or three eggs that weren’t as fresh as they should be. It was still good though, because the others, each so incredibly bursty, made up for it.

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Next up was probably the best dish in the meal. I know the picture below doesn’t do it justice, but the crab tofu with century egg sauce was out of this world. I felt like I was eating crab chawanmushi because the tofu was so thick and rich. The crab formed a matrix that held the tofu together – succulently, just sheer crabily. The textures and flavours came together beautifully from the softness of the tofu to the yield of the crab and crunchiness of the shrimp roe to the earthiness of the century egg. It’s the one dish I’d go back for again and again.

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The sashimi plate came next. The fish was all fresh and good, though the otoro and amaebi weren’t the best I’ve tasted. I liked the yellowtail and swordfish, especially the dressed yellowtail in special sauce. I also liked how the waitress told us that everything on the plate could be eaten. The sprig of tiny pink flowers tasted vaguely of lavender and was an excellent interlude to the fish.

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The next dish was what we all felt was the weakest link. It was the simmered item: Japanese yam cakes with yakitori chicken and leek then sprinkled with yuzu. The yam cakes were still slightly crisp from the deep fryer (!) and had a very pleasing slightly starchy texture. I’m glad it didn’t have the gummy texture of the raw version. Now the rest of the dish somehow seemed unbalanced because the chicken was far too sweet and salty and the leek too pongy for my taste. I didn’t intend to have onion breath from a Japanese dinner!

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What followed was better than the preceding dish. Grilled barracuda topped with mentaiko mayonnaise and pickled ginger stem was quite good. It was a bit too rich for Mum and she pushed it to Dad. DC loved it though, mentaiko and especially mayonnaise are his favourites. I liked how the fish was grilled: slightly charred on the outside, moist perfection on the inside. The mentaiko mayonnaise was rich and full of oily fishy goodness.

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The next dish redeemed all the sins of the preceding dishes (bar the crab tofu of course). The sushi was amazing. Start first with the amberjack topped with caviar. Savour the unadulterated freshness contrasted with the dark, deeply savoury caviar. Then go for the swordfish aburi. Enjoy the contrast between cooked and fresh fish, and charred rice. Now have the sweet shrimp topped with prawn roe. Can you detect that special aroma of almost burnt crustacean? Ready for the otoro aburi? It’s pretty good but save the scallop with foie gras for the last. It’s that good. Smooth sweet scallop with fatty foie gras coming together in perfection in your mouth. Mmm…

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The waitress came round and asked if we were full. If not, she suggested the house temaki specialty. We were full but not about to pass up the house specialty. The waitress returned, urging us to quickly eat before the seaweed got soggy. My initial thoughts on the first bite were “quite normal what, salmon skin, prawn roe, cucumber, rice, what’s the big deal?” Then it dawned on me. The textures were an epiphany. There was firm rice, crispy salmon skin with a touch of rich mayonnaise, crunchy bursty roe, and fresh crisp cucumber. Wrapped with freshly toasted seaweed, it was an exploration of four kinds of crispy. Amazing.

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We ended the savoury courses with a fantastic miso soup made with fresh baby clams. It was amazing how many clams I could fish out of one regular bowl of miso soup. The clams made the soup amazingly deep and richly seafoody yet not at all fishy. The miso rounded it all off nicely. Another coup for the chef.

When we finally surrendered to the waitress, she brought out the dessert of sweet pear, pomegranate and persimmon. The first two weren’t particularly special, but I liked the persimmon. It was sweet and yummy, though I’m not sure it’s that much nicer than a regular one at the peak of ripeness.

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One strange thing about this place is that while the food is posh and incredibly expensive, the waitresses talk quite loudly and seemed to treat us like friends, not so much customers. It nice and we felt at home quite quickly, but it seemed rather out of sync that the waitresses practically shouted orders at each other, so it’s not a place for a quiet dinner. It took a bit of getting used to though!

While of course not perfect, the meal was very good. DC said it’s the best Japanese he’s had in Singapore and he’s an authority given his extensive eating at these places. Definitely a place for celebrating birthdays and bonuses.

Tatsuya Japanese Restaurant
Goodwood Park Hotel
22 Scotts Road
Tel : 6887 4598

Sake-To-Me Indulgence

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It was Mfluder’s birthday and the inimitable Tricia, together with Mr and Mrs Sailorboy, put together an amazing dinner at then-new Kiraku. (Sorry Mfluder for posting this late, happy birthday plus 8 weeks!) Almost 20 of us took up the centre of the restaurant (not enough space in the private room) for Mfluder’s Sake-To-Me Night of Indulgence and made enough noise for 40! Mrs Sailorboy arranged for a special menu and the restaurant graciously gave us, among other things,  little bites to start the meal. The first little bite was fish liver. It tasted like rather fishy foie gras, not too bad but I probably wouldn’t want more than the few morsels in the bowl.

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Then they probably ran out of fish liver because the rest of the late ones streaming in got this rather nice unagi starter. Boy were Hypodermically and I pleased that we got there early as we got two types of nice bites!

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Because Hypodermically and I couldn’t wait for the rest to arrive so dinner proper could start, we ordered a very competent sashimi salad that was very fresh and left us hankering for more.

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The first dish was the star of the entire dinner: oyster chawanmushi like nothing we’d tasted before. This truly brought chawanmushi to a new level. The uber-soft egg custard lay under half an inch of clear broth. Taking an exploratory spoonful of the broth, I tasted dashi broth and ginger. Dipping my spoon gently into the custard, I got ready for the egg part. And the silky yielding custard was an epiphany of oyster. I don’t know how they got it so soft and how they got the oyster bits just cooked without tasting at all fishy, but this is top of my list in chawanmushi. It’s the best one I’ve had. Ever.

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Next came assorted sashimi, which was fresh, though not astoundingly fresh like on lucky days when you intercept the shipment straight from Japan. I liked it even more when Hypodermically agreed to swap her maguro for my salmon. The sweet prawn was quite nice…

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… but even nicer was Mrs Sailorboy making sure that everyone surrendered their prawn heads for frying. Now these deep-fried prawn heads made for an ideal snack to go along with sake…

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… which by now everyone was downing. The owner gave us what seemed like a free flow of very good, very smooth sake that kept coming. I don’t remember very much what it tasted like because DC didn’t let me take more than a few sips. Before you think he was being evil (though he normally is, heheh), he didn’t want me to repeat a Smokin’ Frogz. We also shared a small bottle of very lovely (even better than the free flow stuff!) sake between the four or five of us in the vicinity.

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Next up was the tempura, nice and crisp. Good standard, though not particularly special.

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But the sushi was very good. Somehow the rice was done perfect: balanced perfectly on the edge of hard and flavoured with just the right amount of vinegar. The three here beat my Singapore gold standard of Isetan supermarket sushi (go try it for yourself before you scoff). Excellent.

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Emboldened by the excellent sushi, we rather paradoxically ordered more sashimi. The otoro was amazing. Having not been to Tsukiji market, I obviously don’t know what otoro is supposed to be like, but this one was another epiphany. Even DC was uncharacteristically uncharitable: we had to split the last piece. Being on the more despotic side of the relationship, I obviously got the slightly bigger and therefore better half.

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It was a pity that my favourite ikura gunkan didn’t fare as well. Here, they soak the salmon roe in sake which gives it a rather interesting alcoholic edge. I prefer it done the normal way where you can really taste the fish oil. It didn’t help that the sacs were quite thick, so the ikura wasn’t as bursty as I like.

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Everyone else oohed and aahed and loved the oyster sashimi. It was so big that it had to be served cut into little bits. I felt that it was a competent and fresh enough oyster. However, it just doesn’t beat oysters in the half-shell that still taste of the sea. This one somehow didn’t. It felt more like it belonged in a (very) high-class or luak.

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The savoury courses finally came to an end with sukiyaki and shabu shabu.

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True to form, ours wasn’t any old sukiyaki or shabu shabu. It came with wagyu beef…

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… and kurobuta pork.

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No pictures of the cooked product because we were busy squabbling and fighting over who was hogging (pun intended) the beef and the pork. All’s fair in love, war and eating. Amen.

Now the last course was something off-menu. Even the owner only tasted it the night before when the chef had finished the cake. It was a lovely strawberry cheesecake, very rich and homey tasting. It was unanimous, everyone wanted it to be put on the menu.

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Kiraku
55 Market Street
#B1-01
Tel: 6438 6428

Beer and Pinot Noir

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I met up with Tweych for dinner and drinks. It was a pity that our sushi dinner hardly stood out especially considering that the place claimed to fly in fish daily. I didn’t like how loosely the rice was packed and felt that the fish wasn’t particularly fresh. It wasn’t frozen but neither was it fresh. However, I enjoyed the standing sushi bar‘s Suntory Premium Malt’s (5%) which is supposedly hard to find in Singapore. It was a lovely pale yellow, very malty as expected and also surprisingly sweet. It went down fairly well with the sushi although I think Asahi Super Dry would probably do better at cutting through the seafood.

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Not being particularly satisfied, we headed to Moomba for wine. Our resident wine expert Tweych picked out a New Zealand pinot noir, the 2007 Wairau River Home Block Pinot Noir (13%). Like most pinot noirs, it was light red and of course still very young. There was plenty of heady cherry, strawberry and red currant in the nose and it went down very smoothly. The only problem was that I felt like I was drinking alcoholic Ribena. The feeling only damped slightly after about a glass or so when the mild tannins started showing through. It was not bad, but I’m still not quite convinced when it comes to pinot noirs.

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Standing Sushi Bar
1 Raffles Place
#B1-02B OUB Centre
Tel: 6533 7078

The Moomba Wine Shop
52A Circular Road
Tel: 6438 2438

Basement Restaurants at Liang Court

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I wanted to have Okinawa food again and DC suggested trying Ichibantei at Liang Court. While not strictly an Okinawan restaurants, it served pretty decent food. The deep fried mini prawns were pretty good even though they didn’t quite have the oomph of the version done at Nirai Kanai next door. I liked how they were so crispy everything could be crunched up nicely. The only problem was making sure that I put the prawn in  my mouth tail first, if not I’d get pricked by the spikes on its head.

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The goma salad wasn’t particularly exciting, though the deep fried noodles add a nice touch.

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An unexpected find was the pork belly ramen. I wasn’t expecting much but I liked this quite a lot. The soup was rich and the noodles firm and bouncy. It’s runner up to my favourite at Ken’s.

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Last dish here was the deep fried prawn roll with tai and mentaiko. I liked how the rich grilled mentaiko topping went really well with the prawn. While the tai added a smooth, almost silky dimension, the delicate flavour was a little overwhelmed by the prawn and mentaiko. A bit of a pity as this imaginative dish could have been that much better.

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The desserts at Ichibantei weren’t very inspiring, so we headed over to Tampopo Deli where we tucked into the tart pudding. It was lovely! The tart at the bottom was buttery and nutty (almonds?) and went really well with the rich caramel pudding on top. The syrup topping and real cream gilded the lily incredibly well. It’s a simple pairing that worked incredibly well. Definitely a winner.

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Ichibantei
177 River Valley Road
#B1-50 Liang Court Shopping Centre
Tel: 6338 0393

Tampopo Deli
#B1-16 Liang Court Shopping Centre
Tel: 6338 7386

Guest Post: Champagne Brunch at Equinox

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My brother and sis-in-law went to Equinox Restaurant for their champagne brunch. Here’s their report:

Its been a long time since I’ve done brunch, so I was really looking forward to Sunday, especially since I’ve not tried the Equinox brunch before.

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The appetisers were a great start. There was the usual range of cold starters and seafood, including two types of oysters, as well as a nice sushi platter with great soba. My dining companions liked the soba so much they had multiple servings. I was happy to see a leg each of Parma and Spanish Iberian ham. I love ham, and it’s great to see the chef taking advantage of the relaxed AVA restrictions on Spanish ham. However, I was a bit puzzled to see it served on its own. Perhaps some sweet melon or crusty bread by the side would do the trick.

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There was also something unique – a caviar station, complete with a cook flipping fresh mini-blinis to hold the caviar. The salty caviar was a nice contrast to the buttery blinis, which were good enough to eat by themselves.

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The mains were dominated by roast meats – a very impressive display of roast prime rib, roast leg of lamb, roast pork, and a whole turkey, all in a row waiting to be carved up, flanked by a foie gras and poached fish station on either side. The roast beef was good, and was devoured by the end of the buffet. The roast pork also stood out – it’s tough to get pork right, the loin cut was succulent and moist, not at all overcooked.

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For most of the meal, I was silently disturbed that the dessert section seemed to be missing! I thought perhaps dessert was an extra-charge ala carte item, or maybe the waiters would suddenly clear the sushi section and roll out the dessert platters. Finally, someone pointed out that the dessert section was tucked in a corner under the staircase, outside of the main dining area. Phew! We excitedly went for a scout – a small spread, especially compared to the mains and starters, with a bored-looking cook flipping pancakes under the stairwell. I had an unusual strawberry and rhubarb mousse (it’s very rare to find rhubarb in Singapore), and some crumbly, chocolate nut cake called “baci baci”, which incidentally tasted nothing like the Italian chocolate kisses.

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Equinox serves Moët for its champagne, which definitely makes the experience more premium. Strangely enough, the price difference between the champagne brunch ($128+++) and the virgin brunch was only about $20, definitely making the champagne option much more worthwhile. They also serve a range of cocktails and wine, but most of the mainly local crowd were happy with their champagne.

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The biggest downer was the live music, which was too loud and was horribly out of tune at time. (Not just my opinion, but also one of our dining companions who works in the arts/music industry. Quite clearly the duo would never get a gig at her joint!) The bad singing was topped off with a 2 min long finale to Sinatra’s My Waaaaaaaaaaaaayyyyyyy. Urgh.

What made up for the singing, was of course the fantastic view, which I suppose is the main draw of Equinox. There is something very calming about being on top of the world and having a birds-eye view. It’s also a bit nostalgic – I think the last time I came up during daytime was a decade ago when it was still called Compass Rose. Champagne brunches had not been invented, and the ultimate uppity luxury was going up to Compass Rose for high tea. I wonder if Equinox’s champagne brunch will ever return to those heydays.

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Equinox Restaurant
Level 70, Equinox Complex, Swissôtel The Stamford
Tel: 6837 3322
Dress code: Smart casual