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Shanghai: Sushi Oyama

19 Jul

Every once in a while, you eat a meal so sublime that you will remember (almost) every bite and detail. And even though it may cost a pretty penny, you still think it’s worth it, and look forward to a return trip. Omakase (chef’s choice) at Sushi Oyama, one of Shanghai’s finest Japanese restaurants left me with that feeling, which to be honest I haven’t had in a while – a lot of popular higher end restys tend to be overrated and disappoint me.

We were a bit late for our booking because of the rain, and when we arrived the Kimono-clad staff did not waste a second ushering us to our bar counter seats, showing us the fixed multi-course menu printed on a scroll, checking for any dietary restrictions, and bringing us hot tea and our first course. All that accomplished in probably 30 seconds. *Phew*

Our amuse bouche of bonito cauliflower soup with kelp was so amazing, I was sure everything that followed would not be able to match up to it. It was a shot of soup that packed a great punch, and had such a delicious and distinct flavour. I never knew that bonito, cauliflower and kelp complemented each other so well.

Next up, a beautiful plate of assorted sashimi with freshly grated wasabi that included horse mackerel (ma aji), botan shrimp (botan ebi), yellowtail (hamachi), salmon (sake). Though the sashimi were just one bite slices, it was seriously fresh and of good quality. No need to make a trip to Tokyo and wake up early for Tsukiji.

My absolute favourite out of the five was the to die for horse mackerel (ma aji). I’ve always been a fan of mackerel, even though they always tend to be slightly fishy. But this didn’t have that fishiness AT ALL and was great with a smidgen of ginger and spring onions. If I could have this quality of mackerel all the time, ma aji > ootoro for me, and that’s saying a lot!

With sashimi this fresh, all you need is just a little dab of soya sauce to enjoy its unadulterated flavours.

The smoked ivory shell with plum sauce was a pleasant surprise. I’ve never had this shellfish before and it was cooked well – very tender with a nice smoked flavour and went very well with the zingy plum sauce.

Other cold appetisers we had included the fried cutlassfish salad with sesame sauce, and a light salad of daikon, kelp and greens.

For our grilled dish, we were given two options so we each chose one. The Japanese boarfish (tsubodai) was hands down, one of the best grilled fishes I’ve had. It tasted buttery like a codfish, but without the overbearing oiliness.

Also good was the grilled New Zealand king salmon with pickled turnip, but it was a little common compared to the more exciting tsubodai.

Our nigiri sushi featuring the freshest catch of the day came. Everything was really fresh and the sushi rice was perfect. Even the delicately pickled ginger was amazing. Chef Oyama knows exactly how to enhance the flavours of the fish he gets with a light touch of soya sauce, spring onions, ginger, wasabi, sesame seeds etc. To me, making the best out of the ingredients you get is truly a mark of a good chef.

The highlight of the meal for me, was definitely the signature sushi bowl made with sea urchin roe (uni), salmon roe (ikura) and quail egg. If you think this dish looks good, trust me, it tastes even better! The combination of uni and ikura was genius, and I thought the sweetish raw quail egg tied the dish together when mixed in. The uni was so amazing that my friend who normally doesn’t like uni was won over too. SO. FREAKING. GOOD.

Even the staple chawan mushi is elevated to a hairy crab meat, scallop, asparagus and chawan mushi here. This was also very good. It was more like a soupy chawan mushi with an umami broth and generous ingredients.

The very handsome, animated, humble and talented Mr Oyama fanning our sushi rice. *Swoons* Suffice to say, my friend and both developed a crush on him during dinner. LOL.

Though I was quite full at this point of time (shouldn’t have had so many pre-dinner cocktails!), the second half of our nigiri sushi commenced. We were given super fatty tuna (ootoro), sea bream (ishi dai) and a choice of what we like. Of course I asked for sea urchin (uni), especially after the epic sushi bowl. The ootoro was top notch and so melt in my mouth, and I cannot ever get enough of uni.

Our last sushi course, the makimono sushi, was red tuna and shiso leaf. The addition of the minty, spicy shiso made it very interesting compared to the usual negitoro.

I’m not a fan of tamagoyaki, but even their tamagoyaki was a class above everyone else’s. Not too sweet with a discernable dashi taste.

For soup, we were served a clam and miso soup, which I thought was okay but not awesome as there wasn’t enough clams/clam flavour. I also didn’t quite see the point of the curious looking and round fishcake bits.

I usually abstain from panna cotta and at the beginning of the meal, I asked the waitress if I could be served another dessert/fruit instead. At the end they said they don’t have anything else, but asked if I would like to just give a try as theirs is homemade and very good. I’m so glad I did, because their panna cotta with caramel sauce was honestly so damn delicious. It’s probably not the usual Italian recipe from the looks of it, but like an improved Japanese version. Yums! Moral of the story: Don’t be too narrow-minded in terms of trying food!

Other than one or two a-okay dishes, everything that we had was just stellar. There was actually a lot of food even though the portion of each dish wasn’t big – just the way it should be! All the ingredients were top quality and some were seasonal ingredients that I was lucky enough to try for the first time. Our whole experience from the crockery, classy decor, intimate size of the place (~12 pax) and service felt very authentic and exclusive. I thought it was highly worth the 800RMB, since for a similar experience I would probably need to pay at least 50% more in Singapore, and maybe double in Japan. And to be honest I thought the food was much better than what I had in Tsukiji Market. I can’t wait to go back for a different menu (it’s seasonal, but flexible if you’re a regular) or try Chef Oyama’s other restaurant, Kappo Yu which has a more Kaiseki, fusion slant. What a (near) perfect meal. :)

Price: $$$$ (800RMB for omakase)
Location: 2/F, 20 Donghu Lu, near Huaihai Lu
Opening Hours: Mon to Sat 530 to 1030 pm. Two sittings.
Tel: +86 21 5404 7705 (Reservations are a MUST)

Singapore: Aoki

29 Jun

Aoki at Shaw Centre (Orchard) has officially replaced Tatsuya as my favourite Japanese lunch spot in Singers. While the set lunch choices may be more plentiful at Tatsuya, Aoki makes up for it in quality and its signature trio of Japanese desserts!

Stepping inside, one gets a sense of how intimate and serene the place is – tread carefully with light footsteps! Ladies who lunch here are very poised and often Japanese. Every single piece of furniture and crockery here looks zen and exquisitely made. We sat at the gorgeous sushi bar as I booked late, but previously I was given one of the private booths (though it’s rather claustrophobic it’s a private room at no additional charge/min spend). Love the wishbone chairs at the bar – my absolute fave :)

Each diner gets an otoshi cover charge ($3), but it’s seriously worth it given all the other extra items and service (hot towels, tea etc.) we get. First up, a little amuse bouche of konnyaku (devil’s tongue), which btw did you know is almost zero-calorie? It’s amazingly filling for something like that!

Next up is a garden salad in a yuzu sesame dressing. Japanese salads are always a delight!

I’ve had the maze chirashi ($35) here before and it was TDF so I had to bring my mum back to try it. As expected, it was again really, aMAZEing! The sashimi was cubed to perfection (as a home cook, I can attest to the difficulty of cubing things to equal sizes), extremely fresh and of superb quality (none of those odds and ends); all seating pretty on top of perfect sushi rice. The uni (sea urchin), ikura (salmon roe), toro (fatty tuna) and maguro (tuna) bits were my fave. Often you get not-so-fresh uni and funky maguro even at better Japanese restys, but the ones here are clearly many cuts above the rest (pun intended)! Even the tamago (egg), which I usually abstain from was so good – not overly sweet with a light dashi and charred taste. This would definitely be my last meal, if I had a choice.

Only freshly grated wasabi here, for your consumption, please.

Even the tsukemono (pickles) served were so unique! Other than the usual yellow one, I haven’t tried the other three before. The pink one was ume flavoured pickled radish – totally delicious! Even the normally pedestrian miso soup was boiled using prawn heads. Such attention to detail and quality puts Aoki on the top of my list!

I was honestly so stuffed I couldn’t even finish my rice (the sashimi:rice ratio must be like, 2:1), but I had to make way for dessert! Unlike many Japanese restys where dessert is usually just watermelon or a matcha ice cream, dessert here is an elaborate, lacquer boxed affair! That day I had warabi mochi, umeshu jelly and coffee ice cream but I’ve also had milk custard pudding and cherry blossom ice cream before. Absolutely pampering :)

Genmaicha was also thoughtfully served to aid digestion towards the end of the meal. And how cute is my owl cup?

I left in such a blissful state and my mum who just had her first taste of uni (and very good one at that) was super pumped by the meal too. Happy belated Mother’s Day, Ma! Regretted a little that I didn’t step out of my comfort zone and order the nigiri sushi platter because my neighbours had it and that looked really good too! But how can I say no to such awesome maze chirashi? Now that I’m convinced, I’m definitely coming back for the omakase one day!

Price: $$-$$$$$ ($40-60 for lunch, >$200 for dinner)
Location: 1 Scotts Road, #02-17 Shaw Centre, S (228208)
Tel: +65 6333 8015
Opening Hours: Mon to Sat: 12-3pm, 6.30-11pm. Last seating 30mins before closing.

Singapore: Ippudo Tao

13 Jun

Ramen like wine, is extremely subjective. I’ve had numerous debates with friends on which is the best ramen in Singapore and chances are everyone likes a different place/type/flavour. I love Hakata-style tonkotsu ramen with thin wiry noodles, and Ippudo is probably my favourite ramen place in Singapore. I’ve tried the original branch in Tokyo before and to be honest I don’t think there’s a discernible difference in the quality we get here. Recently, I checked out the UE Square branch called Ippudo Tao (addition of the word ‘Tao’ because of some collaboration with a Japanese drum group – uh huh) and I think it’s actually better than the Mandarin Gallery branch. Plus they take reservations, open till pretty late and have a bigger menu too! What’s not to like?

We arrived before happy hour was up and couldn’t resist getting some of their curious sounding Japanese cocktails. These were some of my favourites. The oolong cassis (shochu base) was so interesting and delicious. Never knew berries and oolong tea went so well together.

My first time trying a ginger ale highball, and all I can say is that I’ve been missing out on this ginger ale + whiskey combination. The Japanese sure know how to drink their whiskey! Wonder if they really used Suntory?

Another totally delicious cocktail was the yuzu umeshu, a must for all yuzu or umeshu fans! The umeshu they use here was very smooth.

For appetiser, we tried their signature steamed bun with braised pork and Ippudo’s original sauce ($3/per piece). While the meat was tender, this was a little disappointing as it was such a thin and small slice I could barely taste it. Hope ours was just an outlier as I’ve only heard good things about this dish.

Moving on to the ramen, the following 3 flavours are unique to Ippudo Tao – you can’t find them in the Mandarin Gallery branch. The Tao Aka came with thin curly noodles, tonkotsu broth, bara charshu (pork belly), spicy miso paste, spring onions and fragrant garlic oil. It had notes of curry and was quite spicy after a few mouthfuls that I started sweating! It’s definitely not a flavour you find too rich because of the spiciness. The bara charshu was tender without being too fatty.

The Tao Kuro had thick chewy noodles, shoyu tonkotsu broth, bara charshu (pork belly), special blended miso paste, black fungus and fragrant garlic oil. This tasted richer than the Tao Aka, and the garlic oil provided an aromatic accent to the broth. The additional ajitamago was as expected, molten although not too liquid in the centre.

The Bonito Tonkotsu had thick chewy noodles, tonkotsu broth blended with bonito fish stock, bara charshu (pork belly) bamboo shoots, Japanese leeks and spring onions. It smelt so good (because of the bonito) that it got us very curious, especially with that little random ‘mole’ of miso paste on the side! Upon first sip the extremely umami flavoured broth was hands down a winner, but it got a bit overbearing after a while. It came with really thick yellow noodles (not my favourite type) but I figured they pair the thickness of the noodles according to how rich the broth is.

The Ippudo Shiro is one of the signature Ippudo flavours. Made with the original tonkotsu broth, Hakata-style thin and straight noodles, bara charshu (pork belly), black fungus, cabbage, spring onions – this is probably my favourite out of the lot we tried that night, and my favourite ramen in Singapore for the moment. For me, ramen is all about the broth. This one is so flavourful yet light (unlike the fat and collagen laden types), and has a delicate tonkotsu flavour that I can never get sick of. And I love the noodles too! Strangely, I found it better than the last time I had it at Mandarin Gallery – not sure if the kitchen here was just less busy but I’m not complaining!

While Ippudo’s ramens are definitely on the pricier side (~$15 for basic bowl with one slice of chashu and no tamago), I think overall, the taste and lovely buzzy setting (no mad queues or elbow to elbow type seating) justifies it. Am also loving the fact that I can have my ramen and yummy girly Japanese-style cocktails at the same time :) So glad that they decided to open in Singapore in addition to Japan and NYC !

Price: $-$$
Location: #01-55/56, UE Square, 207 River Valley Road, S (238275). Facing Mohammed Sultan Road, opposite Chikuwa Tei.
Tel: +65 6887 5315
Opening Hours: Mon to Thu 11.30am-3pm, 5.30pm to midnight, Fri to Sat 11.30am-3pm, 5.30pm to 2am, Sun 11.30am to 11pm. Last order half hour before closing.

Singapore: Menya Musashi

11 Jun

Living in China means that I don’t have access to good ramen, compared to Singapore where many authentic ramen restaurants have mushroomed in the past few years. I have tried most of them, and my favourites include Ippudo, Ramen Champion, Baikohken, Marutama and Tampopo (at least its early days in Liang Court basement). So when I heard that Menya Musashi, a highly rated ramen chain in Japan had just newly opened in Singapore, I knew I had to try it on my trip home. The word ‘Musashi’ in its name actually refers to the legendary samurai Musashi, which also explains its samurai themed logo and decor.

If you go around dinner peak hour (around 7pm), be prepared to queue for at least half an hour. Come really early or late to skip queuing. I was lucky because my friend came early and started queuing for us, but my expectations probably would have been really high if I had to queue for too long. We were given picture menus while queuing and they took our order before we got seated. The interior of the place is quite no frills, foldable plastic chairs included – clearly the focus here is the food.

When you order, specify which of the three flavours (white, black, red), type of meat, and whether you want soup or tsukemen (dry noodles with a thicker dipping sauce). We were total noobs and thought that the black version only came in tsukemen so we got our order wrong. This was the original white soup with charshu (cut from rolled pork loin) ($12.90). The broth is made of pork, chicken and bonito. I thought it was quite balanced and it was not too porky (too much pork) or too salty (too much bonito). Though the charshu was very well braised and melt in your mouth soft, it was a little too fatty for my liking.

This was the black soup with kakuni (pork belly) ($14.90), and it is literally black because of the addition of garlic oil. Very aromatic and it had a nice fried garlic flavour without being too pungent. The meat was leaner but still tender, the way I like it. Quite memorable.

I’m not a fan of the curly yellow Hokkaido style noodles used but thankfully they were not too thick. The halved tamago included in the ramen was also up to standard. As you can see from the pictures, there’s a layer of collagen and fat on top of the rich broths so it’s definitely not for the faint hearted. My friend and I couldn’t finish at least a third of our noodles because of the richness of the broth. And apparently you can even request for double or triple noodle portions! Personally while I thought it was not bad and worth a try, I wouldn’t really come back because the broth is too rich for me and I prefer the skinny noodles in Hakata ramen :) You can read about my favourite ramen place in Singapore here.

Price: $-$$
Location: #01-16, Raffles City Shopping Centre, 252 North Bridge Road, S (179103)
Tel: +65 63356500
Opening Hours: Daily 11.30am to 10pm

Singapore: Flor Patisserie

16 May

Met my home girl M at the Japanese patisserie, Flor Patisserie by Chef Yamashita at Duxton Hill for tea one Saturday. I should have known that they’d probably run out of like almost everything by 4pm (check out the empty fridge), but thankfully there were still a few items that we managed to snag.

We tried the green tea and yuzu ice cheese tart ($3.40), strawberry souffle ($6.60) and banana chocolate ($6.60), from top left, clockwise. The cheese tart had a tint of saltiness and a fragrant crumbly almond base. The addition of zesty yuzu to the green tea give it a little kick, although I would have just preferred unadulterated green tea (many other flavours to try!). The strawberry souffle was like a very light cheesecake with generous strawberry toppings, and is a good alternative to their strawberry shortcake if that’s sold out. The banana chocolate was a perfect balance in both flavours, and the mousse was just the right texture, light but not too airy that it made you feel like you weren’t eating anything.

On a previous occasion, I bought their signature strawberry shortcake “Berry Berries” ($5.50 per slice, $33 for 6 pax) for a friend’s birthday. Though I’m no connoisseur of strawberry shortcakes as I try to avoid vanilla cream, it really was one of the best cakes I’ve had in a while. Made of a soft vanilla sponge, airy vanilla cream, layer of fresh strawberries, and a generous berry topping; it was light, not too sweet and just the kind of whole cake you could eat with a spoon and send you back to your happy childhood.

credit: image from Flor website

Another of their signature items, the Wakakusayama ($6.80 per piece) is a honey-infused green tea roll with red bean vanilla cream and a Kyoto-Uji matcha cream topping. It was also very good, I loved the novel touch of honey in the green tea sponge, and the ratio of sponge to cream was just nice (I personally hate rolls with too much cream and too little sponge).

credit: image from Flor website

In terms of quality of the food, this is easily my favourite Japanese dessert place in Singapore. Everything I’ve tried so far is delish and I think prices are still very reasonable especially given the quality ingredients. Though it’s not really a place to comfortably linger, I think their cakes tastes best fresh consumed at the shop as they don’t seem to hold well the moment you get into the heat. There are still so many more flavours I haven’t try so return trips are a must – who’s with me? :)

Price: $
Location: Duxton Hill, #01-01, S(089588). Another branch (take away only) at Takashimaya Basement.
Tel: +65 6223 8628 

Singapore: Viva Japan Cafe [Closed]

29 Feb

Viva Japan Cafe is a pop up cafe by Cool Japan (a multi-agency initiative that is also endorsed by the Japanese government) that temporarily occupies the 56th floor of ION Sky till end March 2012. It’s a chaya (tea house) that also serves light meals, showcases Japanese products, art and houses events that feature visiting Japanese chefs. Its mission is “to showcase the great and wonderful beauty of Japan and our food culture that still very much exist” after the 3.11 Earthquake.

For food, there is only an option of Viva Set $28.80 for 3 courses (including 2 teas). There are also Japanese teas, cocktails and beer on the menu (including mini cans of Asahi beer). As part of the set, we are first served hojicha (roasted green tea) in a beautiful teapot with a cup of our choice. We are told by our polite and effervescent waitress that it’s good for our digestion, and is also low in caffeine. It was very good quality tea and I love the slightly burnt flavour of hojicha.

Do I spy brown rice?

Next a bowl of zesty wild mesclun salad with ponzu seaweed dressing whetted our appetites.

For mains, there were three choices. This was the seafood udon with black sauce which tasted quite Chinese, and was extremely delicious!

A fusion pasta dish, the tagliatelle egg pasta with prawns in miso bonito sauce also delivered. My only gripe for both mains was that I wish they came in bigger portions.

Dessert was fruit parfait, with a variety of fresh fruits served in yoghurt.

The meal was concluded with hot green tea, which I slurped to every last drop. The teas in Viva Cafe are really a class above the teas served in Japanese restaurants.

Pretty cups for sale

There are art installations and displays all over the event space, and I particularly liked this brush painting that was done during the open ceremony of the cafe.

I thought it was quite an interesting experience especially if you’re a lover of all things Japanese. It’s also a quiet option in ION if you’d like to get away from the madding crowd and crazy queues. The meal itself is not much so it won’t make a ravenous person full. But it’s a great place to chill, have a light meal and indulge in good Japanese tea – plus the view at the 56th story sure doesn’t hurt too. Come soon before it closes and show your support for Japan! x

Price: $-$$ ($28.80++ for the 3 course set, drinks are ~$12++)
Location: 2 Orchard Turn ION Orchard, Level 56F, Singapore 238801 (You need to access a separate lift near the shop PRINTS in ION)
Opening hours:  10am to 10pm (last order 9pm) till 31 March 2012 only

Tel: +65 6636 5156

Shanghai: Cafe Dan 丹

25 Nov

Cafe Dan in the Tianzifang enclave purportedly serves up the best coffee in Shanghai, alongside with healthy and home-style Japanese dishes. After much jostling with the thronging tourist crowds on a Saturday afternoon while exploring Tianzifang’s many shops, galleries, cafes and eateries, we decided to rest our feet and chill in this quaint Japanese coffee house.

We chose to sit indoors, since sitting outdoors would mean be being gawked at by a gazillion tourists. We were lucky enough to snag an available table without waiting. They have a lovely bar counter on the second floor where you can watch the barista at work. Neat!

The serene and green view from my seat :) The huge window filled the room with a fresh breeze and for a moment I forgot I was in Shanghai.

I ordered the iced coffee (50 RMB??) that was served in the cutest glass with milk and sugar syrup on the side. Sorry I can’t describe it better as I’m not a big coffee conoisseur but it was good enough for me, with a smooth and rich flavour. The friendly Japanese owner personally roasts the coffee beans using the roaster in the first floor (we saw him doing it as we were leaving).

Interestingly, half the ice cubes were made of coffee so that your coffee won’t get diluted as the ice melts More coffee houses should bother doing this as it really makes a huge difference :)

The hubs got a special Ethiopian brew (70?? RMB) that tasted quite chocolate-y to me. Cafe Dan has an encyclopedic food and drink menu as well (not sure what’s with Shanghai establishments and uber long menus) and he was a bit confused over which coffee to order so I think this was just a random choice.

We were really full from lunch at Tenya but felt obliged to try something on the food menu. They place a strong emphasis on healthy food and hence use the “super steam” method on a lot of their food. Apparently they also make their own noodles and use many imported Japanese ingredients. We decided on the mentaiko pasta (50 RMB) which came with perilla leaves, nori and bonito flakes. While not everyone is a fan of the herbal tasting perilla, I personally liked it and thought its addition made the dish less cloyiing. The pasta also wasn’t dry (surprisingly) and was cooked al dente. Quite delicious! I’ve only tasted the creamy mentaiko pastas before and usually those are too rich for my liking. This was just nice.

We also got a salad which is probably complimentary with the pasta. Salad leaves were fresh and dressed in a sesame dressing. It was literally gone in 60 seconds.

The hubs chose a chocolate cointreau cake (50?? RMB) which was rich, moist, generously soaked with cointreau and very, very good. Apparently on the menu it says for adults only, and we could totally see why. A good end to our teatime at Cafe Dan!

While the coffees at Cafe Dan seemed a little pricey (especially compared to the food, since a cup of coffee could cost more than a main), you’re probably paying for the Tianzifang locale, the cafe’s dedication to quality and the license to chill. And whatever food we tried was pretty good too so you should consider having a meal there too.

Price: $-$$
Location: No. 41, Lane 248, Taikang Lu