Kushikatsu is not new to Singapore. The Japanese deep-fried skewers first made their appearance here in 2007 in a restaurant called Si Bon at the Amara Sanctuary hotel on Sentosa.
That closed down a few years later, but chef Seiichiro Arakawa was back in 2012, in another restaurant called Han in Odeon Towers. That is also gone and another kushikatsu restaurant from Japan, called Rokukakutei, has just opened in the same space.
In the meantime, Panko in Haji Lane opened last month under Singapore restaurateur Loh Lik Peng's stable of restaurants and it specialises in the skewers.
Named after the snow-like white breadcrumbs used to coat the food before it is deep-fried, Panko is located in a narrow shophouse that you can enter from either Haji Lane or Arab Street.
The Haji Lane end is where chefs work behind a long counter with seats for diners, while the Arab Street end offers table seating.
Besides kushikatsu, there is also a small selection of other dishes, such as katsu, sashimi, sushi and salads.
Affordable sets with karaage or chirashi don starting from $17 are available for lunch, but dinner is a la carte, except for a Panko Course Menu at $88, which features 10 sticks of kushikatsu, salad, sashimi, udon and dessert.
33 Arab Street/4 Haji Lane, open: 11.30am to 3pm, 5.30 to 10.30pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), 11.30am to 3pm (Sundays), closed on Mondays, tel: 6291-3323
Food: 3.5/5 stars
Service: 3/5 stars
Ambience: 3/5 stars
Price: Budget about $80 a person, without drinks
A la carte prices for the kushikatsu range from $2 for vegetables to $8 for items such as scallop or foie gras.
Compared with Han, which charged $180 for 15 sticks and did not take a la carte orders, Panko's prices are a steal. The trade-off is that the ingredients are not as premium.
Panko helps you to overlook that in a creative manner. Except for vegetables, the kushikatsu items are matched with toppings or heavy sauces, making it less important to have top-grade ingredients.
In fact, the dips and salt on the table go untouched at my dinner. A couple of sticks may need a few drops of lemon juice, but even that is optional.
That is because you would not want to mess with combinations of flavours such as Squid With Ink Sauce ($3).
Pieces of springy squid are covered in a coat of golden crumbs and topped with a thick smear of inky sauce and yellow chrysanthemum petals.
It is a bit difficult to bite through unless your teeth land exactly in the gap between the two pieces of squid, but that is a small matter. It tastes good.
So does the Komochi Konbu With Sea Urchin ($8). The foamy sea urchin sauce tastes a bit weak, but there are also pieces of fresh uni on the kushikatsu. And I love the super crunchy texture of komochi konbu or herring roe on kelp.
Pork Belly With Whole Grain Mustard ($3) is also good, with the bite of the mustard cutting through the fatty meat.
The Japanese Oyster With Tartar ($8) is where you can brighten up the flavours with a squeeze of lemon. The oyster is a particularly fat one and cooked lightly enough to stay tender and juicy.
Only two kushikatsu items that I try disappoint. I am not crazy about the Mochi Bacon With Mentai Mayo ($5) because the mochi is too hard to be a good match for the crispy crumbs. And the Wagyu Beef With Oroshi Ponzu Ichimi ($6) has a softness that seems to come more from slow-cooking than from well-marbled meat.
The biggest disappointment, though, is the Kaisen Salad ($38), a mixed salad with cubes of sashimi that is let down by bland-tasting fish and a ponzu-based dressing that is too mild.
If all you want is a palate cleanser to balance the deep-fried items, I would say the Seasonal Stick Salad ($12) is a better choice.
It may comprise just plain raw vegetables, but at least it is much cheaper.
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•The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.