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Japanese restaurant clusters are the hot trend in shopping malls

There are now at least seven Japanese food clusters, the latest one being Japan Foods Garden at Shaw Centre's Food Republic

For convenience and variety, nothing beats a dining emporium that combines several stalls under one roof.

The dining cluster phenomenon, combined with Singaporeans' perennial love of Japanese cuisine, has resulted in a new food trend: the rise of the Japanese restaurant zone.

There are at least seven such clusters in Singapore, often pitched at friendly price points.

The newest one, Japan Foods Garden, which opened at Shaw Centre's Food Republic last month, is actually housed in a foodcourt.

There are five Japanese food stalls offering steamed eel dishes as well as charcoal-tinted black Japanese curry. It is operated by JP Square, a Japanese-owned company which also runs cafes in Taiwan.

By the end of this year, Parco (Singapore) will open its Itadakimasu restaurant zone at 100AM mall in Tanjong Pagar.

It first introduced this dining area from 2010 to 2014 in Millenia Walk, which still has a Japanese dining zone called Nihon Food Street.

These add to others in the scene, such as Japan Food Town, which opened in July at Wisma Atria, and Emporium Shokuhin at Marina Square and Eat At Seven at Suntec City - both of which opened last year.

The benefits of a multi-stall cluster are clear. Diners have more choices than standalone restaurants and some of these emporiums offer loyalty programmes.

For example, Emporium Shokuhin has a tiered rewards programme which was launched in March, giving members rebates and vouchers.

Within six months, more than 10,000 people signed up.

The food emporium, which has eight Japanese concepts, broke even after six months and has been experiencing a 10 per cent increase in sales every month since then, says its chief executive Lim Li-Wei, 40.

He hopes to open more branches in cities such as Jakarta, Shanghai and Melbourne.

Business is brisk at the year-old Eat At Seven, which houses seven restaurant brands specialising in Japanese spicy stews, maguro (tuna) and chicken-based ramen. The stalls opened in phases since July last year.

Founder Andrew Tan, 55, says that business has reached its target sales within one year.

"Sales have gone up by 12 per cent in the last three months, as all the seven food concepts have opened."

At Wisma Atria's Japan Food Town, where its cluster of 16 restaurants sells dishes from saba to premium Japanese wagyu, its shared space also features organised themed programmes.

For example, from Oct 13 to 25, it will run an Okinawa fair.

For the tenants at these Japanese food clusters, their neighbours create not competition, but a sense of community and strong branding.

Mr Raymond Tan, 31, managing director of Kurama Robatayaki and Yoi Sake Bar, chose to open the two concepts at Millenia Walk's Nihon Food Street, next to his Sushi Murasaki restaurant.

He says: "We want to build a community of restaurants and the cluster is also close to the Central Business District.

"The stretch of restaurants gives diners a quiet escape from the bustling CBD and the street offers a range of concepts to choose from."

Diners, of course, are thrilled with the smorgasbord of options.

Ms Charmaine Fong, 29, a customer service manager who works in the City Hall area, says: "Within the area, there are three Japanese clusters (Nihon Food Street, Eat At Seven and Emporium Shokuhin) to pick from, so we are spoilt for choice.

"I particularly like that I can also buy Japanese produce and snacks at Emporium Shokuhin. It adds to the whole experience."


Nihon Food Street

KURAMA ROBATAYAKI AND YOI SAKE BAR

Launched two months ago, these two concepts under one roof are a collaboration between managing director Raymond Tan and executive chef Max Lai, both of whom also run the neighbouring Japanese restaurant Sushi Murasaki.

Signature items at the robatayaki restaurant include the aromatic truffle onsen salad ($12), handmade tsukune (chicken patty, $8), US pork buta bara (pork belly, $9) and lamb rack ($19).

At the 18-seat Yoi Sake Bar, pair your sake with bar bites such as Tako Wasabi ($8), bite-sized pieces of octopus eaten with wasabi; fugu mirin ($15), cured pufferfish; and ham-wrapped lychee.

Later this month, expect a range of Japanese desserts on the menu as a dessert chef from three-Michelin- starred Japanese restaurant Nihonryori RyuGin joins the team.

Where: Level 2, Millenia Walk, 9 Raffles Boulevard

Open: Noon to 2pm, 6pm to midnight (Monday to Saturday); closed on Sunday

Info: Call 6341-9668 or go to www.facebook.com/kurama.yoi


Japan Foods Garden

AKASAKA YUKUN

Founded in Kurume, Kyushu, in 1952, the brand specialises in steamed eel dishes. This is its first opening overseas. The stall's signature dish is the unagi seiro mushi ($28.80 or $38.80), with chunks of eel and finely sliced omelette on seasoned rice. Other options include unagi sasa mushi ($15.80), in which eel and rice are wrapped and steamed in bamboo leaves; and unagi iron pot ($15.80) with chopped eel, fried egg strips and gochujang in a hot stone bowl.


PHOTO: JAPAN FOODS GARDEN

BANZAIYA

Inspired by obanzai, home-style dining originating from Kyoto, Banzaiya features a daily selection of small dishes (pictured) for diners to pick from. Dishes include chawanmushi ($2.50); temari sushi ($4 for three) with salmon, prawn and squid; and saba shio yaki ($5).

GYU TETSU TEPPANYAKI

Watch the chef whip up your meal at Gyu Tetsu Teppanyaki. Check out Gyu Tetsu's signature US Angus beef lemon steak ($18.80), where thin beef slices are doused in a citrus sauce and sizzled on a hotplate. Other options include seafood okonomiyaki ($14.80), teppanyaki cod ($19.80) and Gyu Tetsu Hamburg ($15.80). Set meals are available.

BEAR'S CURRY CAFE & BAR

Try Japanese curry rice with a twist. The Curry Rice Black ($11.80) is tinted with charcoal powder and the rice is shaped like a bear. The katsu black curry includes a fried pork cutlet and there is also a bear-shaped kid's curry ($9.80) for the little ones. The bar also has Suntory The Premium Malt's pilsner beer and black beer on tap ($4 for half pint, $11 for a pint) and a Jim Beam Highball draft machine.

Where: B1-01 Food Republic @ Shaw Centre, 1 Scotts Road

Open: 10am to 10pm daily

Info: www.japanfoodsgarden.com


Japan Food Town

YAKINIKU HEIJOEN

The newest of the 16 brands at Wisma Atria's Japan Food Town is Yakiniku Heijoen. The four-day-old restaurant specialises in premium yakiniku beef.

Good-value options include the Japanese wagyu lunch ($29.90), with Heijoen kalbi, Heijoen beef lean meat, pork and skirt steak; and seared premium Japanese wagyu on rice ($25.90).

For dinner, set menus are available, such as the Tanka set ($129.90), which includes marbled Japanese beef sashimi, thick-cut marbled tongue and steak-cut of the day, as well as a variety of beef cuts, salad and soup.

Where: 04-47 Wisma Atria, 435 Orchard Road

Open: 11.30am to 3pm, 5 to 11pm daily


Eat At Seven

TONKATSU AGEDOKI

The latest addition to Japanese food arena Eat At Seven is Tonkatsu Agedoki, the sister outlet of another tenant, tendon concept Kohaku. Tonkatsu Agedoki's signature dishes include Cutlet Of Wrapped Prawn With Pork set meal ($35) and Thick Slice Pork Loin Cutlet set meal (200g, $21.50). Free-flow rice and cabbage are available.

Where: 03-331 Suntec City North Wing (Tower One), 3 Temasek Boulevard

Open: 11.30am to 4pm, 5 to 10pm daily

Info: www.facebook.com/eatat7

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on October 02, 2016, with the headline 'A yen for Japanese food'. Print Edition | Subscribe