SINGAPORE - Chef Akira Back was born in South Korea, raised in Aspen, Colorado, in the United States, and is trained as a Japanese chef.
So it is no surprise that the menu at his namesake restaurant here, which opened at the JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach about two weeks ago, reflects the culinary cultures of all three countries.
The food is ostensibly Japanese, but you find Korean ingredients such as gochujang (spelt kochujang on the menu) sauce in some dishes and the sushi rolls on the menu are obviously spun from American kitchens.
In fact, the 42-year-old chef created his most famous dish, Tuna Pizza, purportedly to ease Americans into eating raw fish. It is also my favourite among the dishes I have tried on two visits to the restaurant, first invited and then unannounced.
The $25 pizza comes with a thin, crisp crust spread with ponzu mayonnaise and topped with thinly sliced tuna. Sprigs of micro shiso add to the visual and flavour palette, and at the table, the chef shaves some black truffle over it as well. Every bite reveals a different and delightful combination of flavours, all underscored by the crackling of the crust between your teeth.
JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach, Level B1M South Tower, 30 Beach Road, tel: 6818-1914
Open: 6 to 11pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays)
Food: 4 stars
Service: 4 stars
Ambience: 3.5 stars
Price: Budget about $140 a person, without drinks
For the Singapore restaurant, the chef has also come up with a vegetarian version that replaces the fish with mushroom ($18). It has a crunch that the tuna lacks, but tastes bland in comparison. Or light-tasting, if you prefer.
Not many of the other dishes are that mild, however, because the chef's Korean heritage often shows up in strong, sometimes spicy, marinades and sauces.
An example is the AB Tacos ($25), filled with chopped wagyu marinated in bulgogi sauce and topped with spicy tomato ponzu and diced onions. You can't really taste the beef under all that, but I enjoy the explosion of flavours in the mouth. Again, you get a crunch - this time from the taco shell - which is just what is needed to tickle the palate.
But strong sauces are not always the best thing for a dish. This is the case for the Grilled Alaskan King Crab ($42), which is topped with pickled shimeiji mushrooms and a "dynamite sauce" that tastes very much like mentaiko or salted pollack roe. It is delicious but overwhelms the crab. Even as I enjoy the dish, I cannot help but think that it would be much better if I can taste the delicate sweetness of the crustacean.
Subtle flavours are not a concern when it comes to the Seared Foie Gras ($30), though. The richness of the duck liver can certainly stand up to the kochujang miso served with it. And spiced lychee honey smeared on the liver cuts the fat further while adding a little fragrance.
The rolls are where the chef gets even more creative. What catches my eye is the Crispy Pork Belly ($23), where miso marinated pork belly is rolled in brown rice. A coleslaw of white and purple cabbage with mayo covers the dish liberally.
However, the pork is drowned out by having too many things piled on it. And the pairing of miso and mayo is not an exciting one, so the dish is pleasant, but not likely to create fireworks.
The chef uses brown rice, too, for his sushi, which is apparently very trendy. But I prefer the traditional short-grain white rice, which absorbs vinegar better and whose softer texture interferes less with the raw seafood. My order of sea urchin sushi ($30 for two pieces) comes with generous toppings of the seafood, for example, yet my palate does not get enveloped in its creamy notes of the sea - as it should.
Most of the items on the menu are meant to be shared. But there is a small selection of main courses, where the dishes are plated for one person.
Among them, the 48 Hrs "Tajima" Short Rib ($48) is not to be missed. Tajima refers to a type of wagyu cattle from Japan and the chunks of meat in this dish are cooked to just the right tenderness and boast good marbling and taste.
Another main course I try, Line Caught Pacific Halibut ($30), is also very good. The fish fillet is pan-roasted expertly until a crisp crust forms on the top and bottom, but leaving the middle section moist and smooth. It is served with a soya beurre blanc sauce that is so good I'm surprised so few restaurants here use it.
For dessert, I recommend the Chocolate In A Cup ($15), which is layered with gianduja, espresso foam and vanilla bean ice cream, and covered with a disc of white chocolate. You dig your spoon all the way to the bottom, collecting a bit of everything along the way. And in your mouth, you savour bliss.