SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) When it comes to Japanese restaurants in Singapore, we have to admit - we're biased.
Sushi always seems to taste better when shaped by a guy who was born in the land of the rising sun and spent all his formative years learning an alphabet with no "L" sound. We always think they're eminently more qualified than the Bukit Merah-born Ah Beng whose Japanese is limited to the names of fish and studied an alphabet with no "R" sound, which explains why his favourite watch is a Lolex.
So when we first visited Tamashii Robataya in North Canal Road in 2013, our prejudice immediately set in at this locally run Japanese grill which catered to the kind of Raffles Place crowd who could tell an Asahi from a Suntory (beer) but not necessarily a kinki from an amadei (fish).
Even though the service was friendly and the owners unpretentious, we lumped it into our list of wannabe local restaurants trying to compete with the real Japanese-run robatayas.
80 South Bridge Road
#01-01 Golden Castle Building
Open: Mon to Sat: 4.30pm-12am
It's time now to eat a little humble pie because the same owners of Tamashii Robataya have just opened Boruto across the street - a chic but unassuming sake/tapas bar with a welcoming vibe and a food menu that shows more thought than just how many things one can deep fry and over-salt to make people drink more.
We don't start off with a great first impression though. Even though our greeter shows us to the counter and says the chef will help us to order, the guy is so reticent we almost think he's Japanese. It's only when we squeeze two suggestions from him - Saga beef tataki ($28.80) and Zuwai Gani Sausage ($30.80) - that we know he's not. We get our Japanese-accented thrill from the lady sommelier, who recommends sakes with all the self-effacing charm of a nihonjin.
Our first bite of the tataki gets an eyebrow lift of approval - the small heap of lightly seared strips of raw marbled wagyu from Saga prefecture is dressed in a mild soy sauce dressing; a sprinkling of saffron threads with its delicate earthiness is a surprisingly good match for the meat. Edible flowers on the plate are both pretty and a good substitute for salad if you like a leafy crunch with your protein.
The Zuwai Gani sausage sounds like an African meatball but it's really sausage skin stuffed to near bursting with peeled Japanese crabmeat. It has a bit of frozen kani taste about it but we're not complaining, simply because of the sheer amount that's used. It does cost 30 bucks after all, so they're not trying to make a fast buck. Sauteed on a hot pan like your breakfast Cumberland, it's sliced in half and served in a reduced crab bisque that's oddly sweet but palatable.
Someone's order of deep-fried chicken wings catches our eye and before long, we've got our hands on a plate of fat, piping-hot crunchy skinned nuggets that give way to a juicy, bouncy stuffing of minced pork, fish and Japanese mountain greens. It tastes almost Chinese but that's the appeal of the menu that is Japanese enough in intent but with a lot of homey Asian touches that give Boruto its distinctive touch. All the recipes come from the head of Max See, the reticent chef who serves us and turns out to be one of the owners of Tamashii Robatayaki. He alternates between the two outlets now, he says as he warms up enough to tell us that he spent seven years in the kitchen of Aoki before starting Tamashii.
If you remember the warabi mochi that's served with the set lunch at Aoki, now you know whose recipe it was. He serves it at Boruto too, with a refreshing glass of champagne "soup" which is really wobbly jelly with a boozy kick.
But before that, you want to get your teeth into a fun fry-up of chicken bits (S$10.80) - a trio of battered chicken skin, cartilage and gizzard - that are the real bar bites. The bits of tender-bouncy gizzard are the best of the lot as the others are too salty to eat without copious amounts of alcohol. But if you're a sake fan, Boruto offers quality stuff (albeit at an average of S$50 for a decent-sized carafe) which matches perfectly with the food - which is always a good reflection on the chef's palate.
A duck consomme that's too savoury-sweet to drink on its own is perfect when the accompanying somen (thin noodles) is dunked into it like a version of hot soba. The idea is that when you've been drinking, the palate becomes dulled and you need a stronger flavoured stock to perk it up, says the chef.
His deft hand at balancing flavours also comes through in his angel hair pasta tossed in garlic oil and mixed with sweet uni until the latter disintegrates into a delicious briny cream (S$35.80), tempered by the soft heat of grated white Hokkaido wasabi which is less aggressive than its green cousin. And even if you're not a fan of truffle oil, the scented creme brulee (S$6.80) still pleases with its luscious satiny smoothness.
Boruto is supposed to be a sake bar first, with a menu that was designed as a co-star to the sake (and the homemade strawberry and plum wines). But it's usually when there's no pressure to be in the spotlight that the best ideas are formed. In this case, Boruto is a full-fledged izakaya (why call it tapas bar) with easy-to-like, unpretentious creations that go with an equally solid line-up of sake.
That a concept like this didn't have to be thought up by a native Japanese shows that it doesn't matter what alphabet you grew up with, so long as you know what you're talking about.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on June 15, 2015.
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