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Restaurant Review

Fabulous fugu feast at Guenpin

Japanese restaurant Guenpin's signature puffer fish dishes are not only prepared well, but they also taste fresh

Despite the popularity of Japanese food here, there have not been many fugu restaurants in Singapore.

There is Fuku Fine Dining Restaurant, which opened in Mohamed Sultan Road in 2014, but it has not made much of a mark.

The mystique behind the poisonous puffer fish may be a thing of the past - few people worry about dying from eating it these days because restaurant chefs who handle the fish undergo strict training.

But fugu restaurants tend to focus on the single ingredient and Singaporeans are known to favour variety.

So, it is somewhat surprising to see a new fugu restaurant opening here. But Guenpin, which opened last month at Maxwell Chambers, may just work.

The first overseas franchisee of a chain with more than 90 outlets throughout Japan, it does not position itself as a fine-dining restaurant. Instead, it offers affordable sets and a la carte servings, which it can because of the volume the chain handles.

  • GUENPIN

    01-06 Maxwell Chambers, 32 Maxwell Road; tel: 6634-2916; open: noon to 3pm, 6pm to midnight (Mondays to Fridays), 5pm to midnight (Saturdays, Sundays, eve of public holidays and public holidays)

    Food: 4/5 stars

    Service: 4/5 stars

    Ambience: 3/5 stars

    Price: Budget about $100 a person for full-course meals. There are also bento lunches from $26 to $38 a person.

The other difference is that the Singapore branch, like some outlets in Japan, also serves snow crab dishes besides fugu. So you can have a mix of both or even an entire meal of snow crab.

If you are dining as a couple, a good idea is to order one of the sets, priced from $88 for five courses to $168 for nine courses. These are supposedly for one person, but serving sizes are enough for two. Supplement with a la carte orders if you need more food.

For my lunch companion and me, I order the $88 Guen Puffer Fish Course, which comprises Parboiled Puffer Fish Skin Sashimi, a choice of Thin or Thick Sliced Puffer Fish Sashimi, Puffer Fish Hot Pot, Porridge and Dessert.

With extra orders of Deep Fried Puffer Fish ($35), Creamy Crab Meat Croquette ($15) and Snow Crab Tempura ($32), we have a satisfying and filling lunch.

I usually visit the fugu restaurants in Osaka when I am in the Japanese city, but I find my meal at Guenpin even better.

Everything tastes fresh, unlike at the massive Osaka eateries, which sometimes prepare the dishes ahead of time to cater to the crowds and leave them sitting around.

I am a fan of the springy, rubbery fugu skin, which is cut into thin strips and served chilled in a ponzu sauce with spring onions and grated radish. It is a delight in the mouth, waking up your palate and your jaws at the same time.

Because puffer fish meat is also very chewy, fugu sashimi is usually served sliced so thinly, they look translucent. But at Guenpin, the fish is aged through a freezing and defrosting process that makes it slightly more tender.

That is why the restaurant offers the option of thick sliced sashimi, with the fish served on lettuce leaves and drizzled with ponzu sauce before being blanketed with spring onions and grated radish.

When you chew everything together, the flavours combine beautifully. The lettuce also adds a crisp texture that contrasts well with that of the fish. I enjoy this even more than thin sliced sashimi, which is also available here. That is eaten simply dipped in ponzu sauce.

Fugu can be cooked in various ways and one of my favourite is deep-frying, which Guenpin does well.

Never mind that you may leave the restaurant smelling of oil because the golden pieces of fugu karaage are delicious. The meat is almost as firm as chicken, but has a more delicate sweetness.

At this juncture, we take a break from fugu and feast on snow crab croquettes and tempura. The tempura is especially excellent, with meaty crab legs encased in light and crisp batter. Every bite of sweet and juicy crab is bliss.

After a spate of deep-fried dishes, the hotpot is a welcome follow-up. The pot is a sheet of paper in a wicker basket, with a piece of metal placed at the bottom to set off the induction stove. Fugu pieces as well as vegetables, tofu and kudzu noodles are cooked in a light dashi in this paper pot and eaten with a ponzu dip - boasting clean, pure flavours.

The meal ends with a comforting porridge, made by adding rice and an egg to the remaining stock. It ensures you do not leave the table hungry, but it is delicious too.

Dessert is a scoop of ice cream, with a choice of flavours such as yuzu or matcha. Not very exciting, but it does the job.

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• The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 07, 2017, with the headline ' Fabulous fugu feast'. Print Edition | Subscribe