SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) If I were a gambler, I would not play poker with the chefs at Ginza Yoshihiro. You've heard of the card player who doesn't show his hand? Ginza Yoshihiro is an oden restaurant which doesn't show its oden.
Oden is Japanese yong tau foo. Namely, fish cakes, tofu, daikon and sometimes hard-boiled eggs or even octopus tentacles in the more traditional places.
Oden virgins usually experience their "first time" in a 7-Eleven in Shibuya, picking floating orbs from tea-coloured broth ladled into a paper cup. You would be forgiven for not having heard of Ginza Yoshihiro's original shop in, yes, Ginza - a family-owned oden eatery that, according to YouTube, seems better known for its tendon (rice with tempura or other toppings).
In Singapore, it takes over from the short-lived Sushi Dai - also touted as an import from Tokyo's Tsukiji market but not at the kind of prices that warranted queues at 4am. Even the sushi counter looks the same, apart from the addition of that familiar wooden vat of steaming oden broth which chef Hisayuki Nishioka lovingly stirs from time to time. Some of the staff are the same too, including the Singaporean sushi chef who serves us and possibly the sweet unpretentious servers who are refreshingly down-to-earth types - one of whom is obliged to wear some kind of uniform that looks like a deconstructed yukata with platform flip-flops.
Level 4, Marina Mandarin Singapore
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 11.30am to 2pm; 6pm to 10pm.
We learn that chef Nishioka was the head sushi chef at Hide Yamamoto, while his younger brother runs Ginza Yoshihiro back home in Tokyo. Which may explain why even though the unique selling point is oden, this is primarily a sushi joint that also serves tempura, sukiyaki, tendon and others on the side.
We're not sure what lunch is like but for dinner, you're offered three omakase choices priced at S$148, S$168 and S$238 featuring different combinations of appetisers, sashimi, sushi, "signature oden", kurobuta or wagyu shabu. There's some a la carte sushi and sashimi, luxe king crab or abalone oden, tempura or sukiyaki.
We opt for the first two omakase, thinking that we would cover our oden quota with the "signature oden". Chef Nishioka is friendly and polite, and even though we are the only customers, he prefers to stir his broth and leave us in the hands of sushi chef Kwan Ng. Chef Ng is free with his banter and generous with his servings, slipping in a few extra bits and bobs here and there.
At S$148 and S$168 respectively, there's more than enough to eat but don't expect high-grade stuff. We like the raw octopus, freshly cleaned and sliced - especially its crunchy, cartilaginous "ears", and the good-sized portion of sashimi including toro, kinmedai (alfonsino) and sawara (Spanish mackerel).
The chef gets the best that he can given the price range, and his sushi is edible - it's just that neither rice nor fish has any kick. He does have a nice trick of lightly torching the skin of some of the fish slices so there's a bit of bite - different from the normal aburi. He also does a tasty hand roll of chopped tuna and uni.
Oh but wait, we're still looking forward to some fish cake, konnyaku and just as we wonder if there might be any octopus in the signature oden, we're served a single, fat, quivering momotaro tomato sitting in a clear, pristine broth. That, apparently is the "signature oden" - singular, not plural; and vegetable, not sea animal. I suppose we should have guessed from the platters of red plummy tomatoes behind the chefs.
It's good for what it is - melting-soft tomato in comforting, delicate dashi - but it ain't no chikuwa. Even though they're air flown from some famous tomato-growing prefecture whose name slips our mind, they haven't got much flavour to speak of. For that, we have to turn to the shabu shabu of kurobuta - tender slices of Japanese pork belly swimming with daikon, sweet potato and mushrooms in the same clear sweet broth.
And that's it. Apparently they do make their own fishcake and there is regular oden available but they haven't made it yet and it's not on the menu. Maybe it's an occasional special or a supper option but they're pretty vague about it.
We hope they start ramping up their menu soon because Ginza Yoshihiro sorely needs a stronger identity to stand out from other sushi bars, and the weirdly psychedelic sake/wine bar at the entrance may not be enough of a draw. It's always a risk to open a new place. What they really need to do now is swing the odds in their favour.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on November 28, 2015.
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