Kurama Robatayaki, which opened at Millenia Walk last month, is not going to get many walk-in customers.
That is because anyone walking past it at the mall's Nihon Food Street would not see the restaurant. What they see instead is a sake bar called Yoi, a makeshift-looking affair with a wire-fence gate, a cement floor and tables that look like stacked plastic crates.
To dispel the notion that this is a storeroom, though, carp streamers (koinobori) are hung on the wire fence and colourful cutouts of anime figures pasted on the walls.
To get to Kurama, you have to walk to the back of the bar and through a veiled doorway. Behind the curtains is the restaurant, which looks so different from Yoi that you could have entered a different dimension.
It is laid out in a way typical of robatayaki eateries, with a long wooden counter running down the room. The chefs and their charcoal grills stand on an elevated platform behind the counter, while diners sit facing them. In between is heaped the raw food - a colourful smorgasbord that ranges from wagyu beef, chicken wings and scallops to mushrooms, sweet potatoes and musk melons.
02-07 Millenia Walk, 9 Raffles Boulevard, tel: 6341-9668, open: noon to 2pm, 6pm to midnight (Monday to Saturday)
Food: 3.5/5 stars
Service: 3.5/5 stars
Ambience: 4/5 stars
Price: Budget from $100 a person
Lit white paper lanterns with Japanese calligraphy cover the ceiling and a wall, while another wall is filled with rows of white discs that form an interesting geometric design.
The restaurant has an a la carte menu, which is useful because it lists the prices, but I find the produce in front of me so tempting that the menu is abandoned after a while. It's easier to just point at what you want - like how online shopping is done with just a click - though I make sure to check the prices before I confirm anything.
Cooking at a robatayaki is restricted mainly to charcoal grills, and the chefs pass the cooked food to you on long wooden paddles. Seasoning and sauces are used minimally, so what you get depends very much on the quality of the ingredients.
The food at Kurama is not top-grade, but good for the price you pay. Among the more expensive items is the wagyu kushi omi ($27), a medium-grade sirloin cut. It does not boast the burst of fat you get from top-of-the-range wagyu, but the flavour is good. There is a bit of sinew, but I enjoy chewing on that, so it's not a bad thing for me.
Contrast in texture is also the reason minced chicken patty or tsukune usually has bits of soft bone mixed in it. Kurama does that and serves the tsukune ($8) with sweet sauce that has a raw egg yolk floating on top. The seasoning is well balanced and the yolk forms a smooth coat over the patty - all the better to contrast with the crunchy bits of soft bone inside.
I prefer it to the chicken wing ($6), which is hardly seasoned and, because of that, unremarkable.
The buta bara ($9), or pork belly, is a bit tough. But the flavour is good, which the required chewing brings out very well. So I'd recommend this for those who do not insist on pork belly being melt-inthe-mouth soft.
If you like your meat more tender, go for the lamb rack ($16). It is juicier too and does not taste overly gamey.
Seafood generally turns out well with robatayaki and Kurama's dishes are commendable.
The hotate ($30) or scallop is delicious, even though it is also a tad overcooked. Grilled in its shell with sake and a bit of butter, it is sweet and its juices blend with the spirit to form a very tasty sauce.
The big prawns or Kurama ebi ($18) are firm and sweet, an indication of freshness, which is all that is needed to make a success of the dish.
The vegetables I try - shiitake ($10) and satsumaimo ($11) or sweet potato - are pretty much the supermarket variety and not worth the price.
The money is better spent on a fresh momotaro tomato ($12), which is served raw and chilled with just a sprinkle of salt. The flavourful fruit makes either a refreshing start to the meal or a palate cleanser at the end.
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• The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.