Fans of Cafe&Meal Muji in Japan can now head to its first Singapore branch, which opened yesterday in the revamped flagship Muji store in Paragon mall in Orchard Road.
The 52-seat cafe takes up about 1,300 sq ft of the 8,500 sq ft Japanese lifestyle shop.
Mr Satoru Matsuzaki, 61, president and representative director of Ryohin Keikaku Co, the parent company of Muji, was in town last Friday for the store's opening, which he says is timely and coincided with the mall's renovation works.
Paragon's Muji was chosen for the first Cafe&Meal because of the spending power of its customers.
He says: "The high-end mall may not have very high customer traffic. But the spending per bill is about $10 more than at the other stores."
Five things to try
SAKURA CHICKEN AND PICKLED SALAD WITH YUZU
Crunchy cabbage is tossed with a light yuzu dressing and there is chicken breast, pickles, mesclun, beetroot, red onion and French beans too. The Sakura chicken is marinated in shio koji (steamed rice inoculated with mould and fermented with water and salt) to make the meat tender and more flavourful.
BAKED BAK KUT TEH WITH HONEY GLAZE
A take on Singapore's bak kut teh (pork bone tea soup), this is baked spiced pork rib glazed in honey. The rib is served with tender daikon.
BEETROOT AND WATERMELON SALAD
Mixed mesclun salad with roasted beetroot and watermelon cubes as well as walnuts, tossed with a red wine vinegar dressing.
- The three dishes are part of the deli set ($12.90 for three dishes, $16.90 for four).
HIBISCUS TEA ($4.90)
The herbal and slightly tart tea is said to be rich in antioxidants.
ROASTED TEA PUDDING ($5.40)
This creamy houjicha (roasted Japanese green tea)-infused pudding is topped with a crisp sesame tuile.
To cater to the mall's affluent shoppers, the revamped Muji includes new sections for children's clothes as well as customisable furniture and fabric.
He says that out of the nine Muji stores in Singapore, the ones at Ion Orchard and VivoCity lead in foot traffic.
To oversee Cafe&Meal's operations, Muji manager Isamu Matsuoka, 48, is based in Singapore for a month. He handles the overseas operations department of the Cafe&Meal division and has been with the company for 12 years.
The self-service cafe offers deli sets, with a choice of three ($12.90) or four ($16.90) dishes to go with white rice, 10-grain rice or bread.
Cold deli choices include green tea Caesar salad and beetroot and watermelon salad, while hot deli highlights include fried chicken with sweet chilli mayonnaise, a best-selling item in Japan. Most of the food is prepared on the premises.
Mr Matsuoka has also come up with a take on bak kut teh and will offer more Singapore-inspired dishes as the menu changes every quarter.
He says: "Eating is related to the culture we are part of, so we try to have some local flavours on the menu. For the other recipes used, they are the same as in Japan and we stick to the same cooking methods."
Konbu and bonito are used for the soup stock and radish is boiled in rice water first to get rid of its strong smell. Rice is also cooked using special induction cookers from Japan.
There have also been tweaks to some of the Japanese recipes. For example, the saba, or mackerel, with sweet and spicy miso sauce is cooked with sambal paste instead of Japanese doubanjiang (spicy miso).
Those who like the packaged butter chicken curry sold at Muji can also have it at the cafe. It is cooked with potatoes, radish and Sakura chicken. The curry ($14.90) comes with salad and a choice of white or 10-grain rice.
On the dessert menu are its signature caramel pudding and houjicha pudding as well as cakes made by a local supplier.
Mr Matsuzaki hopes that diners here will take to the concept.
"Singaporeans like to eat out," he says. "We provide food that is tasty and the price is reasonable."
He is also confident that the company is sustainable in Singapore, even after other Japanese brands such as Francfranc and fashion label Lowrys Farm have shut their stores here.
"Those brands had to leave because the cost of living in Singapore is high, rental too. But we have stayed with the same concept until now and, as far as we can maintain it, we will be sustainable for the future," he says.
He is cautious about expanding the Cafe&Meal concept too rapidly. Cafe&Meal opened in Hong Kong two years ago and China and Taiwan have each had an outlet since last December.
But Mr Matsuzaki is bullish about expanding the brand. There are 702 Muji stores worldwide and 12,000 staff, with 401 of the stores in Japan. Besides expanding into India next year, he is also eyeing South-east Asia.
He says: "You never know, maybe by 2017 or 2018, the number of outlets overseas will be more than those in Japan."
Muji started off as a product brand of the supermarket chain The Seiyu in 1980 and its aim was to offer good-quality, inexpensive products with plain packaging.
Asked what his favourite Muji products are, Mr Matsuzaki, who uses its bath products at home, names one, the simple Muji pen.
He says: "I can use the ink to the very last drop. I may have a Montblanc pen, but I use my Muji pen for signing everything."
- Muji Paragon (04-36 to 04-40 Paragon, 290 Orchard Road) opens from 10am to 9.30pm daily, tel: 6735-0123. Last order at Cafe&Meal is at 8.45pm.