SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Opening a Japanese restaurant in Singapore is hard.
It's as if everybody expects you to have a Michelin sushi or celebrity chef connection. Or at least a link to some big franchise or a multi-generation family-owned eatery that has done everything from making oden to catching their own unagi since the Meiji era.
Or, failing all of the above, you put the word "Ginza" or "Tsukiji" in your restaurant name and hope for the best.
Maybe that's why we like Satsuki Teppan Kaiseki - an elegant, unassuming Duxton Road resident that prefers to carve its own niche rather than hop onto someone else's bandwagon. The all-black, dimly-lit interiors make it look more Japanese bar than restaurant proper, until you notice the serious one-piece blond wood counter and gleaming steel cooking counter manned by three Japanese chefs in starched whites.
SATSUKI TEPPAN KAISEKI
59 Duxton Road
Tel: 6221 5234
Open for dinner from Tuesday to Sunday: 5.30pm to 10.30pm. Closed on Mondays.
Yes, we are suckers for an all-Japanese team - including the one-man manager/sommelier/order-taker - when it comes to delivering an authentic dining experience and Satsuki easily ticks the feels-like-you're-in-Tokyo box. Especially when you're served by assistant chef Agena Kengo with his earnest manner, limited English and genuinely appreciative "Thank you very much!" response to every "Oishii" you utter.
According to Satsuki's website, the idea of combining table-cooking teppanyaki and the haute cuisine style of kaiseki comes from chef/director Motomatsu Takashi - who happens to be serving some Japanese customers on the night we are there.
The idea that you don't need to limit yourself to one cooking genre, and that you can do a lot more with a teppan grill than pan-fry wagyu steaks, bean sprouts and garlic rice while juggling salt and pepper mills, just seems so logical. Especially when you glam it up with a series of inventive sashimi-grade starters and turn humble kushiyaki (yakitori without the chicken) into upscale kebabs.
The S$188 Mochizuki omakase offers a good overview of the menu if you're unsure about trawling through the extensive ala carte sections.
You start off with a by-the-book shirako in ponzu sauce - somewhat tasteless cod milt in a too-sharp dressing, although we like the warm smoky roasted green peppers that come with it.
In contrast, all the elements come together in a wacky but delicious spoonful of raw wagyu sashimi slivers that taste like fatty tuna, sharing its cramped space with slippery julienned yam and mildly tart vinegar jelly, topped with a bit of caviar. It isn't lost on us that this is a variation of Hal Yamashita's wagyu, uni and caviar appetiser at Syun in Resorts World Sentosa, but at least very fresh and sweet Bafun uni is used to good effect here.
Another interesting palate pleaser is slices of toro sashimi and ikura arranged in a pretty square and served with two condiments of mild yellow mustard and deep orange raw egg yolk. The salmon roe is salty enough to season the toro, so you just dip it into the mustard and egg yolk for a layer of richness and sheen. Still, the novelty is more interesting than the actual taste, which is just very pleasant raw fish.
The action begins when our young chef starts cooking thin layers of beaten egg and sticks of foie gras on his teppan hotplate. Deftly rolling the melting soft foie gras into the omelette, he places it on a shiny gold plate and ladles hot dashi stock over it. If you already know 101 ways to make an omelette, add another one.
We like how Satsuki tries to add value to your meal with a whole baby lobster that chef Agena splits into two and grills on the hotplate with lashings of American sauce - aka reduced seafood stock with cream and tomato. Then he shows you his entire range of kushiyaki in a large wooden tray to pick from. Instead of trusty hibachi, he cooks each item individually - asparagus spears rolled in thin pork belly (better than bacon) topped with home-made mayonnaise espuma; sweet teriyaki infused shiitake mushroom stuffed with minced chicken; slightly fishy cod; crunchy-tender ox tongue; and wedge of taro smeared in truffle sauce.
The main course of Miyazaki tenderloin with black garlic soya sauce passes muster if little else and is followed by comforting unagi rice.
The show stealer is dessert, when chef Ageno makes Crepes Suzette from scratch and gives good reason for this classic to make a comeback. He does a great show, setting the pancakes alight in brandy flames and hand spinning caramelised sugar into a wispy nest that he uses to decorate the orange sauce-soaked toothsome crepes and vanilla ice cream.
The name Satsuki refers to the month of May, which is when the restaurant opened. It's still flying under the radar but deserves a bigger share of the spotlight - so that it can show would-be Japanese restaurateurs that a good idea well executed is way more interesting than another chip off the old franchise block.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on December 14, 2015.
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