SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) As much as there is to love about Japanese food, there is also a lot about it that eludes us. If psychics can claim to have a third eye, maybe the Japanese have a second tongue - the kind that can detect flavour where the rest of us plebians with standard-issue taste buds find a big bowl of bland. Taste the delicate aroma and umami of stock made by soaking a piece of dried seaweed in water! Uh, would it hurt to throw in a handful of dried anchovies? Savour the pristine purity of puffer fish, a delicacy made possible only after decades of strict training and certification, not to mention the occasional fatality suffered to conquer this deadly creature! Um, can we still order California rolls?
With all due respect to the craft, history and technique behind making the poisonous puffer fish safe to eat, its pedigree status and the way entire restaurants are dedicated to just one main ingredient is lost on us. Fugu is all well and fine to eat, but one still reckons its appeal is less about how it tastes than the Russian-Roulette thrill of not dying during your meal. These days, with most fugu being farmed and bred without the toxic organs, safety is less of an issue. Instead, it's more about whether you want to eat an entire meal around this detoxified critter?
14 Mohamed Sultan Road
Tel: 6235 8216
Open for dinner only Mon to Sun: 6pm to 11pm
The new Fuku is putting its money on people enamoured enough to step into Singapore's first all-fugu restaurant in Mohamed Sultan. The simply-furnished eatery with dark wood tables hasn't much by way of ambience, but it also means there's less to distract you from the main event - the fugu hotpot set.
Fuku offers both farmed and wild Tora fugu - said to be the best quality puffer fish from Shimonoseki, Japan's "Fugu Capital". If you want to shell out S$580 for the wild fugu, the resident chef of Fuku has over 20 years of experience and certification to ensure the safety of the preparation.
But if that price poses more danger to your wallet than the fish itself, opt for the cheapest S$150 set meal - where farmed fugu is served in various permutations before finally landing in hot soup, aka hotpot style.
With fast-paced jazz piano playing in the background, we are introduced to our first course - a starter of cold chunks of meaty fugu bones simmered in sweet soy sauce. There's a natural sweetness to the flesh that's detectable over the braising sauce, with enough meat on the bones to make your gnawing worthwhile.
Even if you think fugu skin is akin to eating cartilage in ponzu, Fuku's version is a more palatable mix of skin and meat - two textural layers lightly boiled and tender with a pleasant chew rather than a gristly one. It's followed up by very decent sashimi - sliced to wafer translucent thinness - paired with a mound of shredded boiled skin and chives for you to roll up and dip into either ponzu or soy sauce.
While it's no match for a good tuna belly or assorted cuts of white fish, these slippery petals are no slouch by fugu standards.
Don't be tempted to order some regular sushi on the side, because the fish used is middling and the rice mushy - memorable only in a negative way.
After the generous amount of fugu sashimi, the hotpot arrives, generously filled with konbu dashi, and we look in some alarm at the miserable portion of bones that are added by our very nice and helpful server. It doesn't take a food scientist to work out that there is too much seaweed-infused water and too few bones to impart any flavour by the time the vegetables and two - count 'em - pieces of lovely fresh fish are added in.
Coming to the rescue are bowls of ponzu and sesame sauce and a dollop of smooth garlic puree which adds some, if not enough, oomph. Even the strips of shio konbu (seasoned seaweed) sprinkled into the final porridge made with the broth fails to excite. This is one time that we would have forsaken authenticity (Japanese hotpots traditionally only use konbu dashi) for a "proper" dashi made with konbu and large handfuls of bonito flakes.
Besides the fugu hotpot, we spread our risks by also ordering the Wagyu ribeye shabu shabu (S$100). Again, we're not disappointed with the perfectly decent 120gm worth of beef, which brings some variety to the table. Clean eaters will be in their element with this bland diet of beef, vegetables and noodles swished in the same konbu broth, requiring some intense dunking in sauces to jack up the salt content in our system to a more familiar level.
As far as quality goes, Fuku deserves kudos for making the effort to source and prepare the key ingredients well. If you already are a fugu fan then it's a no-brainer to head out to River Valley for the fish done every which way from shabu shabu to karaage to hiresake - that potent hot sake steeped with fried fugu that is an acquired taste.
While it might be a hard sell in a market that demands variety, Fuku would do well to stick to its guns and work at converting diners to the delicate ways of an otherwise dangerous fish. It might take a while for us to develop a second tongue, but let's start with the fugu and maybe later we'll even appreciate konbu dashi.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on Nov 24, 2014.
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