SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) There's a new sushi restaurant in town. In the local context, that has about the same impact as saying, "Oh, is that a new blouse?" or "I just found another itch to scratch."
There's some mild curiosity, but none of the shivering frenzy that once greeted the likes of Shinji Kanesaka, who first brought Michelin star glamour (and pricing) to Japanese dining in Singapore. Many have come (and gone) since then, claiming links to everything from Michelin stars to Tsukiji's Daiwa or the oden shop in a corner of Tokyo run by somebody's uncle.
Into this scenario enters Shoukouwa, a tiny little sushi place in One Fullerton that boasts a link to three Michelin stars, although via Hong Kong and not Tokyo. It's a venture between the founder of Sushi Shikon - the eye-wateringly expensive eatery in Hong Kong's Mercer Hotel - and the owners of the Emmanuel Stroobant restaurant group making its maiden foray into Japanese food.
1 Fullerton Road
#02-02A One Fullerton
Tel: 6423 9939
Open for dinner only Tuesday to Sunday: 6pm to 11pm. (Closed on March 22 due to closure of Tsukiji Market in Tokyo)
Shoukouwa sits right next to Saint Pierre, which has moved from Sentosa to a more intimate space where chef-owner Emmanuel Stroobant is making final tweaks to his own "omakase" style degustation menus.
Both restaurants are so new that they're still adding finishing touches to the decor, so they still look like works in progress. In fact, on the Friday that we show up at Shoukouwa, we almost think it's closed because of the darkened dining room - it's the unfinished private dining room - but just go on in and you'll come to the brightly lit sushi counter proper.
It turns out to be the first official day of business and it is chef Koji Okada - slightly shy and nervous - who greets us from behind the eight-seater counter. There is no coy kimono-clad Japanese hostess to greet us - instead, it's a local chap in a suit who both clears the crockery as well as explains the various dishes as they come out. When you're more used to Japanese chefs communicating through show and a smattering of English, his mini Sushi 101 lecture can get on your nerves.
We are more interested in what our S$380 omakase - the only option offered - gets us. It's a risky move, giving diners just one expensive option - you're limiting your clientele to only the high net-worth crowd who would invariably be well-travelled enough to have eaten at the best places in Japan and beyond.
Having said that, S$380 - while not cheap - is not exorbitant given the amount of food you get. It's about par with what other high-end places would charge for an equivalent dinner, if not slightly less. Besides 13 pieces of sushi, you get two small appetisers, three kinds of sashimi and four cooked dishes - it isn't often that you roll out of a Japanese restaurant fully stuffed, but that's what happens here.
Our meal kicks off with white bait steamed on cherry blossom leaves for that smell of sakura - we prefer them raw to the sight of beady eyes popping out of opaque white flesh reminding us of certain household creatures we've never been friends with.
We dive instead into the familiarity of raw horse mackerel strips tossed in miso and green onions which is a little salty but silky fresh. All the sashimi is fresh and more than passes muster. Hirame or flounder is presented as three fat pieces with as many condiments for you to enjoy - ponzu, soy sauce and flavoured salt. Kinmedai sashimi is sweet albeit badly cut in uneven slices, like my hairdresser in a bad mood. Slices of smoked bonito are also good but you might want to scrape off as much of the over-salty onion soy sauce to savour the flavour of the flesh.
Steamed abalone appears as two tiny cubes - very tender after being cooked for five or six hours - and topped with a sauce made with its own liver. Oddly, one of the best dishes isn't sushi but the deep-fried crab croquette - the light, super-crisp crust wrapping the creamy bechamel and crabmeat filling is what nails this for us. The other is the silky hot chawanmushi topped with foie gras that the chef offers us when we don't quite enjoy the cold version topped with bafun uni.
The chef's sushi handiwork is inconsistent - with the rice texture softer than we like although he does make a couple which were near-perfect in shape, texture and seasoning. But there's no faulting the quality of the fish, thanks to the daily deliveries from Tsukiji market.
The engawa - fin of the hirame - is a prized part and here it's got a perfect chewy yet crunchy texture. Apparently you get different kinds of sushi each day - we don't get kuruma ebi, for example, although we get a very enjoyable crunchy ark shell. We can't say the same for the similarly textured but just a tad slimy torigai - a slippery clam that looks like a darker complexioned squid.
The tamago (which tastes like an ordinary omelette with sugar added) isn't remotely close to the real McCoy, and we don't care for the oddly powdery citrus custard parfait dessert.
Shoukouwa's strength instead lies in its raw ingredients, which almost makes up for the chef's lack of polish and the restaurant's dire need of a more authentic ambience. But, it's only just opened so the latter two can still be worked on. Once that happens, and if the ingredient quality (and daily deliveries) stays consistent, Shoukouwa may well elicit more than just the token curiosity.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.
This article was first published on March 21, 2016.
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