Simple, basic Japanese fare in a rugged setting at Hokkaido Izakaya

SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Tanjong Pagar Road somehow strikes us as a Statue of Liberty for homeless entrepreneurs.

You can almost hear it saying, "Bring me your bridal services; Korean fried chicken and dukbokki joints. Ramen shops, dodgy-looking gyms and shared offices. Your hipster brethren in Tras Street may deny you; not here in my haven of random concepts and negotiable rent."

If the likes of Tras Street, Keong Saik and Club Street enjoy a sense of curated cool, Tanjong Pagar does not. Anything grungy, industrial or low-rent that you see here didn't come from the head of a designer. It's real. If anything, it's like an eco-system made up of street-smart F&B operators competing on price and mass appeal rather than fine dining or celebrity cuisine.

  • HOKKAIDO IZAKAYA

  • 95 Tanjong Pagar Road
    Tel: 6221 7118
    Open daily for lunch and dinner: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 6pm to 12am (Mon to Sat). 11am to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm (Sun and public holidays)

It's here that Teppei earned its stripes and cult appeal for its cut-price omakase meals. In nearby ramen and tempura shops, queues form that don't raise an eyebrow among those in the know.

This is the setting where you'll find Hokkaido Izakaya. Like the name says, it's an izakaya which serves Hokkaido produce and that's exactly what you get, with no song and dance.

For all intents and purposes, Hokkaido Izakaya has everything we would find fault with in other restaurants. It's like the antithesis of Japanese restaurants as we know them. Forget omotenashi - that unique Japanese brand of hospitality. You're lucky just to squeeze your way through a doorway so tight you have to decide which goes first - you or your fat handbag. Not both. And don't even try to change tables from the tight little one they give you with the backless chairs and air-conditioning draught blowing at your neck full force.

"Cannot," says the otherwise really friendly and efficient Japanese manager dressed in what we shall call casual taekwondo with clogs. "All the tables are reserved." At 6pm? He wasn't joking. The place fills up really fast.

But once we settle into the uncomfortable chairs and take in the noisy, cramped space with a huge map of Hokkaido's food producing areas, we're charmed by the ebullient messiness of it all. It could be a tacky izakaya in Tokyo - with a relaxed view to foreign manpower.

The food is simple, basic fare and isn't so much izakaya as just a whole bunch of dishes crammed into a picture menu and roughly divided into appetizers, grilled and deepfried items. Sashimi is dependably fresh and well-priced. A medium-sized platter is just S$28 with five varieties on a bed of ice in a fancy presentation complete with a fish head which the server freely admits does not belong to any of the sashimi on the plate. "Just decoration". How do you pick on something like that? For our money we get salmon, a white fish called Maebara, octopus, surf clam and a small dollop of decent uni.

The uni here is better than the S$35 version wrapped in thin slices of wagyu. Generous sized beef slices are wrapped around sliced onions and topped with shredded nori on a bed of slightly funky uni that looks like it's been charred to achieve a very unhealthy tan.

The day's special is shirako or cod milt (S$18). In a simple hotpot it shows that it's past its peak, so a slight fishiness comes through. It's less noticeable when cooked as tempura, the familiar creaminess coming through a crust of batter.

The best is a grilled fillet of kinki (S$38) - stingy in size but fresh and succulent, sitting in a comforting pool of creamy potato sauce that you will forsake your favourite Jagabee chips for anytime. Like savoury potato puree, it's infused with garlicky miso for good measure.

Hokkaido is apparently known for its soba (S$10)and here it's chewy with the requisite springiness that is best eaten cold rather than in a hot broth which softens all the joy. If you want a soba fest, check out its lunch specials, which are all noodle-based.

Otherwise, fulfil your carb quota with negitoro don (S$12) - tightly packed rice topped with a mix of minced tuna and fish slices and a too-firm onsen egg. Strictly so-so but you can't fault it for the price.

There's no dessert, although Hokkaido's famous milk is churned with sake lees for a Dassai ice cream which you can end your meal with at S$5 for a measly scoop.

Cheap (in parts), cheerful (mostly) and grungy (totally), Hokkaido Izakaya is basic Japanese fare served with a no-nonsense flair. While most Japanese places seem achingly poised, we like its rugged, down-to-earth nature - just like the road it's on.

Rating: 6.5

WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN

10: The ultimate dining experience
9-9.5: Sublime
8-8.5: Excellent
7-7.5: Good to very good
6-6.5: Promising
5-5.5: Average

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.

jaime@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on February 29, 2016.
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