SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) If you're on the prowl for new Japanese eateries to check out this week, flip a coin. Heads for style, tails for substance - pick one because neither Tburu nor Kanda Wadatsumi can claim to have both.
On the one hand, you have Tburu - Japanese for "table" - the latest in Hong Kong restaurateur Calvin Yeung's outposts in Singapore such as the defunct One on the Bund and the still-operating Kiku in Duxton.
True to his standing as a restaurant designer of repute, Tburu is an elegant tribute to Japanese understatement - with a discreet automatic screen door sliding open to reveal a dim mirrored foyer leading to a sunny, minimalist dining room.
The Scandinavian-inspired decor is simplicity-perfected, right down to the clever wall feature behind the sushi counter that does double duty as crockery shelves.
218 Orchard Road
Tel: 6221 0004
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 5.30pm to 10.30pm. Closed on Sun.
Alas, also true to Yeung's standing as a foodie of dubious tastes - going by the over-priced and abysmal food at One on the Bund and the underwhelming cooking at Kiku - nothing really clicks into place at Tburu, which dispenses run-of-the-mill sushi and grilled meats that are about as predictable to eat as it must be to prepare them.
You can't really blame the staff who are friendly and helpful, and the chefs do what they can, but they're hampered by lacklustre ingredients and the vicious circle of not being able to justify super fresh ingredients because business is too slow for them to afford it.
That reality hits us on our first visit a couple of weeks ago, when we force ourselves to swallow clumpy rice and limp specimens of raw fish in both the chirashi don ($38) and the deluxe sushi moriawase ($48).
The effort to present the grilled wagyu cubes ($22 for three bite-sized cubes) under glass with a swirl of smoke is laudable but undermined by the tough chewy texture.
Tender grilled slices of pork collar turn out the best ($16) while grilled pig's tongue has the kind of odour which, if you sniff it on a human, might make you turn away diplomatically.
At Tburu, we dispose of the offending organ in tissue paper.
A second visit turns out a lot better. This time, a middle-aged Japanese-looking gent lurks around, and it turns out to be Yeung himself keeping an eye on things. We find out later it's Restaurant Week, and some other media are being hosted at the same time.
That's probably why barachirashi is filled with diced fresh fish, especially when our server confides that they have been getting daily supplies of fish, compared to before. Aha.
But we're not confident enough to order the grilled meats again. But will the quality still be the same next week, we can't say for sure.
For Tburu's sake we hope business gets better so that the ingredients are more consistent in quality, but we'd rather put our money on the omakase at Kanda Wadatsumi - a no-frills joint that looks like it was plucked out of a salary-man neighbourhood in Osaka and transplanted in Tras Street.
50 Tras Street
Tel: 6221 6264
Open for dinner only Mon to Sat: 6pm to 11pm. Closed on Sun.
Unlike most mid-range Japanese eateries where all the fish tastes the same (which probably comes from sharing the same supplier), Kanda Wadatsumi has a different vibe.
It's supposed to be an offshoot of the original restaurant in Tokyo's Kanda district, which has strong links to Zengyoren Japan Fisheries Association, which represents the country's fishermen.
The idea is to get more people outside of Japan to appreciate the vast variety of fish available beyond the usual suspects - imagine an Isetan Japanese food fair with a restaurant element and you get the idea.
Little thought has been paid to prettifying the restaurant which is more functional than anything else, cluttered with flyers (in Japanese) about different fish varieties, whisky bottles and a TV screen constantly running documentaries about fish (which are rather riveting). For some weird reason, Riverdance-like music plays on the sound system.
That it's heavily patronised by Japanese men who behave like they're in a clubhouse adds to the authenticity of the place, as does the cooking of head chef Shinji Hara who's been posted here from the Tokyo outlet.
The menu features regular promotions of seasonal fish and currently it's showcasing seafood from Miyazaki and Ehime prefectures.
Not that we can tell the difference, so we opt for the $120 omakase - which turns out to be excellent value for money for the kind of variety that chef Hara pushes out.
Everything is thoughtfully crafted depending on the ingredients he has (and doesn't follow the usual template of courses you get elsewhere). We get about eight good-sized courses, and he even bothers to make us two different menus when we ask.
Expect fresh, well-prepared dishes such as simmered vegetables topped with slightly vinegared slices of saba (mackerel); home-made, mellow-tasting smooth sesame tofu topped with sweet fresh uni; fat slices of tender octopus and kohada with seaweed and pickled cucumber; crunchy akagai with vegetables and sweet miso; very good sashimi combos; lovely pan-fried octopus with bamboo shoots in a light teriyaki sauce and even fatty otoro steaks pan-fried on a sizzling hot plate that's oozing fatty goodness with each bite.
The meal ends with a commendable plate of sushi with five generous pieces, and miso soup that gets full flavour from fish chunks.
Service is excruciatingly slow as the chefs are clearly overwhelmed by the healthy crowd of customers that are steadily discovering this reasonably priced, rustic gem that sits uneasily in this trend-centric dining street. Be patient though, because the staff do the best they can and are genuinely apologetic about making you wait.
The best is to just settle down, watch some fish videos and enjoy the whole made-in-Japan vibe. Who needs style when the real thing is so much more satisfying?
Kanda Wadatsumi: 7
This article was first published on March 30, 2015.
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