Wallet-friendly Japanese meals?

Nomi Dining Bar's new menu features izakaya favourites. PHOTO: JOEL LIM

SINGAPORE – It was the border opening Singaporeans had waited most patiently for. And since Oct 11, when visa-free travel to Japan resumed, waves of travellers have rushed there.

They are unleashing the pent-up longing built over more than two years of not being able to visit the country.

Once they get there, and walk into any restaurant, they will realise one thing – that they have paid a lot, perhaps too much, for Japanese food in Singapore.

Bowls of artisanal ramen are mostly priced under $10. An entire set meal with rice, pickles, soup and a main dish can be had for $8. A kappo dinner for two in a Ginza restaurant, with multiple glasses of sake, is under $300.

Even at a luxe sushi-ya, for a meal featuring expensive ingredients such as matsutake mushrooms; multiple cuts of tuna, both fatty and lean; sea urchin; abalone and salmon roe; the price never threatens to induce a heart attack, unlike the prices here.

At some Japanese restaurants in Singapore, omakase meals routinely cost upwards of $500 a person, sans alcohol.

If seasonal delicacies – say, snow crabs – are on the menu, expect to pay a couple hundred dollars more.

There are many reasons Japanese food is expensive in Singapore.

All the ingredients have to be imported. The lovely plates and bowls you eat from have to be imported. Supply chains for both have been disrupted because of the pandemic. Logistics costs have skyrocketed for the same reason. Labour in Singapore is expensive. Rents are crazy.

Oh, and in the last three years, Japanese restaurants here have had a captive audience.

The best restaurants have long wait lists of people wanting their sushi/kaiseki/tempura/yakiniku fix. The prices go up and up, but diners shut up and pay because, well, what is the alternative?

Alternatives abound now.

Some restaurants have been sending text messages to regular diners, asking if they would like to make reservations.

One newly opened sushi-ya, which charges the same price for lunch and dinner, recently introduced a lower-priced lunch menu with two fewer appetisers and two fewer pieces of sushi.

Already, in 2022, a raft of restaurants began offering sushi and kaiseki meals priced under $200. These include sushi restaurant Shin Yasuke in River Valley Road, which charges $180 a person. It is an offshoot of one-Michelin-starred Sushi Kimura, where dinner costs $450 a person.

At Sushi Seizan in North Bridge Road, omakase meals are priced from $88 at lunch. The restaurant is the Singapore outpost of the two-Michelin-starred Seizan in Tokyo.

Omakase meal prices at Sushi Yujo at the Amara Hotel start at $98 for lunch and $198 for dinner.

Iki Concepts, which owns Kiyose in Forum The Shopping Mall, closed the kappo-kaiseki restaurant in November.

Kappo-kaiseki restaurant Kiyose at Forum The Shopping Mall has made way for casual dining restaurant Nomi Dining Bar to expand. PHOTO: JOHN HENG

The casual dining restaurant that shared the space – Nomi Dining Bar by Nozomi – has spread its wings. Its menu features casual, izakaya-style food such as mentaiko fries, grilled onigiri or rice balls, sushi, sashimi, yakitori, and grilled seafood and beef. Starting in January, Nomi will also have monthly sake-tasting events with prices starting at $68 a person, and 12 to 18 labels available for the guided sessions.

Might more restaurateurs realise it is difficult to beat the prices in Japan for high-end meals? Or will they watch while diners here flock to Japan to dine like royalty for less?

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