SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) If I were an Italian chef - or French, Spanish, whatever - I'd go pick a fight with Japanese chefs. I would pull one into a dark alley - after ensuring he is not skilled in the ninja or samurai arts - and throttle him in a fit of Mediterranean indignation at how he and his ilk have invaded my culinary turf and practically beaten me and mine at it.
"Stop winning our pizza-making competitions! My Nonna taught me to make ragu rich and heavy so men don't get hungry out in the fields. You take the recipe and make it so light and tasty that even Japanese ladies can eat a whole plate! And what is this - pasta with Hokkaido uni? Why didn't I think of that first?"
We don't really know what it is that makes Japanese chefs so adept at adopting a cuisine and fine-tuning it to great effect. Just look at how they've excelled in fine-dining French restaurants and the way Japanese-Italian is considered a genre in its own right.
Maybe it all boils down to applying their own ingrained obsession with product quality and cooking techniques to any cuisine they choose. Except maybe for Chinese food because they totally bomb at that.
54 Tras Street
Open for lunch and dinner. Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2pm; 6.30pm to 10pm. (Dinner only on Sat)
Japanese-Italian cuisine has a pretty small presence in Singapore, with Seita Nakahara being one of the few who have been in the local scene for a while. He grew up in Singapore and has cooked at restaurants including Enoteca L'Operetta.
His food has always been pleasant if not memorable, but with his new solo venture Terra, he may finally have found his true voice.
The smartly decked out eatery in Tras Street hits the sweet spot between corporate and hipster with its shiny terracotta floor tiles, sleek glass partitions and garden feature wall that gives it a modern conservatory look.
A blackboard menu fronting the semi-open kitchen adds to the informal chic vibe. A harried Japanese floor manager and surprisingly loud Japanese diners complete the Tokyo link.
The food is appealing and light, with assertive flavours that nudge you rather than hit you in the face. You don't expect much from the carpaccio of the day (S$28) at first, until you bite on the salmon roe pearls that adorn the thick slices of sea bream sashimi - unleashing a spurt of brininess to flavour the fish.
Purple flower petals are a clever substitute for salad leaves, while the drizzle of olive oil and pesto remind you of its origins.
The signature dish of a single giant scallop (S$20) gratinated with bread crumbs and cheese is deservedly so - the shellfish is very fresh and served piping hot in a little cast iron pot, briefly broiled with its buttery crumb topping, sitting in a sweet-savory tomato sauce, tender asparagus and Japanese mushrooms.
The table beside us orders Parmesan cheese risotto which is dramatically served from a giant wheel of cheese with a plate-sized crater filled with hot creamy rice. It makes us regret ordering the Ragu Alla Terra (S$26) until we dig into this feather-light, tomato-free stew of minced Tajima beef and added bits of tongue, tail, tripe and bone marrow which lend crunch and texture.
It's tossed with a good handful of homemade pasta that starts out with a lovely "QQ" bite and softens slightly by the end.
The winner is the pasta with Hokkaido uni (S$38) - a dish that so easily goes wrong with lesser versions where poor quality urchin is whipped with butter and cream into an off-putting pungent mess. The uni that chef Nakahara uses is pretty high grade Bafun that's clean in taste throughout.
There's little trace of butter or cream as he uses a base of lobster bisque and the urchin's own emulsifying properties to coat strands of chewy pasta in a silky sauce that is rich without weighing you down. A sprinkle of yuzu and homemade bottarga completes the treat.
Terra's portions are small enough that you can order a starter, pasta, meat and dessert without over-doing it. For us, the two thick slices of seared Tajima steak (S$52) that cuts like butter but is more meat than fat, is better than Mr Yoshioka's pork (S$38).
The latter is iberico pork from a Japanese farmer in Spain - but while it's fairly moist and juicy in parts, there's no escaping that hint of frozen dullness (the meat cannot be imported chilled) that permeates it and robs it of its natural bouncy texture.
Dessert is simple but sharp: light, creamy sabayon hides bits of coffee liqueur-infused sponge in the parfait-like tiramisu, and the fluffy fresh-baked chocolate fondant cake with ice cream. Note the fat Japanese grapes in each dessert which are thoughtfully skinned. That's detail for you.
The only nitpicks would be Terra's insistence that even the set lunch is ordered by the entire table. So you can't have one person opting for set and another the a la carte menu. We can understand the restriction with long tasting menus, but we've never seen this rule anywhere else.
Service is patchy because they're so understaffed, and they're stingy with the toasted ciabatta that comes with a dreamy mushroom pate we would want to buy in bottles.
We'll be back to check out his tasting menus to see how widely he can flex his cooking muscles. Meanwhile, there's probably an alley behind Terra for any jealous Italian chef to call chef Nakahara out. For our sake we hope he knows some gongfu.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on November 9, 2015.
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