SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Two years ago, Hashida Sushi made a big splash in Singapore with its authentic Edomae experience - the kind that bewitches diners into willingly forking over a premium for Japanese cuisine above all others.
These same people might go sacre bleu! at the thought of paying up to S$500 for a French dinner, but internalise the pain at Hashida if it means extra servings of otoro lovingly shaved from a glistening slab of tuna.
The restaurant's owners are tapping the same sentiment for its newly opened Beni - that diners will pay a premium for French food if it's prepared by an all-Japanese team, using Japanese ingredients.
Beni takes up what looks like half a shop space in Mandarin Gallery just two floors up from Hashida Sushi - it's small, dark and designed like a black hole that swallows you up, feeds you and spits you out into the light again. As we have irrational fears of being trapped in black velvet curtains controlled by poltergeists, we part them gingerly - ready to run if they start flapping with no provocation.
#04-16B Mandarin Gallery
333A Orchard Road
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 11.30am to 3pm; 6.30pm to 11pm.
This little black box theatre reveals a culinary stage, lit by a spotlight with an audience of at most 15 - sitting around a counter where a tiny team of chefs composes artfully plated dishes before you.
Your lunch ticket sets you back by S$128 or S$228, depending on whether you want to spend the extra S$100 on a 120gm Ozaki Wagyu steak - said to be so special that it's named after the cattle farmer.
If you want a whole Hokkaido scallop (diver unnamed) you can add another S$22. Dinner is priced at S$298, apparently featuring the Ozaki beef and other pricey ingredients, but we already spend so much at lunch that dinner isn't an option.
The food is - nice. Really. If it were a guy it would be dependable husband material - not the go-getting risk taker but the kind who brings home the bacon and never surprises you with an exotic holiday to a secret destination.
Lunch kicks off with an amuse bouche of lukewarm fried ayu (river fish) on a mirepoix of vegetables dressed in rice vinegar which would be better if the fish had come to us hot from the fryer. Cubes of seared tuna are positioned on a plate with avocado puree and thin potato rosti, dusted with olive powder. Dots of home made fish sauce add a little interest to this failsafe option. The potential fishiness of low-temperature cooked amadei is countered with a drizzle of mild curry oil and sauteed potatoes. However, its thunder is stolen by the "guest star" scallop - seared and garnished with a slice of black truffle and jus de poisson cleverly emulsified with spices that somehow give it a distinctive konbu essence.
The main course of Welsh lamb is roasted perfectly pink with a simple jus and eggplant puree. But the real star - Mr Ozaki's beef - is sadly overcooked by a too hot fire that zaps the outside and quickly travels to the midpoint, making it well done after a few minutes on our plate. While other diners' perfectly pink meat looks scrumptious, we can only lament that ours is tender but with a latent powdery texture.
A raspberry ganache-filled chocolate fondant brings the meal to a predictable, if unexciting end. The only element out of the ordinary is Beni's range of Royal Blue Tea - made by a company in Japan which steeps different teas in cold water and bottles them like wine. The pleasant lady sommelier can even design a tea pairing, matching your food with everything from Taiwanese oolong to Ceylon tea.
But Beni's all-Japanese cast need to be more than just dependable. They've already built themselves a stage and put a spotlight on it. It's show-time - they need to give their audience a reason to applaud.
Hashida Garo is day to Beni's night - the open concept which leaves nothing to the imagination is the polar opposite of Beni's inscrutable persona. While located right beside each other, Hashida Garo is a cheery, bright space housing a casual counter-seating-only eatery with an attached retail store.
#04-16 Mandarin Gallery
333A Orchard Road.
Open daily from 10am to 10pm
Garo is the brainchild of Kenjiro "Hatch" Hashida, who is taking some time off from slicing sashimi at the flagship eatery to shape delicate macarons and mochi alongside savouries like wagyu croquette and collagen-enriched chawanmushi.
Chef Hashida - a trained pastry chef who learned his sushi craft from his masterchef father in Tokyo - has already been feeding his regular customers with sakura-flavoured macarons or melt-in-the-mouth smooth mochi filled with Valhrona chocolate and strawberries. Garo isn't just an offshoot of Hashida Sushi but an extension of the chef's personality - playful pastry chef, artist and sake/tea connoisseur.
Diners sit around a raised platform that is also used for tea ceremonies. When not in use, a Zen-like display of ceramics greets you. On the walls hang quirky art - try not to get stabbed by one of them which is literally a collection of white spikes in different sizes - which are either done by the chef himself or other artists that he wants to showcase.
There are different things to eat at all hours of the day, from unagi bento for brunch to a comprehensive list of dinner items from 6pm. Lunch is limited to an expensive Miyazaki wagyu bento (S$90) or onigiri (seaweed wrapped rice with fillings) at S$22. From 6pm, there's a plethora of choice, at prices ranging from decent to high.
The best thing on the menu is the wagyu croquette (S$18) which comes without rice (an extra S$7 with rich miso soup). The nuggets of creamy meat filling housed in a shatteringly crunchy crust are perfect comfort food dipped in worcestershire sauce and gobbled down with hot Japanese rice. We prefer this to the chicken karaage (S$16) - juicy balls of chicken in a crust that could use more crunch.
Chawanmushi lovers will get a kick (price-wise too) out of Beauty Biz Eh? (S$35) - frivolous in name but a seriously silken egg custard topped with chewy abalone and mushroom in a layer of collagen essence. Paiten oden (S$20) offers a rich miso-enhanced broth with a fat piece of burdock-flecked fish cake, chikuwabu (speckled fish cake rolls) and an indigestible tangle of tang hoon-like noodles.
Desserts are the real reason to eat here and they are excellent, even if the prices aren't. Chef Hashida's signature foie gras macaron is a seriously good delicate savoury-sweet confection that costs a princely S$12 for just one (the regular macarons are a comparative steal at S$3.50 each). Water manju (S$15) is a must try for the three transparent balls of jelly filled with a smooth bean paste, floating in a light mint syrup, while the kuzukiru (S$20) is the kind of transparent jelly noodles in brown sugar syrup that you might cart home from a Tokyo food hall, except that this is made fresh and tastes better, even if the noodles clump a little and they're stingy with the syrup.
Chef Hashida's mochi are in a class of their own - especially the above-mentioned slinky and tender glutinous rice ball filled with just enough cream, chocolate and strawberry. But at S$6.80 a pop, your wallet will ensure you don't overeat dessert.
Whether you're paying a premium for his time or his ingredients, Garo is no bargain nor even value for money no matter how you slice it. But you can't get anything like this anywhere else in Singapore, or a concept this refreshingly original - right down to the playful fortune cookie-like messages wrapped around the chopsticks. Is originality worth paying for? We like his desserts enough to say yes, although we might suggest: if they have a happy hour discount for beer, how about one for mochi?
What our ratings mean
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on August 31, 2015.
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