SINGAPORE (BUSINESS TIMES) - Akira Back is such a cool name. It sounds like an ethnically neutral character in a superhero movie - the surprise ally who swoops in with that one vital clue or weapon the hero needs to defeat the big bad villain ("Luke, he's your daddy!")...
Before your imagination takes over - Akira Back is a real person. He's a Korean-American chef who's built up a successful empire of restaurants from Las Vegas to Jakarta with his self-described menu of modern Japanese food with Korean accents. He's an ex-professional snowboarder who made a career switch, inspired by the likes of Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto and Nobu Matsuhisa.
Las Vegas. Modern Japanese. Nobu. Miso black cod. You know where this is going.
Akira Back the restaurant is so cool - it leaves us in the cold. Both literally and figuratively. Visually, it's textbook hip with its psychedelic, lighted wall murals, colourful paintings (done by the chef's mother) and clear acrylic chairs flanking a long communal table opposite the open kitchen/sashimi display counter.
It's taken over the all-day-dining eatery of the original hotel before it was rebranded by JW Marriott, which explains why it still retains a bit of that coffee house vibe. Originally designed by Philippe Starck, we're told that the look has been substantially edited to fit with the Marriott aesthetic. It all looks very nice, but we spend almost the whole meal mesmerised by this big, black mass that covers the ceiling above the acrylic chairs. Long, swollen, shapeless - was it put there deliberately or did it grow by itself?
Anyway, the restaurant is very cold. But the welcoming servers are quick to bring very hot, mild green tea (S$7) to help take the chill off.
The food itself is a bit of a cliche, going back to the days when crispy soft-shelled crab maki and miso cod were the mainstays of local Japanese restaurants run by non-Japanese chefs. The market is already saturated with every permutation of Japanese cuisine (and celebrity chef) - so presenting an Americanised, Nobu-like concept as a brand new experience is a tad naive.
Where Akira Back has an edge is that the ingredients are of a minimum standard, even if it doesn't have any "wow" impact.
The signature tuna "pizza" (S$25) is an agreeably light, crispy tortilla baked and dehydrated for extra crunch, smeared with a layer of ponzu mayonnaise and meticulously covered with wafer-thin slices of raw tuna.
Chef Back himself pops up at your table to shave a decent shower of black truffle slices over the tuna for a decadent whiff. You can easily put away a few slices of this before the ponzu mayo gets to you.
New style sashimi isn't that new but we have it anyway. A carpaccio of salmon (S$20) is doused in hot oil till almost cooked, and arrives at your table already cooled and sitting in a dressing of oil and yuzu soy, with a crispy shallot topping. There are two recurrent flavours in the menu - either the acidity of ponzu or yuzu, and mayonnaise.
If it's not in the pizza, it's in the signature rolls - which are made with brown Japanese rice for a healthy twist. The crispy pork belly roll (S$23) is stuffed with a breaded, rather salty but crisp strip of pork and topped with coleslaw tossed in a sharp mayo dressing. So far, the food is pretty representative of the modern Asian food we find in the US - mega hits of strong salty, sweet, sharp and cloying flavours with neither subtlety nor complexity.
Level B1M South Tower
JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach, 30, Beach Road
Open: Tuesdays to Saturdays, 6pm to 11pm
Of the mains, Ji-Dori chicken (S$28) is a passable sous vide chicken breast topped with crisp salty skin and surrounded by dreamy potato puree topped with mushrooms. The best dish of the evening is the gyudon (S$42) - pricey but worth it for the buttery slices of rare Omi wagyu and wobbly cubes of foie gras nestled in healthy brown rice, with onions and an onsen egg.
There is truffle sauce to go with it. Ask for it on the side so you can add the amount you want. More like a thick teriyaki sauce, it adds requisite umami to the grains of sticky rice coated with the silken sheen of onsen egg yolk.
Dessert is a chocolate cup (S$15) - warm chocolate cake in a cup topped with a cold vanilla sauce and a scoop of ice cream on the side. The hot-cold juxtaposition is a nice touch.
Even if the modern Japanese bit is an overdone trope, where Akira Back could score is in letting his Korean roots shine a little more.
There are flashes of it in the menu, but they seem to be playing it safe by emphasising the more familiar Japanese accents. Who knows, that might well be the superpower he needs to win over the jaded Singaporean palate.