SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Cast a stone in any direction in town and you're likely to hit a sushi bar. But a tempura bar? That's a different story. Usually relegated as part of an omakase or a cooked option in Japanese restaurants for those who don't eat raw fish, an all-fried Japanese meal doesn't seem to have the same kind of snob appeal as a sushi chef who can carve a tuna in enough angles to warrant an entire documentary.
But, there are many ways to fry, as any Japanese tempura chef will tell you, because only in Japan can they make something as obvious as dipping battered fish into oil an art form. At Ippoh Tempura, a family-owned tempura restaurant which started in Osaka, its multi-generation chefs have been at it for over 100 years, so if practice doesn't make perfect, we don't know what does.
With barely any competition in town apart from Tenshin, Ippoh is the first bonafide imported tempura concept to come to town. Fifth generation chef Masaru Seki was here briefly for the restaurant's opening in the new COMO Dempsey, and we had the chance to sample his style of light-battered, delicately crisp tempura that he serves in his Tokyo restaurant in Ginza.
It was as we remember - consistently fried to achieve an even crispness without a major crunch, and a flow of predictable ingredients from shrimp to scallop and fish; and vegetables such as carrot, asparagus and maitake mushrooms.
He has introduced a unique creation just for the Singapore restaurant - extra-crunchy fried nori topped with uni, caviar and wasabi, which is a decadent must-have (only in the S$200 dinner menu). The style we've come to associate with Ippoh is one of understatement, reliability and predictability with no major "wow" flourishes, so don't expect a big show in its Singapore outpost.
Ippoh Tempura Bar by Ginza Ippoh
Block 17B Dempsey Road
Tel: 1800 304 3388 (local calls only)
Opening hours: noon to 2.30pm; 6pm to 9.30pm (open till 10.30pm on Fri, Sat, eve of public holidays and public holidays)
Even the restaurant itself is understated - just a simple counter with 12 seats and a table for six. But it's comfortably spacious so you're not at the elbow of the diner beside you. But if you encounter a gaggle of working girls carping loudly about their female boss throughout the entire meal, good luck to you. You can instead focus on executive chef Aoki Tomonori, an amiable, shy understudy of chef Seki, as he displays the array of raw ingredients he will prepare as part of your S$80 set lunch.
The pricing here is very decent given that everything is brought in from Japan. Set lunch starts at S$60 for a small starter, eight pieces of tempura, kakiage (fritter) with rice and dessert. For S$80 you get 10 pieces, including a little square of shrimp toast - fried bread stuffed with shrimp paste. To start, you get a square of sesame tofu topped with a dollop of decent quality uni. There's also a S$100 luxe version, while dinner starts at S$140.
Of course, there is a reason why chef Seki is the master chef; chef Tomonori - fresh from the Tokyo restaurant - isn't quite up to speed just yet. His tempura lacks the precise timing of Seki-san, served just one or two seconds before reaching the right crispness. Be it the temperature of the oil or otherwise, we notice a vague oiliness that we didn't when Seki-san was cooking, but only if you're really paying attention. If you're too busy telling your fellow diners about your evil lady boss's attempts to derail your career, you won't notice.
For our course, we get two shrimps - the one wrapped in shiso leaf is more enjoyable for the fragrance and texture. Chewy gingko nuts are always a favourite, and the squid is fat and juicy, as well as the kissu (fish) with its fluffy texture. Our shrimp toast is sadly over-fried and oily.
In the middle of the meal you get a sweet surprise in the form of a tiny manju - a little fried dough ball filled with red bean paste - why, we don't know but it's fun to eat. We also get asparagus and maitake mushrooms and a choice of fritter on rice or with green tea. A scoop of green tea ice cream ends off the meal.
This being chef Tomonori's first week, we'd give it time to settle in and get the hang of the frying process. Everything else is pretty much in place - the ingredients are fresh, the ambience is cosy; and the prices, while not cheap, are still fair. Besides, with so few all-tempura joints around, it's time to heat things up.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.