SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - In just about every other blog post we have seen about Southpaw Bar & Sushi, it is described in the first line as "a modern Cali-styled sushi bar", as if, hey, everybody knows what a modern Cali-style sushi bar is.
But we are very literal-minded people and have no idea what that means. If there is modern Cali, was there an old-fashioned Cali before it? Is sushi served differently in California? Because the last time we checked, they have real Japanese chefs behind the counter. Or do they subscribe to the stereotype of California rolls served by bubbly blonde waitresses with megawatt smiles and Hollywood aspirations?
Or maybe Southpaw caters purely to Californian-sized diners skinny enough to squeeze into its size zero premises in Jalan Besar, where a sushi counter and 12 bar stools take up all available space. You and a fat handbag cannot enter side by side without being lodged tightly between the wall and an innocent diner already in his place. The bar stools are backless for a reason - so there is room for you to arch your body to let a fellow diner go past to get to his seat. You've heard of height and weight restrictions? Southpaw may as well enforce girth limits too.
One person's claustrophobia is another person's intimate space and Southpaw's warm, friendly staff go all out to engage their customers. They introduce themselves to you personally like a newly-minted friend, and are genuinely keen to get feedback so that they, as newbie F&B operators, can improve.
Located in the unlikely hipster enclave of Jalan Besar, just steps from the football stadium where fans scream and police patrol, Southpaw is a sushi bar in need of a concept and it has chosen whisky pairing as its key USP. A long list of whisky varieties are lost on us but if you fancy alcohol with your sashimi, a very pleasant evening awaits you. But most people are there for the S$68 omakase - one of three dinner sets that make up the entire menu. The other two cost S$98 and S$138, which include sushi instead of a petit bara chirashi, prepared by a Singaporean chef who cut his teeth at the likes of Nogawa and Tatsuya.
The food is straightforward to the point of predictable, hardly varying from a set pattern of appetiser, sashimi and sushi or bara chirashi.
Southpaw Bar & Sushi
11 Cavan Road
01-04 Cavan Suites
Open for dinner only, Mon-Sat: 6pm to 12am
Visually, the biggest attraction - and perception of value - is the giant oyster that kicks off each set. The fist-sized Canadian rock oyster impresses with its bulk but lacks the elegance of its Japanese counterpart, with a creamy centre that is more cloying than enjoyable.
The century egg and tofu appetiser that comes with the S$68 set is fun to eat - a homey combination of egg tofu smothered in a slightly spicy pei tan yolk sauce and chopped jellied egg "white". In turn, the S$138 set matches the oyster with a bowl of salmon roe, fresh and clean on the palate.
If you've opted for the highest priced set, you get a pleasant salmon carpaccio of sashimi topped with herring roe and "fish floss" made of bonito flakes fried in truffle oil. The bonito floss is a nice touch, which gives just a hint of truffle oil without the overkill of fragrance.
A little plate of sashimi follows, the variety dictated by the price you pay. It's decent quality and fresh, if pretty underwhelming in flavour. What disappoints is the wasabi paste used instead of grated fresh root. For an S$18 chirashisushi takeaway we expect no more than the paste, but for S$68, or at least the S$138 set, you'd think they could afford a smidgen of the real thing.
The petit bara chirashi is just that - a smallish bowl of chopped seafood layered over overcooked rice that's soft and on the cusp of mushiness. A heavy hand with the seasoning limits you to just nibbling the edges and the mound of seafood on top of it.
For the S$138 set, it's a bit of a chore to get past the stodgy rice that's squished below layers of seafood including aji, botan ebi, "white" tuna and salmon both done aburi style, a very acceptable bafun uni and the localised hybrid of scallop and foie gras.
Just as you probably wouldn't go all the way to California to eat sushi, the only reason to go to Jalan Besar is that Southpaw seems to have built up a rapport with its growing fan base - there's a steady flow of diners, mostly in the mood for conversation and companionship than a pure dining experience. While the food doesn't sparkle, its heart seems to be in the right place. And that's not a left-handed compliment.
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.