SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) We can still remember when Goto was the yardstick by which Japanese kaiseki was measured in Singapore. Tiny, husband-and-wife operation - the man in the kitchen composing exquisite seasonal delicacies while his sylph-like wife served, a delicate picture of Japanese grace and hospitality.
It was here that we first learnt about pottery from Ishikawa, and at S$280 a head for dinner, it was one of the costliest meal tickets in town before the casinos came and sent our price thresholds soaring into the stratosphere.
How times change. When Goto first opened some six years ago, people could still remember that the Ann Siang area had a red light past.
14 Ann Siang Road
Tel: 6438 1553
Open for lunch and dinner. Mon to Thurs: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 6.30pm to 10.30pm. Fri: 1.30am to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm. Sat: 6pm to 10.30pm (dinner only). Closed on Sun
Now, you're a genius if you can remember who took over which shophouse space in this merry-go-round of F&B entrepreneurs hoping to make a killing in Singapore's reigning party central.
Such a pervasive culture of cocktail-bingeing and casual eating would invariably eat into Goto's commercial future as a place for serious eating.
So, in a show of "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" tenacity, chef-owner Hisao Goto and his wife Saori decided to rebrand Goto as G-One, a casual lunch place in the day and semi-izakaya or small plates restaurant and bar at night.
Gone is the warm, intimate setting of before. Some space has been carved out for a brightly lit bar to manage the comprehensive array of drinks that G-One now offers.
The new banquette seating they ordered hasn't arrived yet so for now, the place looks pretty functional with tables arranged neatly if unimaginatively.
Gone is Mrs Goto in her kimono finest too. Instead, she is practically unrecognisable in utilitarian black shirt and pants, an almost harsh minimalism that is softened only by her familiar gentle, lilting voice.
But we are happy to report that even if Goto-san's ever-changing kaiseki menu is no more, his emphases on quality and execution remains.
Whether it's a simple, crunchy-juicy chicken karaage set lunch ($22) or a beautifully prepared seasonal snow crab ($40), you can tell he doesn't cut corners.
While prices are a lot more approachable, you can still spend a pretty penny if you order with wild abandon from the extensive choice in the a la carte menu where everything sounds good.
The snow crab, for example, is an Autumn-Winter delicacy and the little critter is jam-packed with carefully shelled meat, firm orange egg sacs and prefectly extracted leg meat laid out in a straight row. Considering the work involved, this is really good value.
If the quality of sashimi is what separates a serious Japanese eatery from the self-proclaimed cheap-and-good outfits, G-One more than acquits itself with an excellent value S$48 sashimi platter for one that easily serves two.
Considering how we've been conditioned to accept buffet-quality sashimi at this price in lesser eateries as the norm, we're almost overjoyed to tears that here is a chef who cannot bring himself to serve something he knows to be below standard, just to make a buck.
Here's hoping he's still getting a decent margin on this generous selection of Tasmanian ocean trout, squid, white fish, clean sweet uni, scallops and fatty tuna - all in perfect condition.
On the other hand, the homemade oden ($18) is a little lost on us due to the oddly sweet broth used to simmer passable tender daikon and spongy fish cake.
More of a recipe than a quality issue, we prefer the simmered beef tendon ($28) with its melting-soft braised meat in a light beefy broth. Meanwhile, the slow-braised Chinese cabbage roll stuffed with a minced pork mixture ($16) falls between the two on the satisfaction meter.
When it comes to the technique of slow-cooking vegetables, the best is the seasonal ebi imo yam ($18) which collapses into a smooth, creamy earthy mash when stabbed with your chopsticks, eclipsing the turnip it's braised with.
If you're in need of carbs, hot soba with mushroom (S$16) is an easy-to-eat comforting bowl of slippery noodles and mushrooms in a palate-soothing broth. It's less heavy-going than the odamaki (S$18) - a small but very filling chawanmushi filled with thick udon noodles.
Lunch is a good deal for the quality. In other words, S$50 may not be all that cheap for a chirashisushi set, but consider what you get.
A decent portion of rice topped with a commendable portion of sashimi and salmon roe organised in a two-tier bento bowl with the top layer holding a trio of cold starters - sweet-sour vinegared salmon, cold simmered burdock and yam, and a green salad.
On the side, you also get perfectly steamed chawanmushi and miso soup. It's a better deal than the yasai chirashisushi set (S$48), which you realise too late has no sashimi because "yasai" means vegetables in Japanese.
So you get rice topped with an assortment of pickled vegetables and a large spoonful of salmon roe which doesn't quite compensate for the translation slip-up.
You might be happier with the karaage set for its lovingly fried seasoned chicken pieces that are easy on the salt but deliver on taste.
Desserts are understated yet sophisticated - a lovely milk or brown sugar ice cream parfait (S$12) loaded with mixed fruit and frozen cake chunks; wobbly, refreshing orange jelly (S$6) and a creamy panna cotta-like custard pudding (S$8).
Although the old Goto will be missed, there's no denying that the facelifted G-One is a lot more accessible and responsive to the various states of your wallet.
This is where you can stretch your dollar or splurge, all in one place, and you're assured that chef Goto won't differentiate either way. For him, it's less about the money and more about the pride and passion. And you know what? You can taste it.
This article was first published on Nov 30, 2014.
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