Good quality Japanese food usually comes at a price in Singapore - and it can be a very high price. So it is a very pleasant surprise to look at the menu at Sakurazaka and see how affordable this new shabu shabu (Japanese hotpot) restaurant is.
Opened barely two weeks ago in Greenwood Avenue, the place serves premium meats such as Joshu wagyu and shirobuta (white pig). There is an a la carte menu, but for the best value, the sets are what you want to look at.
There are four to choose from - three for shabu shabu and one for sukiyaki.
Prices range from $95 for two persons for a pork set to $128 for two for the beef set.
Each set comes with a starter, assorted vegetables, rice or noodles, dessert and a choice of two broths.
24 Greenwood Avenue, tel: 6463-0333 (no reservations), open: 6 to 10.30pm daily
Food: 4 stars
Service: 3.5 stars
Ambience: 3.5 stars
Price: Budget from about $56 a person, without drinks
The last shabu shabu is the bouillabaisse set ($108 for two), which comes with seafood such as tiger prawns, scallops, red snapper and squid, and a choice of bouillabaisse stock, which is not available for the other sets.
The sukiyaki set ($150 for two) comes with different types of beef.
So you can have a full meal from $56 to $88 a person even after adding the service charge and tax.
The pork set is what I go for.
To kick off the meal, you are served two slices of Iberico pork to be cooked at the table on a hot stone, which you then dunk into sukiyaki sauce mixed with a barely cooked egg.
Called ishiyaki sukiyaki, this is to give shabu shabu diners a taste of what the restaurant's sukiyaki tastes like.
Unlike other restaurants, which cook sukiyaki in a hotpot with a sweet broth, the version here is cooked with just a little sweet sauce in a shallow pot. But I don't have a sweet tooth and prefer the shabu shabu.
The pork in the ishiyaki sukiyaki tastes lovely, but a problem I have both times I dine at Sakurazaka - first invited and then unannounced - is that the first slice gets stuck on the stone and has to be scraped off bit by bit. So you really get to enjoy one slice whole, which is the way to savour the flavour fully.
What comes next is the hotpot, for which you can pick two broths. There are four to choose from: chicken, pork, ago dashi and soya milk. I pick the ago dashi and soya milk and the dashi turns out better.
Ago dashi is made with dried flying fish and has a mild sweetness that is very pleasant. That is what you want in a hotpot because it flavours the ingredients without masking their original taste.
The soya milk broth has a distinct taste of soya beans when I taste it before cooking the ingredients. But that characteristic is not imparted to the cooked food. Still, it is a subtle broth that does not obscure the ingredients even if it is not as sweet as the ago dashi.
Two types of Kyushu pork are served: 200g of belly and 200g of loin. The almost all-lean loin is healthier, but it is the belly that tastes better. Its aromatic fat also smoothens the texture of the meat.
Dunk the thin slices of meat into simmering, not boiling, broth for just a few seconds if you do not want them overcooked.
Three dips are provided: goma (sesame sauce), shiyo ponzu (a clear citrusy sauce) and ponzu that is made with miso essence instead of the usual soya sauce.
The ponzu, which has a strong umami flavour and is not overly tart, is my favourite and works with everything from vegetables to meat.
I add an extra order of Joshu wagyu ribeye ($45 for 100g) for variety and the buttery flavour of well-marbled beef does not disappoint.
You can also order a beef set and add the shirobuta belly ($12 for 100g) if you prefer to have more beef.
The rest of the shabu shabu comprises the usual assortment of vegetables and mushrooms that provide a break from the meat.
To wrap up the shabu shabu, you have a choice of rice or noodles to add to the broth. Sakurazaka also does a Japanese rice risotto, with cheese to thicken it.
They are all good. The noodles are smooth and springy, while the rice absorbs the tasty soup and turns it into a comforting porridge. Even the odd risotto works, especially with the bouillabaisse broth, which has a more Western flavour.
Dessert is kakigori (Japanese shaved ice), with a choice of six flavours such as matcha, strawberry and mango.
The one I like is port wine, which has small cubes of port wine jelly buried in the syrup-drenched ice along with mandarin orange wedges.
A small container of condensed milk is served on the side if you like it sweeter, but it's good as it is.
If you like milk, go for the Hokkaido milk kakigori. The first scoop tastes of too much dairy, but the rich milk flavours soon grow on me and I find myself enjoying the dessert more and more.
To enjoy both, share the port wine and Hokkaido milk with your dining companion. With one tart and refreshing, and the other rich and sweet, they are a perfect match.
- The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.