(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - When it comes to competition, sushi restaurants in Singapore have it tougher than most.
There are only so many ways to slice a tuna, so it is always a question of how to convince a small pool of diners to pay top dollar for your quality, while battling the bottom-feeders who find plenty of takers for their no-frills, bargain-basement fare.
Ishi has found a comfortable middle ground in its attractive new space at the InterContinental in Robertson Quay - where it looks like a pricey hotel Japanese restaurant, but delivers a good balance of quality and service at manageable prices.
Lunch is, of course, a much better value than dinner, although it still manages to stay under $200 in the evening, with menus ranging from $180 to $300.
It is a lovely cosy space - nothing too elaborate with one main counter and one or two private rooms.
The counter is helmed by chefs Hideki Ii and Masaaki Sakashita - easy-going, friendly chaps who do a good job of creating a welcoming ambience. They genuinely try to please but are not intrusive. They are easy to talk to and, overall, it is a pleasant, fuss-free meal.
Lunch starts with a seven-piece sushi set for $48 that, if you pair with an order of wagyu steak ($55), will fill you up for just over $100, which is really not bad at all. The wagyu is done millefeuille-style - thin slices of A5 Miyazaki beef rolled and pan-seared to melt-in-the-mouth tenderness with a dab of yuzukosho (yuzu-chilli condiment) to cut the fat, and crisp garlic chips. It is so rich, you could even split the serving of five or six rolls between two people.
We get a smaller portion as part of the $180 omakase - the most expensive lunch set which starts you off with a starter of raw hirame rolled around crunchy herring roe. Shredded chives and ginger round off the refreshing clean flavours very nicely.
It is followed by a wobbly smooth chawanmushi with crabmeat; five or six slices of very fresh, good quality sashimi; the wagyu; eight pieces of sushi; rice bowl; and dessert.
Drop the beef and sashimi and swop out a couple of the more expensive sushi items, and you have the $120 "botan" set, which also includes the hirame starter.
Between the two sets, we get a commendable range of sushi that includes tai (red snapper); barracuda; meaty marinated tuna with a touch of yuzu; sawara (Spanish mackerel) with an unexpected hint of Tasmanian mustard that lifts the flavour of the soft, creamy and slightly smoky fish.
The shima aji could be better, as could the botan ebi, which is nonetheless enjoyable for its sweet, sticky resilient texture. But the hokigai is crunchy and sweet, while chutoro and otoro are suitably luxe and oily.
The rice is on the soft, starchy side, lacking that sweet spot where chewy, tender rice with discernible grains melds together with the fish for the perfect bite.
Both sets end off with a bowl of rice with clean, sweet, uni and ikura, and housemade sake lees ice cream.
If you just have time for a one-dish lunch, the chirashi set ($68) is a good deal too, for the sheer amount of sashimi layered over rice, with a generous dollop of negitoro that you mix into the rice for extra kick. Dry cubes of egg omelette are the only setback.
Ishi is not cheap, but not expensive either. It is not like it beats its peers in terms of quality, but we like how it holds its own while keeping its prices in check. We will be back.
Where: 02-06/07 InterContinental Singapore Robertson Quay, 1 Nanson Road, tel: 9829-8239; open for lunch and dinner: noon to 2.30pm and 6.30 to 10.30pm (Tuesdays to Sundays)