(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - The restaurant scene is a perpetual revolving door - if you keep returning to the same location, chances are you can dine in three or more different eateries in the space of three years. Duxton Hill is just one of many hot spots where the attrition rate is high - although not a single visit we make ends without us wondering, "Why are Latteria Mozzarella Bar and Lucha Loco still there?"
We're thinking the same again as we manoeuvre around the customers spilling out of the two places on our way to the otherwise empty Rizu - a brand new sushi and sashimi place. It takes over from the previous tenant Club 39, some kind of members' club which had a tapas and cocktail bar that was open to the public around 2015. If its brand of small plates and cool bartender couldn't stand the test of time, the million-dollar question is whether perennially popular Japanese food will be Rizu's trump card.
One thing's for sure: you will spend a lot of money before you decide whether Rizu cuts it as a Japanese eatery, without any sign of a Japanese chef or staff. There is just a two-page menu, and the bulk of it is made up of a la carte sashimi and sushi (there's no attempt to offer dinner sets either) priced upwards of $6 for a solitary piece of salmon sushi ($12 for two slices of sashimi). When the house special is whole lobster sashimi for $75, make sure that you don't leave home without an expandable wallet.
However, Rizu does swing to the other extreme price-wise, with a selection of rice rolls priced from $8 for cucumber maki to $22 for one with lobster filling. If you're looking for something hot, you'll have to make do with either miso soup or an unagi rice bowl from the specials menu. Failing which, you could always rush to the nearest 7-Eleven and microwave something.
Rizu strikes us as a half-baked attempt at modern Japanese, Nobu-style, with neither creativity nor polish. Granted, it has only just opened - but new restaurants usually stumble because they're trying so hard to impress. Rizu barely tries.
Its saving grace, sort of, is a fairly interesting menu of specials, from which we make most of our choices. Horse mackerel sashimi ($18) is roughly chopped and mixed with minced ginger and spring onions, attractively displayed in a glass bowl on ice. The ginger helps mask the slight fishiness of the so-so sashimi.
Striped jack carpaccio ($28) passes muster, with the sliced raw fish bathed in soya-seasoned ponzu sauce that's not too sharp and mellowed out with the fragrance and nuttiness of black truffle shavings.
The financial pain comes from our customised sashimi mix - a small raw abalone ($35); scallop ($14); golden eye snapper (S$18); and fatty tuna ($30). If money can buy happiness, why aren't we smiling after this $97 platter of humdrum sea creatures who died in vain?
By this time we're aching for something above fridge temperature, so the sea bream bowl with sesame sauce ($28) and broiled sea eel bowl ($35) call out to us. The rice is tepid but still better than nothing, even if the raw sea bream is overcome by the sesame sauce and the eel is dry, skinny and pale. By this time, we're convinced that the kitchen - if there is one beyond the sashimi counter - is equipped with only a kettle and rice cooker.
Our last attempt to get a buzz from the food is the spicy crunchy tuna roll ($32) - a commendable effort to jazz up a cucumber roll with a topping of minced tuna and spicy mentaiko, crunchy tempura crumbs and spicy mayo dots for decoration.
Rizu shows some flair when it comes to composed dishes like carpaccio and rolls, even if its sushi and sashimi are strictly ordinary and pricey. Variety isn't the spice of life here, and Rizu desperately needs a good dose of it. Since it's new, it's got a long runway to beef up the menu and the service - but it shouldn't wait too long to get things in order. Forcing people to pay a premium because there's so little choice isn't going to endear itself to diners. Take a leaf out of its popular neighbours' books and find something to draw people in and keep them coming.
Rizu needs to rise to the occasion - and soon.
Rizu Sushi & Modern Japanese Cuisine
39 Duxton Hill
Open for dinner only Tues to Sun: 6pm to 11pm