SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Have you ever sat in a top-end sushi restaurant in Singapore, eating your $120 lunch set and thinking - why is there not a law to make Japanese chefs here serve you enough food to last you more than two hours before you break into your snack stash at the office? Why is there this implicit understanding that they are not obliged to fill you up for less than $200, and worse, we even believe that we need to spend $300 to $500 for a satisfying meal?
We are asking ourselves this during dinner at the new Kappo Shunsui in "Little Japan" Cuppage Plaza. There is half a fish head staring at us with its fleshy eye ball, simmering in a dark shoyu-dashi sauce in an earthenware bowl.
We cannot even scoop up the sauce because the fish takes up too much space. Lift up the half-head and there's another fleshy part underneath. It comes with a bowl of rice and pickles. All for one person. This cannot be your typical, diminutive rice course at the end of a meal. This is the work of a chef with Alzheimer's who forgot he served us seven courses just before this.
No, newly transplanted chef Tomo Watanabe has all his faculties about him, but he is bringing a new taste of Kyoto-style kappo cuisine to counter the sushi-and-cooked-items template that we have gotten used to.
Where: 5 Koek Road, 04-02 Cuppage Plaza
Open: Dinner only, 6pm to 1am (Tuesdays to Thursdays, and Sundays), 6pm to 2am (Fridays and Saturdays), closed on Mondays
Info: Call 6732-0192
Credentials-wise, he put in a year-plus at the two Michelin-starred Sasaki in Kyoto - which does not really say all that much, but he has certainly learnt enough to put together an accomplished meal in elegant surroundings that gives you a sense of Tokyo deja vu.
The restaurant entrance, incidentally, is a mysterious textured wall with one doorway. There is a decorative feature on the left and a control panel on the right. It looks like a trap - as if one will open the door and the other will shoot electric currents into your brain. We opt for the control panel and stab at the buttons. Okay, good. We are not electrocuted.
Instead, a sweet kimono-clad server appears and leads us to the counter where chef Watanabe awaits. He does not say much initially, but warms up during the service to explain that the name Shunsui refers to the seasons, and how he tries to stick to "real" seasonal produce such as ikura in the autumn, instead of those available all year round. Kappo literally just means whatever a chef cooks, and in chef Watanabe's case, he leads off with a cool appetiser of shredded crab meat dressed with vinegar jelly, pink pickled onions, tomato and a spear of spring onion that balances the tartness of the combination. Next up is firefly squid - plump and juicy briny critters that are good enough on their own, prettied up with an arrangement of spring vegetables such as fava beans and sugar snap peas.
A sweet sansho miso sauce picks up and enhances the brininess of the squid to good effect.
A clear soup is served in an arty black and gold bowl, its shimmering surface interrupted by a thick chunk of kue fish - a long-toothed giant grouper. The meaty fish makes space for a green square of "fu" or Japanese wheat gluten, which hasn't got much taste and is a little lost on us.
A little platter of sashimi - hiramasa, tai and ika - is poised, pretty and good quality, eaten with your choice of salt or soya sauce. Two pieces of sushi - aji and kohada also pass muster.
We would have preferred the homemade mochi to have a little more bite and resilience. The round balls with grilled exterior are a little too soft but they go well with a generous shower of karasumi or Japanese dried mullet roe.
If anything, chef Watanabe focuses a little too much on fish, so there is not as much representation from other members of the sea. The main course is a big slab of Japanese salmon, slowly grilled with enough of a sweet sauce without going overboard. But given the size of the fish and the amount of time needed to cook it, it comes off a little drier than it should.
The helmet fish head or kabutouo fares a lot better in comparison - with a generous amount of gelatinous bits and fluffy flesh that has not been left to over-cook. The sauce is rich and goes great with the rice - if only the chef would make this a two-parter meal so we could come back the next day and just eat this on its own.
Dessert is a choice of forgettable marshmallowy cream with red beans and a single strawberry, or a tastier baby cheese platter of teeny mimolette cubes and dried fruit. It is meant to go with a glass of Masuizumi Kijo-Shu ($26) a lovely sweet dessert sake. If you are a sake fan, Kappo Shunsui has an extensive range worth exploring.
Because it is a kappo restaurant where much of the menu is decided by the chef, there's a lot of scope for chef Watanabe to apply his skills to a different range of ingredients which don't necessarily have to be high-end. Yes, he may well raise his prices but there is still enough wiggle room without going into the wallet-busting territory.
The whole ambience, food and sake add up to an overall experience that is close enough to compare with an upper-range Tokyo restaurant (although it still lags behind in freshness) albeit not quite Michelin-star level.
But for what it is, it is comforting, tasty and filling, and that suits our palate and wallet just fine.
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.