SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Why are we here? This is Fortune Centre, not Amoy Street. We have neither a need for incense offerings nor a craving for gluten-based vegetarian food. And there is a smell. It is not Molton Brown. It is a mix of eau de joss sticks and fear - emitted by the entitled snob dragged out of an industrial-chic comfort zone into the bowels of Singaporean reality.
There is a sushi bar tucked somewhere in this warren of shops that looks trapped in a time warp, along with new entrants trying to bring the ageing building into the present.
The ground floor, for one, has a casual Japanese eatery that is bustling with a youngish working crowd. The sushi place we are looking for is on the second floor, a sliver of a unit squeezed into one side of an empty shop space.
When we step in, we realise we have not so much as entered a normal sushi restaurant as we have a young lady chef's self-created Japanese universe.
Kappou Japanese Sushi Tapas Bar
Where: 190 Middle Road, 02-10A Fortune Centre
Open: Dinner only, 7 to 11pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays.
Info: Call 9170-4583
J-Pop plays from a portable sound system. Seats are assigned according to the shape of your chopstick rest. It's crab and fish for us. Hundreds of sake bottles fill the shelf above the kitchen counter - a functional space holding the essential equipment to turn out omakase-only menus priced from S$68 to S$128. And then there is the chef - 20-something and tomboyish Aeron Choo - intense, meticulous and a workaholic who runs a solitary operation.
She readily tells you that she spends her nights in the shop because she barely gets four hours of sleep from all the prep work she has to do, from ageing her fish to making all the finicky appetisers in her elaborate menus that are really a steal at her pricing.
Her most expensive S$128 menu will fill you up good and proper, with a good selection of sashimi and sushi - mostly white fish and no expensive cuts - but nonetheless prepared with care.
She seems to walk the talk, telling you about her preferred ways to slice squid and fish to retain the sweetness, or the 141 times she experimented with her sushi rice before she got the perfect blend of textures.
She serves dinner only, and we are told it can take a good few hours because she has no kitchen help. But go early, and it is possible to finish within two hours.
She starts you off with a clump of cold noodles seasoned in a meat and miso sauce that tastes almost Chinese. Melt-in-the-mouth eggplant gets in on the act, too. She has a freestyle approach with the snacks, frying gyoza skin into Japanese doritos, for you to dip into a bizarre spread of cream cheese, monkfish liver and a touch of wasabi that's so natural you wonder why no one thought of it before.
Then there is slippery onsen tamago in dashi (three types of dashi, she says) topped with small ikura pearls from Hokkaido.
A couple of slices of aged sawara or Spanish mackerel follow - one dabbed with shoyu and the other with salt. It's mellow and soft, lightly aburi-ed for a smoky finish.
A string of sushi follows - they're not the most polished looking, with the rice hiding under the fish in rather awkward lumps, but at S$128 for the entire omakase, we are not quibbling.
And she makes the most of the ingredients she can get for this price. We are introduced to tenmi tuna - the leanest cut of the fish - draped over rice that is a little too firm and not warm enough. It is a little salty but the texture wins us over.
After this, we get yellowtail, hotate, red prawn done two ways - raw and torched - tai, kuromutsu, squid cut into noodles with a sweet sauce, and delicious marinated clams served on a bit of rice. The only oddfellow is a crabmeat and uni combination with tasteless sea urchin and strangely perfumey crab.
But the final dish is a winner - comforting, homemade oden with a gutsy broth filled with fish cakes and half of a seasoned hard-boiled egg with a glistening soft yolk. Yes, it tastes more Chinese-style which is why we like it.
Mind you, this is no Teppei Syokudo or the Sushi Bar where the emphasis is on price and quantity. Neither is it anything like mid-priced sushi restaurants run by local (male) chefs. There is no ambience here, and Fortune Centre is no fountain of joy, much less fortune.
Instead, Kappou is a very unique restaurant run by a tireless and driven young chef with her own vision of Japanese cuisine. Whether you're convinced of her skill or not, there's no denying that this is one chef with guts - which you do not see much of these days.
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.