(THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Sitting on the fifth floor of Takashimaya shopping centre, Mizuki looks like a well-groomed poodle in a roomful of mutts. Its neighbours are a ragtag bunch - noisy Chinese restaurant, Lego shop, household appliance store and some kind of hybrid Indonesian-Thai eatery. But Mizuki is all high-brow Japanese, with its elegant wooden facade and discreet entrance. It should be in some upscale hotel or at least on the fourth floor, where the fancier restaurants are. Not on the fifth floor, where families and young adults roam and eateries compete on price and quantity. We ate there once at a place called Ha Ha Thai - it was so bad it wasn't funny.
So forgive us for entering Mizuki thinking the facade is just a distraction and that it's really a conveyor-belt sushi place in disguise. But no, it's just as sleek inside - a cavernous space housing two full-sized dining counters separated by an intricately patterned wooden partition.
One counter is devoted to sushi. It's clearly a "just-in-case" option for those who don't want tempura, which is what Mizuki is about. But we are not undecided. We head for the other counter because we want fried food and the question is how well the stern-faced but affable Japanese chef and his earnest young local sidekick can do it.
Like a lot of Japanese cooking, tempura looks no-brainer straightforward - dunk a shrimp into batter and pop it into some oil. But they have to make it an art form, so chefs spend years perfecting the ratio of flour to water, oil temperature and frying time. Only to encounter Goldilocks-style diners like us who pick at their fritters and complain, "too soft", "too thick" or "too oily".
Mizuki's batter is - almost - just right. We've had our share of well-meaning tempura - feather-light and fried till just on the cusp of crispness and fighting to hold on to its crunch as it leaves the pot of oil and onto our plate, only to deflate the moment we bite into it.
Here, the crunch holds right through to the last bite, although you do have to bite quickly - so don't dawdle. The trade-off is that the batter is just a smidgen thicker to accommodate the extra seconds of frying time, but we're not going to split hairs over a micrometre or two.
The caveat is that tempura restaurants in Singapore are few and not stellar. The most they can aim for is good, and while we like it enough to consider it a new go-to place when we have Tokyo withdrawal symptoms, Mizuki isn't cheap.
It ranks alongside its main contenders Tenshin at the Regent and Ippoh in COMO Dempsey, with Ippoh being slightly more friendly in price, starting at $100 for dinner compared with Mizuki's $130. Lunch is slightly more digestible, starting at $60.
The difference between the $130 Tanpopo and $180 Kuchinashi is a small platter of sashimi and an extra piece of tempura (nine versus 10). Both start with an appetiser - a rather appealing tender chestnut in its "shell" made from chewy-crisp batter and fried soba. Edamame and a morsel of eel wrapped in radish round it off.
The sashimi is acceptable - two pieces each of toro, amberjack and flounder rolled around a bit of uni. So is the seafood used for tempura - the shrimp and its head are crunchy all the way through and even the tail on the small red snapper crumbled easily.
The winning moment comes when we get a whole oyster ($180 set) freshly shucked and battered - a wonderful rush of sea brine and cream, enveloped in a contrast of textures. And because we are suckers for shirako or cod milt, our defences crumble upon contact with the rich white creaminess against its crinkly shell.
The roll call of 9/10 pieces goes by pretty quickly. A dollop of uni wrapped in nori, scallops and anago are quickly followed by asparagus, green pepper, corn and maitake mushrooms, followed by the ubiquitous kakiage on rice. In between, a dish of braised fish cheek helps fill us up.
The chef is a veteran tempura specialist who spent some 12 years in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese with an enviably authentic accent. It is also slightly unnerving. Apart from one other Japanese chef in the kitchen, he's the only one holding the Nippon flag. The sushi counter is manned by a Taiwanese and local chef, while the service staff spend most of their time conversing with the chef in English and a smattering of Cantonese.
It kind of bursts our Edomae fantasy a little, but then again, it helps bring us back to the reality of being in a Singapore shopping centre. But at least, the parking is easy and the location can't get any more convenient. And when it comes down to the crunch, it's the craving that matters, not the wrapping around it.
05-32 Ngee Ann City
391 Orchard Road
Open for lunch and dinner Tuesday to Sunday: 11.30am to 3pm; 6 to 11pm. Closed on Monday
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.