Restaurant review: Waku Ghin offers an almost flawless dining experience

Pan-fried fillet of ayu from Waku Ghin, a restaurant in Marina Bay Sands. -- ST FILE PHOTO: WONG AH YOKE
Pan-fried fillet of ayu from Waku Ghin, a restaurant in Marina Bay Sands. -- ST FILE PHOTO: WONG AH YOKE

Every now and then, I am asked to name the best restaurant in Singapore. But for me, the answer is not always the same because new restaurants keep coming onto the scene. And even with existing restaurants, chefs and menus change.

Sometimes I don't even have an answer because no restaurant stands out enough to be considered "the best", at least in my opinion.

But right now, my choice is Waku Ghin. The 1 1/2-month-old restaurant in Marina Bay Sands by famed Sydney chef Tetsuya Wakuda just gets everything right.

I was invited to dinner a week after it opened in July and was completely bowled over by how outstanding everything was, from the concept, design and service to, of course, the food.

I returned last week as a paying customer with some colleagues and friends, and everything was almost as perfect - except for just one little thing, which I shall come to later.

The restaurant, at 8,000 sq ft, is the biggest in the integrated resort, but seats only 25 people in four private rooms that are each fitted with a teppan counter. There are two seatings, at 6 and 8.30pm, with the second group coming in while the early diners enjoy cheeses and desserts in a main dining room that looks out onto Marina Bay.

There is no a la carte menu, only a 10-course degustation menu at $400 a person, which the chef designs based on your diet restrictions. Each private room is assigned its own chef, who cooks the teppan dishes in front of you.

But before that, there is an array of cold and hot dishes, each throwing up a different combination of flavours and textures that never fails to impress.

First up is an amuse bouche described as a scallop-like oyster but is actually thinly sliced raw scallop wrapped over bits of foie gras and ginger and served in a little rice vinegar.

It is delightful but not amazing.

Then the first cold dish comes and I am totally bowled over. It is marinated botan prawn from Japan topped with sea urchin, with the two bound with a bit of barely cooked egg yolk. On top is a generous scoop of Oscietra caviar - enough to somewhat justify the price of the meal.

These are served in a sea urchin shell, the contents glistening like colourful gems. But what truly sparkles is how the different flavours - the sweetness of the prawn and sea urchin, the richness of the egg and the saltiness of the caviar - combine and become absolute pleasure on the palate.

After this, the bamboo clam with garlic cream is a bit of a comedown, though it does have its merits. The shellfish is cooked just right and the garlic cream is absolutely smooth.

But the meal reaches another high point with the next dish.

The pan-fried fillet of ayu fish is perfect. The skin is crisp while the meat is smooth and moist. The fish is fresh and sweet and a sprinkle of konbu (kelp) salt adds just enough saltiness. It is served on a bed of diced daikon and sliced fennel that provide crunch and sweetness, with a hint of acidity in the dressing for balance.

The dish that gives me pause is the Alaskan king crab with lemon scented extra virgin olive oil.

A lot is involved in preparing this dish, which is cooked on the teppan. First, the chef makes a small mound of sea salt on the hot pan, wetting it with a bit of water to set it. Then he places the crab leg on the salt, drapes a fresh bamboo leaf over it, drips some extra virgin sesame oil and covers it with a copper lid.

After a couple of minutes, the crab is cooked. The meat is removed from the shell and plated and the scented olive oil drizzled over it.

It smells wonderful with the scent of the bamboo leaf infused into the crab, and the lemon scent in the oil is all the acidity needed to lift the flavours. But the crab itself feels a tad spongy, which spoils it just a bit.

The one I had for my invited meal earlier did not have the problem, though. The meat then was smooth and sweet
But the rest of the meal is all good. The two courses of beef - a warm salad of Cape Grim beef and a pan-fried Australian Blackmore wagyu - cooked on the teppan boast good marbling of fat, and the meat tastes excellent with freshly grated wasabi and dips of citrus soy as well as raw egg yolk.

The savoury food ends with angel hair pasta with sweet chunks of scampi tossed in shellfish-infused olive oil.

But before one moves on to dessert, there is one more important part of the meal: the tea.

And this is no ordinary tea. Waku Ghin is the only restaurant here that serves gyokuro, a rare and expensive tea from Kyoto prefecture in Japan. The plant is grown in the shade and most of the leaves are removed during the growth. And of those that remain, only the youngest leaves are plucked to make the tea.

To brew it, warm water rather than hot water is used in order not to destroy the flavour. Plus, more leaves than water is put in the pot so that all I get in the end is two small sips.

All this may seem like a lot of fuss for an amount of tea that looks like the dregs left behind after you finish a cuppa. But the first sip of the brew will make a convert of you.

There is no other tea that tastes like it. It has the typical bitterness of green tea but it is also savoury with a strong umami flavour that reminds you of dashi stock.

And the small amount is really just right. Drinking a whole cup would have killed the preciousness of the moment.

Besides, you are left wanting more, which makes the experience even more memorable.

After that intense finale, you move to the main room to come down from the high slowly with cheeses. Make sure you ask for the Comte, which is my favourite. It is a hard French cheese with a strong flavour and the one it serves is particularly delicious.

Dessert is a peach sorbet with Japanese white peach that is soft and juicy, followed by a Ghin cheesecake which is a signature of the restaurant. It is smooth and rich, with a bit of lemon curd in it to cut the fat.

The entire meal is almost flawless and the cooking, I feel, is even better than chef Wakuda's original restaurant Tetsuya in Sydney. That offers a more fusion menu compared to a more Japanese experience here.

But it is unlike any Japanese meal you will get anywhere else. Or any other meal for that matter.

I am even tempted to give the food a full five-star rating. Maybe, when it perfects the crab.

LifeStyle paid for its meals at the eatery reviewed here.

Pan-fried fillet of ayu
It may be just pan-fried fish but it is perfect. And simple things are the hardest to get right.

10 Bayfront Avenue, Marina Bay Sands, tel: 6688-8868
Open: 6 to 10.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays). Closed on Sundays
Food: ****½
Service: ****½
Ambience: ****
Price: $400 a person

This review was first published in Sunday Lifestyle on Sept 5, 2010.

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