SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) I have a beef. About beef.
But not so much in an existential "why do some cows get massages and Mozart while others get a three-square-foot pen and whatever's playing on their owner's Spotify" kind of debate. Rather, it's this perennial one-upsmanship in Wagyu-land, where what seems to drive Japanese cattle farmers is the ability to say to one another, "my beef is better than your beef".
The introduction of the word "wagyu" into our culinary lexicon has turned us into a bunch of beef snobs.
First it was a rivalry between wagyu from Japan itself and their Australian half-blood/full-blood wannabes with different marbling ratings. Now, it's not enough to know about Kobe and Matsusaka. You only have beef cred if you can spout brands such as Hida, Ohmi, Tajima, Kagoshima, Toriyama or any other artisanal cattle farm which can recite each cow's name as well as its Mozart symphony of choice.
USHIDOKI WAGYU KAISEKI
57 Tras Street #01-01
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm. Dinner only on Sat.
The upshot of all this is that whether your wagyu is A5 or A1 doesn't matter as much as where it comes from. Playing into this scenario is Ushidoki Wagyu Kaiseki, a six-month-old eatery which prides itself on serving beef from yet another farmer who thinks he does wagyu better than others.
While its casual sister restaurant - The Wagon - next door offers Hokkaido beef in a bustling French-Japanese setting, Ushidoki is a quietly elegant, warm brick and wood haven where chef Nobuaki Hirohashi efficiently assembles three different set menus (priced from S$130 to S$300)from his compact open kitchen.
If you book early enough, you can snag a seat at the generous-sized counter which is more dining table than kappo-style. We're too late, so we have to sit at a common table - a beautiful piece of cherry tree trunk - but it's spacious enough that you don't feel like you're sharing the same eating space as other diners.
For a no-fuss meal that gets right down to business, the six course menu does the trick at S$130++, and you have the option of topping up with extra side dishes. If you want to splurge, the 10-course includes signatures like a raw beef and uni combination that's all the rage now.
We're pretty content with our compact menu, which kicks off with a tummy-warming clear beef broth - the mild beefiness sweetened with firm-tender young onion. Two thin pieces of simmered beef tongue (Australian, not Japanese, because of local regulations) and a bitter yuzu flower for welcome contrast put you in the mood for what's to come.
Ushidoki is (they say) the only one in Singapore that has access to Ozaki beef from Miyazaki prefecture. The cattle come from a single farm owned by Muneharu Ozaki, whose animals are slaughtered at 32 to 34 months instead of the conventional 28 months because he believes it adds to the flavour.
That notion is put to the test with the next course of Ozaki sashimi, a trio of appetisers that are imaginative pairings of raw meat and seafood. We like the tartare-like minced ribeye kaburi and pickles topped with ikura pearls best since the beef itself boasts little flavour beyond a clean feel on the palate and lovely silky texture. We also like the way the plump-sticky texture of marinated scallop plays with a wafer thin slice of well-marbled rump and olive oil pearls. Lastly, fresh yuba and acceptable uni do a creamy dance in an espresso cup of thick wagyu stock.
For an extra $10, the little add-ons are worth it. It's funny how slippery barnacles and beef go so well together, as in this duo of creamy oyster and raw beef in a ponzu sauce amped up with spicy radish and green onion. Another supplement, yukke sushi, is a nigiri of handchopped meat on a ball of rice, lightly torched so the melted fat binds the sushi into a rich savoury mouthful.
Less of a hit is the roast beef with herbs - rare but underwhelming razor-thin slices buried under a shower of colourful mixed herbs. The real highlight of the meal is the sukiyaki - not so much for the two thin slices of meat that retain their juiciness despite being fully cooked, but for the full-bodied sauce that releases layers of sweet, savoury and umami flavours thanks to a six month old mother sauce. A soft cooked egg, truffle shavings and a too-small grilled rice ball make this a comforting classic. The other main course - all four mini cubes of char-grilled steak - is adequately marbled but not a standout, and the itsy-bitsy servings of meat throughout make us feel like participants in a controlled eating progamme.
That's why we slurp up what little cold somen we get in a refreshing cold oxtail stock and little blobs of yuzu jelly, and the Hokkaido milk ice cream drizzled with - surprise - gula melaka.
Our verdict on Ozaki beef is that its clean, delicate flavour works best as sashimi. It's still enjoyable when cooked, but it doesn't go into our book of beefy memories. Instead, Ushidoki will be our go-to place for a classy, one ingredient-centric kaiseki meal with commendable ingredients, knowledgeable service and welcoming ambience.
This is where we linger to contemplate our next beef: people who keep saying "wagyu beef", which is like saying "Japanese beef beef". Maybe the next time we come to Ushidoki, we'll just ask for "more, more"...
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on May 9, 2016.
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