First things first – besides their food, Tanuki Raw has also given me a deep appreciation for soundproof glass panels. When we first arrive, the four of us, we are taken through the cool, air-conditioned space and then out into the alfresco area. It’s all very nice, were it not a sunny Singapore afternoon. The air being humid to the point of viscosity is one thing; but the parade of supercars just underfoot on Orchard Road, alternately gurgling and keening, is an altogether novel form of suffering. We plead for, and thankfully obtain, an inside table.
Of course, neither weather nor traffic noise is the restaurant’s fault; I’d say it’s even a glimpse into Tanuki Raw’s multiple natures. The Tanuki in Japanese folklore is a benign but mischievous beast, shape-shifting and fun-loving, and clearly the folks behind this joint – who are also behind Standing Sushi Bar – intend the name to be a mission statement. And people have responded, if Instagram is to be believed; I was first alerted to it by an Instagram-trawling friend showing me photos of its Truffle Yakiniku Don – a flower of rare beef slices surrounding an onsen egg just on the edge of bursting.
But the self-description on their website is a breathless affair – raw bar, martini bar, inspired food (inspired by whom?) and classic cocktails (isn’t a martini a classic cocktail?). Similarly, the menu looks long and rambling. My friend is an optimist and admires their versatility. I am a cynic, so my concern is that they’ve spread themselves too thin, just throwing things at each other in the hope that they will gel.
Well, I needn’t have worried too much. As noted, Tanuki Raw is a brainsibling of Standing Sushi Bar, and the decor shows it, from the smooth concrete bar and clean lines to the simple colour scheme. As for the menu, it is ambitious but a lot less scattershot than I first thought; ‘Japan looks West’, I would say, is the inspiration and thread holding it all together. And since Japan looking West has brought us everything from tempura and tonkatsu to the California roll, it’s a secure base for innovation. To be honest, though, the smell of mentaiko being scorched that wafts from the bar is a better advertisement than any list of ingredients.
The Mentaiko Salmon don arrives in a cloud of that perky, creamy aroma, and is perhaps the most conservative dish we order – it is quite well established that mentaiko and salmon are made to be close friends. The salmon slices are cut a little thin, yet still retain their texture; but the flavour comes primarily from the cod roe sauce, with just an edge of smoke to its tanginess. Rice is appropriately clumpy and chewy, the light brown grains holding just a little umami, scattered with nori flakes.
Salmon don is a little, flavourful ode to the pink beauty – firm slices from the fillet contrasting with pliant, smooth belly, and those little umami warheads that are ikura. Slices of aburi are appropriately aromatic, but taste like they could do with just a little more of the torch, the fat coaxed out but not quite transformed yet. The rice in Tanuki Raw’s donburi plays a rather more active role than white rice elsewhere, adding flavour and a denser texture; here, it is even spiked with little pops of ebiko.
The Truffle Yakiniku don is Tanuki Raw’s social media celebrity, and is also an example of how to use truffle flavour – subtly, with due consideration of how powerful it is. Here it is combined with similarly strong elements, in the soy seasoning and the fattiness of Angus beef itself. Unlike the usual yakiniku, the short rib slices are definitely done Western style – deep pink at heart, lightly browned on its surface, the veins of marbling still vaguely visible. But there’s nothing vague about the flavour. The beef is taut, juicy without being floppy, with truffle as a lingering cadence. The egg is mainly there to be looked at, not that I’m objecting to the sight of fresh yellow yolk streaming and pooling on rice.
The array of rolls are clearer expressions of the fusion idea, with such ingredients as pomodoro sauce and steak tartare popping up on the lists. The Tanuki Raw aburi roll we order is a lot more conservative, but no less tasty – salmon and mentaiko again, this time with savoury, tender scallops on a roll buried under a dark, glistening pile of katsuoboshi. The menu also mentions yuzu, but I don’t quite discern it – but once again, it’s not that one needs yuzu to liven up this assembly, its flavours – sweet shellfish, marine umami – as deep as they are broad. But perhaps the best statement of its quality is that it didn’t occur to any of us to take a picture of the roll until we had savaged most of it.
We also have some other things – spam fries, for instance – but at some point the whole meal pretty much melded into a pleasant reverie, which says something for how Tanuki Raw has assembled its food. Do things stand out? Definitely, there are noteworthy touches here and there. But more often the ingredients simply fit, flavours and textures swirling around each other, without shoving around or getting sidelined. Tanuki Raw seems to make the point that standing out can be overrated, while showing that it is as also as deep as it is broad. It has the range, and the imagination, of its namesake, but thankfully it is a lot more thoughtful and assured than the folkloric tanuki.
In fact, I’m almost concerned that this review has not encompassed enough of the operation – we haven’t tried their cocktails, nor their raw bar, though the oysters that others have photographed look plump and unctuous. The equipment stashed in the alfresco area hints at live music nights which could also be a joy, as long as there aren’t too many wailing, guttering sports cars wandering Orchard. Given what we did try, I’m confident that the rest of what they do will also have that reassuring, well-accompanied quality. But don’t take my word for it; go try Tanuki Raw yourself, then try it a few more times. I know that’s what I’ll be doing.
181 Orchard Road
#02-03 Orchard Central
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 10.30pm