Maybe it’s a bit odd for someone raised and living up north, but Marina Square is a bit of a special place for me. I don’t quite remember why, but as a child it was a favourite family hangout. This is some time ago, by the way, in the days when the MRT ended at Yishun, Punggol’s favoured building material was corrugated tin, and the Esplanade was still a performance centre, but mainly for the culinary arts. Still, it is nice every now and then to remember how far we’ve come, to appreciate the progress in nation-building over the last fifty…
… are we past 100 words? Yes? Good. Now that we’ve reached our quota of patriotic nostalgia, let’s get back to it and talk about Hamanoya.
As with all things Singaporean, Marina Square has changed immensely over the years; for one, it’s gotten a lot more immense. Not that quantity correlates to quality, though. The restaurant wing – The Dining Edition, they prefer to call it – has always been a mixed bag; for every above-average joint, there has been a standard issue chain outlet, or worse. St. Marc’s is tolerable, but Pita Pan is a punitive experience; and the less said of Hifumi the better.
As for Hamanoya, though, I’ve noticed and walked past it several times without even thinking of going in. Maybe it’s due to the exterior – between stark black and shiny chrome, the entrance is a tad too successful at looking classy. A little incongruous too, since Hamanoya styles itself a robatayaki place, and the roots of robatayaki (literally ‘fireside grilling’) lie in the often frigid locales of northern Japan, where a box of bincho charcoal serves as both stove and heater. It’s a posh storefront for a style of cooking that is anything but.
Past the entrance, though, things are a little more relaxed. Hamanoya occupies a deep space, one side looking out towards Suntec City across the road, blonde wood under amber lighting; they’ve also eschewed the traditional robataya arrangement, where the customers sit around the chef, his grill and a vast array of possible ingredients.
Instead it’s the conventional restaurant style – menu, oshibori, servers bringing the food from a stone fronted counter. This conventionality seems a little risky to me – the intimate, huddle-round atmosphere of a robataya, along with the array of ingredients, is pleasant enough to make diners forgive a lot. Take that away, and you’re basically banking completely on the quality of the food.
So it’s a good thing for Hamanoya that what issues from their kitchen does, generally, have quality. The chawanmushi that opens the proceedings is a good sign of things to come. It hits all the right spots for a good chawanmushi, the delicateness of the egg contrasting with the tongue-clinging umami of dashi. But the touch of intelligence is in the starchy reduction that dresses the egg, livened with fleeting hints of yuzu.
The soba, bathed in a mahogany-coloured dashi, arrives just on the right side of doneness, yielding but still a little springy; a few minutes more in the broth, and it has lost much of its texture, relying mainly on the dashi and swirling wakame for interest. Not that the broth disappoints, clean and savoury; but the real star is the kakiage. Sakuraebi, sweet and crunching, mingle with the scallions – the white hearts sweet and heat-tamed, the fronds crisp and charred – in a light, slightly eggy batter.
The butadon is less concerned with balance than its companion dishes. The fat in the slices of grilled pork is rich, almost buttery, though the pork itself could do with a little more char. Once again, it is the accompaniment – in this case the sauce glistening on meat, soaking into the clumps of rice – that is key, accents of sweetness and liquor (mirin, I’m guessing?) balancing the full-throated flavour of soy sauce.
Whether it is the same sauce, or a slightly different one, that frames the trademark robatayaki skewers, I can’t really tell – by the time I’m this deep in the meal, the robustness of Hamanoya’s flavours have brought me mostly to submission. But then the skewers do come – chicken, pork and beef – and the first two are apt celebrations of their meat.
Chicken thigh is minced and formed around more of that flame-teased, juicy scallion, whose flavour has in turn dribbled all over the chicken. Chunks of pork belly – tendon and all – are a second ode to juiciness, gleaming and wobbling; the flavour of the meat stands up well even to the domineering sauce.
The only misstep is with the beef – cut from the brisket (or the collar; the chef is maddeningly vague, pointing to his neck while insisting it’s belly), it is appropriately robust in taste, again with that buttery-nutty fragrance in its fats. But it is so run through with sinews – both brisket and neck are better known as slow-cook cuts – and is simply too chewy. Could this be interpreted as Hamanoya selling chewing gum? Well, it’s still tasty enough that I won’t report them.
So once again I am happy to revise my opinion about Hamanoya’s atmosphere. Sure, it is more conventional than traditional; the servers are polite and eager to help, which is a plus. But if its decor looks a little too posh, the food itself is robatayaki in its robust, winter-beating spirit. Were it a little more careless with its balancing, a little less attentive with its little bursts of levity here and there – liquor, yuzu, even the crunch of tendons or tempura batter – it would have tipped over and become all too much. But as it stands, it’s rich and attractive for the most part. I can’t believe I haven’t figured out the go-to restaurant in Marina Square until now.
6 Raffles Boulevard, Marina Square
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 3pm, 5pm – 10.30pm