I remember very fondly my first live encounter with a shamisen, the three-stringed Japanese lute – it was in either the first or second year of university, and it was at the Southbank Centre where they invited someone who played in the Tsugaru-jamisen style for a lunchtime concert (I think; it was some time back). And what a style of music it is, developed by blind musicians from the northern tip of Honshu and now renowned all over Japan.
I mention this because, during my visit to Ginza Tendon Itsuki, that’s the music that was playing in the background, centred around the shamisen. Plenty of restaurants elect to have background music, so that’s not odd; but for many of them the planning stops there, before getting to what music will best fill the space (not to mention how the music should fill the space). But Tendon Itsuki thinks the whole thing through, as one might expect of a restaurant in Takeda Keisuke’s Singaporean empire.
Situated just down the road from his breakthrough gig at Tonkotsu King in Orchid Hotel, Ginza Tendon Itsuki is a bit of a sideways move for him. Odder still is the Keisuke group’s collaborating partner here; Sushi Itsuki is an established presence in Tokyo’s glitzy Ginza neighbourhood, but they are a sushiya with nary a fried thing on the menu.
Service is well prepared, a server scouting the stools for the queue ten minutes before they open, only to find me and a pleasant old couple. Ordering is much eased by the fact that there are two options – you can have the vegetable set, or the full combo with ebi and chicken fillets – and then, on the dot, we are admitted, the first of many.
I score a counter seat, with a side view of the food prep, and that’s when I realise the magic of that shamisen music. It’s not meant solely to set the mood for the diner, but also to accompany the coordinated swirl of movement behind the counter. As the shamisen plucks and strikes, rice is scooped, bowls filled, food battered and fried – one fryer for meat, one for vegetables – and arranged, sauce drizzled. And like the music, it is both energetic and controlled.
Being presented with a chawanmushi at this time feels almost like a distraction, except the chawanmushi stands up very well for itself – the dashi-based glaze on top of the egg is deeply fragrant, with a hint of liquor.
While delicate, it is a boldly flavoured opener for what comes next. From my seat I have been watching the vegetable station cook go about his job, hands flitting from the tray of vegetables. Baby corn, kabocha squash, shiitake, okra – and, most intriguing of all, the little metal bowls he keeps fetching from a rack behind him, each given a spoonful of batter before slipping into the pot. It takes me a while to realise those are eggs. I feel a jab of loss when he sieves out the light golden tenkasu, fragments of batter, and disposes of them.
Tempura, even good tempura, is no stranger to our shores. But Japanese food being all about the experience, it is nonetheless fascinating to see how the hot oil has transformed the raw material, their jackets of batter whisper-thin yet clinging tightly. Shiitake turns juicy and taut, its grey insides gleaming with moisture. A slender slice of kabocha shines with its sweetness and a little crunch. The egg, puffed like a cloud and wreathed with batter, oozes and drips with yolk at the lightest provocation.
The ebi, often-mishandled staple of Japanese restaurants everywhere, is a snappy, firm muscle here. But the deepest impression is left by the two broad fillets, so light and tender that it took me another bite to realise I was eating chicken, not fish. The batter, besides rippling appealingly on the meat’s surface, has served its purpose – protected from direct heat, the chicken breast is drippingly moist, its own meatiness mild yet distinct.
Once again the hint of liquor comes through in its juices, as it does in the tempura sauce – which I think is the one bit where they’ve gone a little overboard. Too much sauce is drizzled on before serving and eagerly soaked up by the batter, pushing the tempura to the edge of sogginess; since there are bottles of the stuff at every table, they should have let the customers use their discretion here. Nonetheless, it provides a lingering, nasal note to the immediacy of the tempura’s texture.
Besides the sauce, Ginza Tendon Itsuki is a model of control. The dining area is quickly packed, but the counter keeps its pace, and service is no less prompt, guests greeted and orders shouted in Japanese. If Keisuke’s ramen shops have made some accommodations elsewhere for a more modern setting, more like the restaurants we are used to, Itsuki is a little more uncompromising in its Japanese-ness, and proud of it.
Blonde wood is everywhere, meticulously clean and gleaming in the bright, warm lighting. Rice is sourced from Japan via Tawaraya, a specialist grocer that actually uses ‘rice sommelier’ as a job description. The porcelain, stark and subtly patterned, is from Arita – a centre of Japanese pottery production for some four centuries. It all adds up to something special, almost ritualistic, which I’m sure is the intention.
Staggering out from under the noren into a hazy Tanjong Pagar sunset, I am reeking of tempura oil, still earwormed by riotous, almost harsh strumming, and happy as a lark. I’m still a little mystified by the whole collaboration thing, but then I’m past caring. For a first specialist tendon joint of its kind in Singapore, Ginza Tendon Itsuki sets the bar pretty high indeed.
Ginza Tendon Itsuki
101 Tanjong Pagar Rd
Hours: Daily, 11.30am – 2.30pm, 5.30pm – 10pm