Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…
— Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken
My journey to eat at Tachinomiya didn’t begin well. Eschewing the advice of Google Maps, I make a turn at some point out of Kovan station, follow a long line of the shops one more readily associates with an old-school town centre – hair salons, nail salons – before reaching the end of the row where I was sure the bar stood and seeing the Golden Arches sneering back at me. A chill went down my spine. Had I merely been dreaming? Had there been a takeover?
Fortunately, it turns out I’ve made a wrong turn; on the other end of that row, Tachinomiya does exist. The name of the joint means ‘standing drinking house’, a term used in Japan to describe budget sake bars where convenience and economy are key – the local bar in other words, the joint just down the street. And in that way it encapsulates their setting, which could be anywhere in HDBurbia, Singapore – apartment blocks all around, facing a quiet, inner neighbourhood street. In Singapore’s drinking culture this is not where you expect to find a bar (elsewhere, though…). But here they are.
Occupying a shallow niche of a shop space, Tachinomiya’s decor sticks to a utilitarian theme – a long wood top bar and counter, a sleek display shelf with sake arrayed in their lovely bottles, blonde wood tables spilling out onto the five foot way. To combat the heat, they’ve got stand fans (and beer, of course). Entertainment is acid jazz remixes by way of Spotify. The menu has a fixed component, with many of the staples of Japanese snack foods, as well as a list of specials, which also show up the efficiency meme – by which I mean they are mostly fried. Well, no one goes to a sake bar to eat healthily, I suppose.
One of the specials is the Unagi tofu – firm tofu, lashed to sections of grilled eel with nori, then battered and fried. To the eye it all looks like one block, but on biting the components reveal themselves subtly – a whiff of soybeans melding with the unagi’s juices, each tender in its own way. Batter, too, is a lot lighter than it looks, a textural counterpoint to the generous scattering of katsuoboshi’s slight gumminess and meaty flavour.
Hot on the heels of the special comes the yakitori – a medley on skewers. That yakitori tends to use the same sauce for everything seems a strange gap in the usual Japanese attention to detail, but the sauce here is particularly intense, a blast of elevated sweetness followed by lingering umami and a sake after-fragrance. Pork and chicken with leeks (actually negi, I think) are perhaps the most ordinary, though still serviceable – the slices of pork belly deeply charred until the fat is crisp and darkly smoky. Bacon and asparagus is a little underdone – not so good for the bacon but surprisingly good for the asparagus it protects. The thick chunks are crunchy outside, the juices botanic, almost bitter, and refreshing.
The highlight of the bunch, though, is the mentaiko salmon. Generously slathered on, the mentaiko mayo is then browned until it looks almost like a scorched meringue, and the two marine foods mix into each other naturally and smoothly – salmon flaky, mentaiko a blast of creamy sweetness.
Another combination of mentaiko and seafood comes in the form of a scallop on its shell, snug in a blanket of the pink sauce and bubbled cheese. The cheese strikes first, punchy and intense, and in its wake comes more of mentaiko’s distinct, rounded savour. Surprisingly the scallop shines through even this; grilled with its coral, it is in effect steamed under the cheese blanket, retaining its juices and bite. I end up scraping the crusty remnants of grilled cheese off the shell.
So to what does one attribute the charms of Tachinomiya? Food-wise it’s not that there aren’t fumbles, the potato croquette being the most egregious; a full-looking breaded shell turns out to be half-filled with gummy potato, embedded with still hard peas. But anyway, I am way too full by the time I get to the croquette, and it’s one splotch on a generally good meal. The service, meanwhile, has the advantages of a small location, personal, smiling and chatty but on the customer’s terms.
But that’s all just part of it. The real savvy of Tachinomiya, if you ask me, is in seeing the potential in a location others might sneer at. The quietness and normality of suburban Kovan adds to the bar’s chilled, easygoing appeal. Its remote location is remedied by a cleanly designed website which reflects the attitude of the shop itself. There’s no pompous origin story, no bollocks about inspirations. Instead – here’s the sort of music that will be playing at our joint. Here’s what you can order – food here, sake here. And here’s some promotions, too, maybe you’ll like them.
To which I say, yes please, thanks very much. And it is encouraging to see the tables fill within half an hour of the dinner service opening, people nipping in for dinner and a quick pint. Dare I ascribe some metaphorical meaning to the wrong turn earlier that led me to McDonald’s? That way lies one possible future of food in the heartlands – the reek of reused oil, extra value meals. But Tachinomiya has the shrewdness and guts to take another road. I’ll drink a toast to the difference that makes.
211 Hougang St 21, #01-285
Sun – Thurs: 11.30am – 2.30pm, 5.30pm – midnight
Fri: 11.30am – 2.30pm, 5.30pm – 1am
Sat: 11.30am – 2.30pm, 5.30pm – 2am