You would think it is common wisdom, when you’ve opened a restaurant, to be all positivity and smiles about the wonderful things your customers will be getting when they come into your lovely establishment. The staff will be brilliant, the ingredients extraordinary, the methods traditional yet innovative, and so on. You’ll be ramming everything in your face, you’ll want to stay forever, it’ll be fantastic. That’s what they’ll say.
So leave it to the Japanese to break the rules of restaurant up-talking. On the front counter at Butahage, there is an interview with Hitoshi Yano, who runs the parent restaurant in Obihiro, Hokkaido, where he is brutally honest about the limitations of what this outpost of his restaurant is offering. Instead of importing the pork from Hokkaido itself, he says, they’ve been obliged to make do with US pork – good, but not ideal. At least he assures us Singaporeans that the rice is indeed from the homeland – it’s Hokkaido’s Yumepirika, touted as a contender with the traditionally famous Koshihikari from Niigata prefecture. Now, I haven’t been to Hokkaido or tried the butadon in its native habitat, so I can’t say for sure. But honestly, Mr. Yano, don’t fret too hard about this. Your butadon, to my untrained palate anyway, is excellent.
In a country where Japanese food has been mainstream for the longest time, Liang Court remains ahead of the pack by reminding visitors of the diversity of Japan’s cuisine. You can get sushi anywhere, and gyudon is common, but Butahage is the first joint in Singapore to specialise in butadon. Ordering is simple because the menu really has just the butadon, in three sizes, and two sorts of croquette. There’s also the option to order a soft boiled egg with the rice bowl; unless you have a philosophical objection to eggs, get the egg.
On serving, what hits the nose is a surprise – the first note is that of pepper, insistent without being sharp, followed by soy sauce. The contents of the lacquered bowl may look like gyudon, but the name is really the main similarity between the two dishes. Gyudon has the sliced beef simmered in a sweet, onion-heavy sauce; here, however, the pork is grilled at 850 degrees Celsius, then slathered in a secret formula sauce. The cooking time is probably counted in seconds at that sort of temperature.
The sauce itself is a little saltier and more brusque than the usual Japanese grilling sauce; mixed with the egg, which is served cold, the resulting aroma is reminiscent of Ya Kun’s finest, bringing out the eggy aroma of the swirling yolk. Pepper and strong umami contain the flavour of the pork. Yumepirika rice – the name is derived from Japanese yume ‘dream’ and Ainu pirika ‘beautiful’, a nod to the heritage of its land of origin – is beautifully cooked, the starch worked to chewiness without being worked out of the grains.
But naturally it is the meat that is at the heart of the bowl. Given the heat of the grill, it’s astonishing there isn’t any visible char on the broad, thin slices, which are cut across all the different textures of the muscle and fat. But what isn’t seen is instead tasted. The webs of fat and ligament within the muscle, which would not normally succumb to quick cooking, have been transformed by the ferocious heat, releasing buttery, slightly salty fat with chewing, going down smoothly. Where a slice has little of the fat to grease it, the texture is a lot more taut; it may be considered dry by some, I guess, though the sauce rectifies that enough for me.
Butahage’s position on a balcony above the ground floor, open to Liang Court’s vast, high atrium, allows for simple decor of the open space, which is focused around the things they know best – pork, and their own history. Having made butadon since 9 Taishō (1934), their cooking opens a little window on the history of Japanese settlement in Hokkaido, long the frozen, quasi-hostile frontier in the Japanese mindset. The food – down to soft-boiled eggs pooling on warm rice, coating the grains again, to the darker, stronger miso soup – is rich and fortifying, a necessity when you live inland on an island as harsh as Hokkaido. And even if it is, technically, a frontier food and nothing fancy, they make it with care and thought – because you should be making all food with care and thought.
Seen this way, Mr. Yano wasn’t being fretful – or, worse, humblebragging. It’s merely an expression of confidence in the abilities shown at Butahage – even if the ingredients aren’t all the best he could imagine, they’ll come up with something good nonetheless. Confidence much deserved, I would say.
177 River Valley Road
Liang Court, #02-32/33