Because I have the navigational skills of a blind squirrel, I like to arrive early at dinner appointments just so I can find the place and maybe take a look into it. And to take a look into Koh Grill and Sushi Bar is to glimpse quite the operation, even before the crowds have actually hit – big fillets of salmon lined up on the blocks, the unexpectedly small grill heaving smoke past the slabs of meat placed on it.
In other words, despite its position up at the peak of Wisma Atria, in the heart of Orchard Road, the operation is still of a piece with its location in a food court. I don’t mean this as a disparaging comment, not when food courts are where the majority of our eating still gets done. To supply this sort of demand requires machine-like work, and that’s what Koh provides – a finely tuned machine that satisfies.
Thing is, because they’ve been around for some time, a base of reviews has built up around Koh by now, and quite a bit of it is the criticism that many an established band gets – namely that what they do now just ain’t the same as their early work. It’s still fine, the critique goes, but it just isn’t quite like it used to be.
Well, I feel the same way about a lot of foods I’m familiar with, but happily in this case I haven’t any memory to get in the way of enjoying something like the Shiok Maki. So, as someone completely uninitiated, I think it is a beast of a roll. We get the version with ebi fry at its heart, and despite its lumbering bulk, everything in it is given a voice from the fluffy, tangy rice to the prawn and melting aburi salmon. Similarly torched mayo puddles around it, tasting like there’s something more in it – or maybe it’s just heat teasing out the rich sweetness.
We also had the original roll, formed around similarly fall-apart salmon and wearing a less gaudy jacket of sesame and furikake (but still the generous covering of popping tobiko), but unfortunately have no picture of it; it was mostly eaten by the time any of us thought to snap it. Make of that what you will about its quality.
The non maki dishes at Koh cleave to tradition, or at least appear to at first. A dish of sliced ladies’ fingers under a shower of katsuoboshi is pleasant enough, the okra balanced between crunch and mucillage and the pop of white seeds. Dig a little deeper, though, and it turns out the ‘shoyu’ below is liberally spiked with wasabi, which really gives the whole thing a nice edge.
With the slices of grilled pumpkin, on the other hand, there is no added edge – just careful timing with the heat, so that despite tiger stripes of char on the golden surface, the thin slices still retain some bite. But the outer layer has puffed into something dense and sweet and warming. Similar good timing also marks the yasai tempura, with trend-compliant enoki mushrooms in a fan over the usual suspects, each with a thin but protective blanket of batter.
Stir-fried udon with ribbons of egg and spring onion receive the praise of the pals; since I’ve never been huge on udon, I’m a bit less gushing. Still, the seasoning here is strong and savoury without being too salty, the udon cut to be spoonable, and there’s still a good bit of spring and heft in the texture of the noodles.
One dish we all agree is good, on the other hand, is the kushiyaki staple of of thin pork belly strips wrapped around little bundles of slender, jade green asparagus. The meat takes the brunt of the grill, wreathed in the flavour of charred fat and the smoky pungency of garlic. But the asparagus remains snappy and grassy within its protection.
Actually, now that I’ve written out the dishes we’ve tried, I’m quite surprised we only had these ones. For I remember being quite hungry going into Koh Grill, and coming out of it into the old-school glitz of Wisma Atria pleasantly full. And while the most specific thing I can say about the decor is that it exists, and the service staff speak only Chinese (at least they understand some English), the very bustle of the place is both testimony to the kitchen’s ability, and a nice bit of atmosphere. Ultimately, for all the innovative things it has rolled up with rice and glopped on top, Koh Grill and Sushi Bar is a place where feeding people – swarms of people, lines of people – is the goal. And since there are plenty of places where you can chill in Orchard, this suits me just fine.
Koh Grill and Sushi Bar
435 Orchard Road
Wisma Atria, #04-21 (map)
Sun – Thurs, 11.30am – 9.45pm
Fri – Sat, 11.30am – 10.45pm