This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.
I used to know and love a place like this. An university friend of mine from northeastern China opened a shop with her husband, some years ago, that was about one-third bistro and two-thirds market – the shelves packed high with Chinese and Korean foods and snacks, some of which they cook and serve.
Of course, IPPIN Cafe Bar is rather more sophisticated than my friend’s homegrown project. (It’s also lasted longer – Ippin has been around since late 2014). But the idea is much the same – heading in from Mohammed Sultan Road, one is faced with tables and plush sofas but also subtly placed shelves bearing produce from Japan. I am told by the host that, with Japanese groceries easily available in Singapore, the stuff they stock here aims to be a bit more eclectic and indie.
And as is made clear throughout the tasting, the sourcing work – collaborating with Japanese companies, including obscure ones, to gain a foothold on our sunny, Japanese-loving shores – is one of the two pillars of the operation, the other being a consciously homely aesthetic. Chairs are cutely mismatched, children’s artworks are hung on the walls, and the menu changes frequently with the shifts in product sources.
We start with a trio of chinmi (preserved foods), which are normally taken with drinks. Small ayu – freshwater fish with characteristically sweet flesh – has been further sweetened with a shoyu and mirin marinade; in order to balance this, Ippin torches the fish, caramelising its outside. The result is a fish that can be eaten bones, fins and all – a subtle but wide spectrum of tastes, trailing off into a mild bitterness.
Wrapping seafood in kelp is a traditional means of preserving food which also imparts the fresh umami of the kelp to the fish. Marinated in more shoyu and mirin, the salmon goes taut and flaky in contrast with the slippery belt of konbu around it.
The homely aesthetic is something one has to keep in mind at Ippin. Japanese food in Singapore is mostly the work of chefs, versed in the skills of moritsuke; by those standards, the stuff they serve at Ippin is ‘ugly’. A dish of stir-fried potatoes with pork, onions and plenty of caramelised shoyu fills the plate it’s on, with no empty space for meditating upon. But that’s what home cooking is about, even if the flavours here are a little too mighty by themselves. I’m left wishing for a bowl of plain rice.
And rice does come, in an equally homely omu-rice, except that the rice is stir-fried with onions instead of the more usual ketchup for more of that caramel hue. But the real star here is the chicken – breaded rather than battered, fried till taut, its juices suffused with sake. A good marinade is two-thirds of the work here.
Beef steak is slightly less impressive, though it’s not the fault of the meat itself. Despite looking greyed inside and overdone, it’s still tender and juicy. But the mushroom cream sauce that accompanies has a sweetness that fits neither with the meat nor with the mushrooms themselves.
Two dishes for desserts come from different ends of the leisure spectrum. The bread pudding served with yuzu syrup is in fact a popular emergency ration in Japan – stocked in cans in case of earthquakes. A wobbly tea-flavoured jelly, on the other hand, is made with Darjeeling specially fermented to yield a clear and unexpected aroma of grapes, which reverts to the astringent edge of tea in the mouth.
Ippin saved the best for last, bringing out a little of its broad selection of sake with a brief introduction to how premium sake is defined. My favourite is actually the honjozo – where a small dose of alcohol is added to the rice mash, which helps smoothen out its flavour. Oddly enough, adding alcohol actually reduces the thinner-like aftertaste of the junmai sake (the term means ‘purely rice’).
Another variety we try is fruit-flavoured sake, done the best and most basic way – actually mixing the fruit pulp into the sake itself. With strawberries this turns out to be a little too characteristic, but the yuzu sake – using yuzu from Ehime prefecture – is a revelation. The mild alcohol acts more like a backdrop to emphasise the louder citrusy scent.
I freely admit that there were many points at the tasting when I was skeptical of Ippin, but theirs is a place that defies judgement by the cover. I think there should be a word for this sort of place that isn’t ‘cafe bar’ – where you can buy just about everything that’s served, if you’re not too happily sozzled by the end of a meal. Barstro? Bismarket? Well, whatever we call them, I think Singapore can do with more places like Ippin.
Ippin Cafe Bar
18 Mohammed Sultan Road (map)
Mon – Sat: Noon – 3pm, 5pm – 11pm
Closed on Sundays