Bites: Ishikari-nabe, Otaru Suisan

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Hokkaido is a fascinating part of Japan if you’re into history. Over the centuries it has been an enemy, a wild frontier, a place of occupation and colonisation. Even now, most place names on the island aren’t Japanese at all, but derived from the native (and sadly endangered) Ainu language. This includes Ishikari and Otaru, the namesake of Otaru Suisan.

Of course Hokkaido is also awesome for the foodie, with its bounty of seafood. But places that boast air-flown seafood from Japan are no longer a rarity here. It was more the promise of Ishikari-nabe, a mighty hit of umami, and the presence of a dining companion, that led us here. And oh boy does Otaru deliver.

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Bites: Ramen Two Ways, Tonkotsu Kazan Ramen, JEM

Sometimes we see a place so often we can’t recall what it looks like. Sometimes we leave a place so long it seems to have changed dramatically when we return, even if they haven’t. So it is with Chinese Garden. Walking through it with Dad, about ten years after my last visit, and everything is nice – but somehow off. It turns out I’ve been remembering locations and scenery all wrong all this while.

In short, it was nice, but also disorienting. The sort of feeling that makes you want some food that anchors yourself. So it’s a good thing Jurong’s got plenty such places – places like Tonkotsu Kazan.

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Bites: Tonkotsu Ramen, Hakata Ikkousha, Chijmes

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My friend D is a living example of cosmopolitanism – he comes from Italy, studied in Ireland and the UK, lived for a year in Japan, works across Europe, is in love with a Singaporean. More to Babette’s point, he knows and loves eating. He can hold forth on the virtues of Italian food today, and be a partisan in the Fukuoka ramen chain rivalry tomorrow. (He supports Ichiran. They aren’t in Singapore, unfortunately.)

So when he proposes a ramen joint – especially one that his friend from Japan recommended – I’m all too happy to go along.

Ikkousha is a relative newcomer in its native Kyushu, seeing as its founding date was during the Heisei era. But in Singapore, it’s been around since 2014, which would count as ‘established’. The Chijmes branch, nestled in along a whole stretch of Japanese joints, puts out an open welcome with its warm lighting and wood-based decor.

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Bites: ‘Shuu’, KOKI Tamagoyaki, Raffles City

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I’ve been playing a game of hide and seek with KOKI Tamagoyaki for a while, albeit in my own mind. Twice I’ve come too late for there to be any of their choux puffs. But this time I’m here – five minutes before the teatime offer ends, when the shelves are full of the goods. Yes.

Koki is, as the name suggests, a tamagoyaki place – serving the square-pan, rolled, mildly sweet Japanese omelettes with a range of toppings. Except that even now its dessert options – choux (or ‘shuu’) puffs – are already overshadowing the egg dish. (Honestly, take a look at the Burpple reviews of the place. How many tamagoyaki pics do you see? Precisely.)

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Bites: Gyoza and Chicken, Let’s Meat Up, Plaza Singapura

You know, now that I think of it, there’s something the very friendly front-of-house said as I paid the bill which sounds a bit ominous. When I asked her if Let’s Meat Up was a new place, she beamed. ‘It opened one month ago. Our only outlet!’

No one says that last bit if there aren’t plans afoot to change it.

So that raises a question: seeing as Singapore’s food scene has got more chains than your average BDSM dungeon, how much should a new arrival be welcomed? On the plus side, Let’s Meat Up is aimed at a new niche for fast-ish food, namely robatayaki. That said, I have seen robatayaki restaurants, and the place looks nothing like one. The name robatayaki means ‘grilling around the stove edge’, but the standard elements – the open grill, ingredients all laid out – are missing. Which means there’s only the food to go on.

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Weekend Reading List: 6 November 2016

Not going to lie – it’s been a tough couple weeks for the old B.

In Tarakoské, a language I’ve been building for the last several years, there are two words for the state of being tired. I guess the best translation is ‘tiredness’ and ‘fatigue’. Now, tiredness is what a person experiences when he’s been doing a lot of things. Fatigue, on the other hand, is more like the material science use of the word – it’s what a person experiences when a lot of things are happening to him.

Tiredness I don’t mind. But fatigue? And, with that, the abiding sense that there was something you could have done, but somehow you didn’t and just chose to sit there and take it? So much worse. So, so much worse. Let’s hope the rest of this year will be more tired than fatiguing.

But anyway – it turns out Jupiter makes sounds! And meanwhile, for this issue: other natural sounds, a strange relic of the Cold War in the middle of nowhere in America, and a love letter film to ramen in Tampopo.

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‘Motherly comfort’: IPPIN Cafe Bar, Mohamed Sultan Road

Ippin Cafe Bar Interior

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. 

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‘Running with juices’: Menya Takeichi, Suntec City

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It’s funny how chicken, which is just about the mildest and least flavourful meat, has one of the most distinctively flavoured fats. My favourite step in making homemade chicken rice is the rendering – low flame and a pot half filled with scraps and skin, and then the slowly spreading aroma, if aroma is the word for it.

At Menya Takeichi, they certainly are aware of how potent this smell can be, judging by the flasks of mild soup they offer to thin out the noodle broth. Nutty, sweetish, with a subtle whiff of feathers and gooeyness from collagen, the stock can reek a little – a property it shares with roasted pork bones, the base of tonkotsu ramen. But can chicken also play well with the versatile, easygoing noodles? Well, in the hands of an acclaimed Tokyoite chicken ramen chain, yes. 

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Review: Tokyo Sundubu, Suntec City

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This is an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the hosts and fellow tasters.

I was thinking about the angle for this review while playing Europa Universalis IV at the same time, and it occurred to me – culinary empire-building is not unlike the real thing. It’s always a balance. You can sell people the equipment and a licence and be done with it; Subway does this and they’re everywhere. Or you can keep a shorter leash, keep a firm hand on the reins; the growth is slower, but more of the original is preserved.

You’d think Tokyo Sundubu would take the first path, considering what their specialty is. Sundubu jjigae is a little more complicated than its name suggests, but it’s still a straightforward stew. But no – the Singaporean outpost of the chain, which has grown to some 35 outlets in its native Japan, is adamant about consistency and control over its chief ingredient.

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Review: Shin-Sapporo Ramen, Orchard Gateway

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This was an invited tasting. Deep gratitude to the host and fellow tasters.

Humans are visual animals, and for restaurants to give people something to look at is nothing new. The Japanese absolutely love that, to the point they have a term (moritsuke) for it, even if that is a term normally used for more refined dishes than ramen. Ramen is fast food. Ramen rarely cries out for artful decoration.

But what ramen could use, visually, is a bit of spectacle, and that’s what Shin-Sapporo Ramen is happy to provide with their new special. They’ve done their bit to hype the new special with a bit of mystery, just calling it Fire Ramen, which could really mean anything. They probably mean ‘fire’ figuratively. I’ve written before about how capsaicin works by tricking your mouth into thinking it’s on fire. That must be what they’re driving at.

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