Chef Issey Araki makes his debut at a namesake restaurant
#04-23 Orchard Plaza
150 Orchard Road
Tel: 6214-0572 or message the restaurant on Facebook
Open for dinner only Mon to Sat: 7pm to 10pm
You’ve heard of Dumb and Dumber. How about Dingy and Dingier, a veritable ugly contest between Cuppage Plaza and Orchard Plaza – Singapore’s two reigning little Japans?
Both have the same unappetising warrens you have to navigate. You breathe in air that might have been fresh 30 years ago. Try pattering down those deserted corridors without involuntarily quickening your step to avoid a potential ghoul.
But we still go because this is where the earliest Japanese “settlers” came, thinking they could create their own little happy hideout, eating their own food and not having to speak English if they didn’t want to. They figured Singaporeans would prefer to hang out in shiny shopping centres. Which we do. Until we caught wind of the good thing they had and muscled in like voracious, if entitled, tourists ever since.
There isn’t much of that original vibe now, although it still remains the tenancy of choice for Japanese chefs on a budget. But the clientele has changed. It isn’t about Japanese cooking for fellow Japanese while accommodating some hard-up locals. Yes, authenticity is still a thing, but this time it’s clearly tailored to how much Singaporeans will pay, ie, a lot.
Taking this window of opportunity is Issey Araki, who paid his dues at Kyuu by Shunsui and Shun X Sakemaru and now has his name on the door in Orchard Plaza. We mean that figuratively because there is no name on his door. There is no unit number nor signage – just a long flush wall of wood veneer with some kind of security panel as the only clue of an entrance. It takes its design cue from Kappo Shunsui in Cuppage Plaza – sharing a similarly irksome, speakeasy-style door with a pretentious secret panel as if only the elite can enter. Irksome not because we feel inadequate, but because we are hopelessly long-sighted. If you go, look really closely for a bell symbol and just ring it. If not, just bang on the door till someone lets you in. This is Orchard Plaza. No one will judge.
After all that, you step into what looks like Kappo Shunsui’s baby sister – dark walls and steel open kitchen enclosed by a counter for around eight diners, with a private room tucked out of sight. It’s clear who his target market is – Singaporeans who behave like they just got off a culinary bus tour of fancy Japanese restaurants in town.
As they file in, Chef Araki stands behind the counter like a performer waiting for his entire audience to arrive before he starts his 7pm show. Finally, after waiting another 15 minutes when he’s satisfied that enough people have arrived, save a couple of latecomers whom we hope he will not allow in until intermission, he gets his knife out and starts slicing.
A thick slice of wild-caught chutoro wrapped over chewy sushi rice placates us slightly with its three-week aged mellowness that melts into the warm rice. In 10 to 20 minute intervals, we get a range of assorted morsels: meiji maguro aka baby tuna smoked in straw which is pleasantly resilient and perked up with a spicy sesame sauce and shredded ginger buds; baby scallops bundled in a sheet of nori; and a surprisingly good charbroiled unagi that’s fresh and bouncy with a light crunch on the skin, doused in a melted butter and soy dressing with the tingliness of sansho pepper.
Chef Araki is a sedate version of his boisterous self at Kyuu where one of his star acts was to pour copious amounts of ikura on your rice while yelling in Japanese at the same time. His debut has an upmarket slant, with an emphasis on fish – doling out different versions served as sashimi, grilled, shabu shabu or deep-fried. But compared to Kyuu, he is really slow. He is so slow, other slow people would get impatient. Set aside at least three hours to eat here because he not only has to feed you, he keeps sending food into the private room like there was a baby monster in there growing by the minute.
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Cooking-wise, he does have his merits. Plump kinmedai slices are slipped in broth and barely cooked, served with crunchy leek-like mountain vegetables in an aged ponzu sauce that has kept its tanginess without any excessive tartness.
Oily nodoguro or black-throat perch is again broiled and wrapped in nori with rice, followed by a deep-fried slice of mehikari or ‘greeneyes’ that breaks the monotony.There’s no real order to the meal, interspersed with sushi pieces in between. His fish & co performance, however, culminates in a massive claypot of abalone rice – the surface completely covered by cubes of wobbly, tender shellfish. You can get repeat helpings of stock-infused chewy rice with an unusual pesto that lends a creamy roundedness to complete it.
Dessert is simple fruit. But you have to wait for him to peel and slice kiwi and strawberries then and there. While it’s fine if you generally like a long, languid meal, it’s another when there’s a level of conceit that presumes people are so happy to get a reservation – it took us a month – that you can dictate the terms of their meal.
Not that he’s a prima donna of any kind. Chef Araki is genuinely easy-going and humble, and if he can pick up the pace – not just his speed but the variety in his menu – we might close our eyes to the surroundings and come back to his cosy little hideout.
This article was originally published in The Business Times.