Business Times - 30 May 2009
One's a top Tokyo brand and the other is a neighbourhood eatery, but both these new Japanese restaurants have something in common - they differ from the norm. By Audrey Phoon
Shirokane Tori-Tama Singapore
11 Unity Street
#01-02 Robertson Walk
THERE is no shortage of places where aficionados of beef and pork can satiate their palates in Singapore - steakhouses and restaurants offering numerous cuts and grades of wagyu or kurobuta are aplenty. In contrast, chicken lovers, poor souls, have mostly had to fly the coop to get their fix.
But the road to poultry paradise has shortened drastically since Japan yakitori specialist Shirokane Tori-Tama opened its first outpost here in mid-March. The company has three other restaurants located in upmarket Tokyo: the first in Shirokane opened 16 years ago followed by two more in Ebisu and Kagurazaka.
It decided to open in Singapore as it considers the Republic the 'centre of Asia', says Takeo Ishii, the assistant general manager of Tori-Tama's parent company, Orihara. (Orihara is primarily a sake wholesale company from Japan that has a store next to Tori-Tama at Robertson Walk because 'good food needs good drink to match'.)
'Tori-tama' translates roughly to 'chicken-egg', and that sort of sums up the bulk of the restaurant's menu: practically every bit from a chicken's anatomy unfussily seasoned and tenderly cooked yakitori-style over charcoal. There's the stomach lining, the meat from the neck, the tail end and more, and the restaurant would have the bird's uterus and embryo on the menu here too - just as its Japan outlets do - if not for AVA regulations that do not permit such parts to be brought in, says Mr Ishii.
Of the extensive list of chicken parts, he explains: 'We are trying to let people know about what we have in Japan. We want to share this in Singapore.' Yakitori in Japan is highly appreciated to the point that it is considered an art form, he adds, and the restaurant is hoping to cultivate a similar appreciation here.
That should not be too hard, considering that Tori-Tama (which is in the process of being rated by the Zagat guide in Japan and which Mr Ishii says is the top yakitori brand there) turns out quite a unique brand of food. The restaurant's secret apparently lies in the seasoning, cutting and extraction of the meat, which makes preparation for just one skewer very time consuming.
'It requires a lot of skill to properly extract the delicate parts of a chicken, and only our chefs know how to do this,' explains Mr Ishii, adding that a number of competitors have come to the shop to try and find out how Tori-Tama does it. 'They ask if they can take away the food. We say, take! They can't duplicate what our chefs can do - and our chefs don't speak English!'
In fact, the restaurant has already managed to grow its clientele base of locals by quite a significant margin since its opening here. 'In the beginning, our customers were 90 per cent Japanese - they would come here and ask, is this Tori-Tama the same one as in Shirokane? But now our customer base is 30 to 40 per cent non-Japanese,' notes Mr Ishii.
Despite the locals bagging a few more seats out of the restaurant's 48, however, eating at Tori-Tama feels very nearly like you're in a Tokyo establishment. Inside the discreetly-furnished blond-wood interiors that house tables, counter seats and a private room, groups of Japanese salarymen huddle together for after-work drinks sessions while chefs with bandana-bound heads (from Tori-Tama's Japan outlets) at the yakitori counter expertly flip orders.
The service, too, is typical of Japanese omotenashi, or hospitality - the staff are friendly but not intrusive and they are reasonably knowledgeable about the food and drink.
Still, Mr Ishii reckons there is a long way to go before the next step forward can be considered. 'I hope for so many things,' he says. 'But it's too soon to know what the future holds yet because this shop is still settling down. Making sure the hospitality for customers, set-up and operations are all okay - this must come first.'
Kitagawa Japanese Restaurant
1 Orchid Club Road
#02-02 Driving Range
THE probability of finding a decent Japanese restaurant in the heartlands used to be as unlikely as discovering a piece of otoro in the fish section of a neighbourhood wet market. That is, until Kitagawa opened in Yishun recently.
To be more specific, the restaurant - located within the driving range of Orchid Country Club - began business two weeks ago. Yet it's already attracting a steady stream of diners, and not just golfers at that: at lunch on Tuesday, for example, the restaurant was more than half-full with people in office attire who were obviously there to eat, not hit, buckets.
What's drawing them is the fact that Kitagawa offers decently done and reasonably priced gourmet goodies such as wagyu tataki ($60.50 per 100g) alongside house specials like braised sharkfin with chawanmushi ($20.50) and deep-fried sole salad ($18.50). A must-try is the kajiki nabe ($15), a tasty broth containing melt-in-the-mouth blue marlin belly in a claypot.
There's also a sizeable selection of sushi (including otoro) and sashimi, which is not surprising once you realise that the restaurant's head chef, Marcus Yan, used to work for sushi guru Yoshio Nogawa. He's also chalked up stints at Tatsu Sushi at Chijmes, and Kihana in Jakarta.
Yan is not the owner of Kitagawa though - two first-time restaurateurs are. Pals Sandy Wong and Jimmy Woo are from completely different industries - she's an artist who won the UOB Painting of the Year award in 1986, he runs a family business - who both decided to 'follow our passion for food' by opening a restaurant, recession notwithstanding.
Understandably, because of their relative inexperience in the F&B industry, they've given Yan a free hand with the food, which means he is able to buy and serve whatever he wants within reason. So Kitagawa's ingredients are 'all from Japan', claims the chef, who adds that the food is brought in thrice a week from Tokyo's Tsukiji Market and Fukuoka. 'Sometimes (the owners) scream when they see the invoices, but the costs are secondary - customers must firstly be satisfied,' he says half-jokingly.
Ms Wong and Mr Woo have also splashed out on renovating and decorating their 102-seat restaurant to the tune of half a million dollars, which shows up in the form of a hand-assembled ceiling comprising stylised orchid-shaped wood panels; solid wooden floors; and humongous gurgling water-feature vases. In addition, there are both indoor and outdoor dining areas as well as counter seats, two tatami rooms and a VIP room. The latter is set apart from the rest of the restaurant and has a private entrance plus its own LCD TV and karaoke set, should the food make you want to sing.
Yan says the aim of the restaurant is to make diners feel comfortable and special, and he plans to help them along by, say, sneaking extras into their bento boxes if they order the sets, or whipping up special finger food items for those seated at the sushi counter.
No doubt those little touches will continue to bring in customers - and if they don't, the free parking will.