Business Times - 13 Jun 2009
Fishing for compliments
It's freshness guaranteed at a couple of new establishments with a strong emphasis on seafood
Zento Asian Global Cuisine & Sushi Bar 18B Dempsey Road Tel 6474-0378
SUSHI bars in Singapore tend to have pretty straightforward origins: the chef comes from Japan and sets up an eatery here, or a Singaporean chef learns his craft from a Japanese sushi chef and goes on to open his own place. Zento, on the other hand, comes to Singapore via Philadelphia and is helmed by an Indonesian chef who spent a year working with Morimoto Masaharu, one of the famed Iron Chefs based in the US.
The career path of chef Gunawan Wibisono and his wife Dyana Sulistyawati has surely been a colourful one. Both met and married in the US, where he moved seven years ago, and she, 10. Starting out in a takeaway sushi place, Chef Gunawan gradually worked his way up to the position of head chef in a New Jersey restaurant. But he wasn't happy and after 10 persistent applications, he finally landed a job at Iron Chef Morimoto's restaurant in Philadelphia. The third Iron Chef in the highly acclaimed Japanese reality cooking show in the late '90s, Morimoto was a former Nobu protege who went on to open his own eatery in 2001, specialising in fusion Japanese cuisine.
'The first month he was there, he couldn't take it - he wanted to quit,' says Ms Dyana. 'It was so tough.' From being a head chef, he was relegated to a minion's role at Morimoto's, ranked last of his 10 chefs. But by the end of his year's stint, he had 'learned more than he did anywhere else' and vaulted over the other nine chefs to become number one, earning the right to work side by side with Morimoto himself.
Even at Morimoto's restaurant, Chef Gunawan knew that it would be hard to go any further as an Indonesian chef making sushi. So the couple struck out on their own, starting a small takeaway sushi place in a shopping mall food court, until the general manager of the Ritz Carlton Philadelphia noticed their food and invited them to open a sushi bar in the hotel lobby. They opened sushi bars in top hotels like the Grand Hyatt, and started a catering business where they supplied sushi to hotel buffets and at convention centre events, earning a reputation for quality and freshness.
While the catering business boomed, the takeaway service didn't, so the couple gave that up and opened the 25-seater Zento in the Old City - a trendy area of Philadelphia - that had a proper kitchen. From there, Zento's menu concept bloomed. Inspired by his stint with Morimoto, Chef Gunawan's food took on a pan-Asian influence with dishes like tuna pizza where a flat round toasted corn tortilla is topped with slices of tuna sashimi and drizzled with a spicy cream sauce.
With two young children aged six and two, Ms Dyana knew that she wanted to return to Asia eventually so they started to look at either going back to Jakarta or settling in Singapore. 'We felt that Singaporeans are more appreciative of Japanese food than Indonesians, so we decided to open our first branch of Zento here,' she explains. Meanwhile, they still retain their business in the US.
The restaurant at Dempsey is much bigger than the original, and offers a clean, funky vibe that's not quite Japanese even though the staff offer the same customary greeting when you walk through the doors. While Philadelphia doesn't strike you as the cornerstone of fine Japanese cuisine, Chef Gunawan's emphasis on freshness means the quality of the fish at Zento is as good as some of the high-end Japanese restaurants here (then again, Zento charges similarly high prices too).
Zento's food is a refreshing change from the norm. It has quirky but tasty fare like 'riceless maki' with chopped raw fish encased in cucumber slices ($30) - perfect for low-carb dieters. Carpaccio ($25 for scallop) is served warm - scallop sashimi is topped with garlic, ginger and yuzu-soy sauce and 'simmered' with grapeseed oil such that the top is cooked but the bottom is raw. A $65 sushi set lunch sounds expensive but is fairly decent value for six pieces of sushi and sashimi, and eight pieces of spicy tuna maki. The fish is fresh and of good quality.
For dessert, check out the deep-fried ice cream or the house specialty of chocolate lava cake - properly done with oozing chocolate sauce and moist cake.
Call it Iron Chef, Philadelphia Japanese or Pan-Asian cooking, but Zento is a bright spark on the local scene that's worth investigating.
Nautilus #04-09 Ion Orchard 2 Orchard Turn (Opening July 21)
THE Nautilus, which dates back to the time of pterodactyls and iguanodons, is one of the few shells in history to have survived the ages. But the upcoming restaurant that's named after (and shaped like) this fossil is anything but a dinosaur.
Sure, it may be mammoth-sized with 140 seats and a kitchen that's roughly 40 per cent the size of the dining area, but the seafood-specialist eatery - which will have Ion Orchard's curved glass facade running along the length of it as a feature wall, and be fitted with solid timber floors and dark wood furniture - also looks to be one of the sleekest and most contemporary around when it opens next month.
It will offer some of the best views for crowd and chef-watchers too: the glass wall will look out onto the busy Paterson Road, Orchard Road and Scotts Road junction, and the restaurant will feature lots of open-concept cooking, including a dessert counter where sweet treats will be made a la minute as well as an oyster bar where diners can slurp up oysters as soon as they are shucked.
Perhaps you could call it a case of global perspective literally translating into impressive views. Nautilus, after all, is owned by Indonesian businesswoman Ingrid Prasatya, who operates The Prime Society steakhouse at Dempsey, and it will be helmed by her company's new corporate executive chef, award-winning New Zealander Jason Dell, along with head chef Australian Lucas Mcmillan.
Says Dell, who left 'a dream job' in New Zealand to move to Singapore with his family three months ago for 'a change of scene and to lock down into a job that gives me the creative licence to do what I enjoy but also some sense of normality' with regard to a work-life balance: 'Nautilus will be contemporary without being too adventurous; we will not be focusing on molecular gastronomy.
'What we will be doing is showcasing great-tasting seafood such as sashimi-style fish appetisers where we don't mask the foods with too many complex layers and flavours.'
For a restaurant that's selling itself as a seafood joint, however, Nautilus seems to fall a tad short on variety: only 'a couple' of varieties of oysters will be brought in and there will be no particularly unusual types of seafood served. But what it lacks in range may be made up for in quality: Dell plans to have fish brought in two to three times a week from local and international waters so that what is served will always be fresh.
That includes a delivery of king salmon ('it's even better than Norwegian salmon', says the chef) and mussels from New Zealand. Prices will range from approximately $3.50 per oyster to $65 for a whole broiled crayfish tail served with garlic butter, French fries and hand-chopped slaw.
Those who are not fans of ocean catch won't feel at sea here either. 'While seafood is a key focus, we will also offer an extensive selection of other items,' says Dell. As such, the menu lists dishes that should please both meat or veg lovers too, from crispy duck leg confit with sherry prunes and cumin creamed parsnip, and smoked beef carpaccio, to handcrafted potato gnocchi infused with lemon, rosemary, mint and peas.
If that sounds fancy to you, rest assured that Nautilus is anything but. 'We're comfortable and family-friendly,' Dell states. 'We're positioned to cater to a diverse audience, from mothers with babies in prams to foodies looking for a good meal along Orchard Road.'