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A triumph of textures
30 Victoria Street
Tel: 6684 4567
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sun: 12pm to 2pm; 6pm to 11pm. Closed on Mon.
APART from being "the place where Lei Garden is", we've never paid much heed to CHIJMES as a place for serious food. Variety, yes, in the way that you can satisfy your craving for kaya toast or collagen steamboat and end the night with a craft beer and whatever it is they serve in Applebees. There are, of course, a few concept restaurants catering to hipsters' dietary needs but it is in general a themeless food park albeit in a very nice garden, with a former cathedral space you can get married in on weekends.
That's why we barely noticed the discreet blond wooden screens of Ashino on a couple of visits to CHIJMES, blinded by the visual cacophony of surrounding eateries that call out to you with all the elegance of a beer garden promoter. But our inner voice still called out - one that says: "So do you want to try that new Japanese place in CHIJMES or not?" and we tentatively slide open the door that's almost hidden in a narrow corridor space.
Hiding behind the noren is an austere, compact sushi-ya - presided over by Taku Ashino, a chef who spent the last two years manning the sushi counter at Hide Yamamoto. That doesn't necessarily inspire confidence, nor the fact that we are the only customers on a Wednesday evening at this barely one-month-old eatery. In fact, we don't even know that it's a sushi restaurant - this being CHIJMES, we merely assume that it's an all-purpose sushi-tempura-wagyu-noodle joint with flexible a la carte pricing. Instead, we find ourselves face-to-face with the earnest-faced chef Ashino and a set of dinner options that start at S$220 up to S$400 for omakase.
With no way out and not quick-thinking enough to feign a sudden onset of allergy to raw tuna that affects you once a week when the sun sets, we suck it up and order the S$220 course.
It's all kind of quiet as chef Ashino gets to work - piling a few whole chunks of sweet pickled ginger (instead of more conventional thin slices) and cucumber with salt on the cypress wood counter in front of you. Before we know it, he presents us our first sushi - smooth, satiny textured tuna that he says comes from Okinawa and marinated Zuke style.
Zuke is traditional Edomae - where tuna is marinated in soy sauce and sake so it's semi-preserved and in chef Ashino's case is aged for 20 days. The result is melt-in-the-mouth tuna over warm rice that's beautifully textured - it's got that perfect, chewy texture with each individual grain discernible in every bite.
Next up is fat Botan ebi - aged for three days which makes it appealingly smooth and tender, making it one of the few sticky-textured things you will willingly put in your mouth. Then there's kisu or smelt - with homemade oboro (prawn paste) smeared on the rice instead of wasabi.
Kinmedai - usually lightly grilled or just served raw - is aged 10 days for a smooth, velvety texture. When he serves you toro, you notice very fine cuts on the fish - 40 to be exact - which he says breaks down the fibre and makes it melt in your mouth. It does. Japanese geoduck or mirugai is lightly grilled with a smidgen of sweet sauce, followed by lightly grilled fatty Nodokuro or black throat perch. And for the climax - an intensely rich, sweet Murusaki uni with just a vague bitterness that lends to the complexity of this delicacy that comes from Kyushu.
All this while, everything is served with no song and dance - there are no elaborate displays of fish, nor does chef Ashino even do much slicing with his formidable-looking knife.
Slices of fish simply appear and he meticulously measures just enough rice to shape into prized morsels. What sets him apart is the way he ages and marinates his fish - most fish has to be aged at least a few days before it's palatable enough to be eaten but chef Ashino uses different techniques from ageing to knife skills to improve the fish texture so everything you eat slides down smoothly with no trace of sinew.
He also combines Hokkaido and Niigata rice to get that perfect texture - one is sweet and sticky and the other is hard, he explains. He cooks it in an iron kettle and the result is the best tasting sushi rice we've found in Singapore - bearing in mind that rice texture is a matter of personal taste. What you eat here is nothing at all like what he served in Hide Yamamoto - his reason to come out on his own is so he can do the kind of sushi he wants to do, says the Tokyo native.
For that matter, Ashino may well be too subtle and understated for those used to more variety and an elaborate sushi dining experience. Don't expect a lot from the pricey $220 dinner set either - besides the sushi, there's a small dish of simmered garoupa and one tiny bowl of marinated baby eels, Crown melon and homemade matcha ice cream to finish off. And a rarity - homemade kanpyo (a long dried pickled gourd) that's turned into a maki that brings to mind the three Michelin-starred Sushi Saito in Tokyo.
Lunch sets that start at S$120 seem more bang for your buck, as you get 11 pieces of sushi that's similar to the dinner set, minus the melon and little dishes. Don't expect any appetisers - it's sushi and nothing but. Yet, there's something intrinsically pure and authentic about chef Ashino's approach - his low-key persona and single-minded focus on his product - that we appreciate.
He's not effusive, doesn't talk much and has a tendency to watch you while you eat as if worried that you won't like it. The restaurant itself packs little warmth - the all-male staff are friendly but very shy. It's not a style that suits everybody, but for us, it's a welcome dose of reality amidst the plastic conviviality of CHIJMES. If anything, he's an undiscovered gem we're glad to have stumbled upon.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good