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Japanese food that does not distract
Level 24 Tower Wing
22 Orange Grove Road
Open daily for lunch and dinner: Noon to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm; 6pm to midnight (terrace)
IF Japanese restaurants had lifespans like race horses, Nadaman in Singapore should have been put out to pasture a long time ago. Dated, with food as tired as its surroundings, it came as no surprise that it was shut when the Shangri-La hotel underwent a complete makeover of its Tower Wing rooms and lobby.
If you go snooping beyond the dramatic, leafy lobby - it looks like a stylish giant ripped out a part of his designer forest and plonked it in front of the reception counter - you'll notice that the old Nadaman premises has been discreetly boarded up.
But that doesn't mean that the hotel's Japanese options have been placed in cold storage either. They've just been moved 24 floors up to NAMI - which takes over the former BLU restaurant and now serves very pleasant, reliable cooking in bright, happy and elegant surroundings. It's as if Nadaman went on a long detox retreat and came back with a much more positive outlook on life.
It's still very much a hotel restaurant, so its main function is to please a wide range of tastes rather than that of the picky sushi purist or kappo convert. The operating word here is "dependable" - it's a perfect place for corporate entertaining because the food doesn't try to distract you from the conversation at hand.
Lunch is a curated selection of well-priced sets, multi-course menus and a sprinkling of signature dishes. Prices are pretty decent for the location and ambience, starting at S$45 for a beef steak rice set to S$130 for a sushi course meal. Your bill will add up if you order a lot of the NAMI signatures, which are priced from S$65 to S$90 for rather small portions.
Pan-fried tuna head (S$60) may well be priced for the chef's skill at cutting out two perfectly square chunks of fatty meat from the cheeks - they were so oily, they withstand the cooking process and remain almost creamy-fleshed and tender, soaking up mellow, well-balanced sweet sauce that is the speciality of head chef Shigeo Akiba.
We like the understated dish with its clean, uncluttered flavour better than the miso pen shell clam with sea urchin and salmon roe (S$65), where slices of firm shellfish are overpowered by a blanket of creamy miso-cheese sauce, sea urchin and ikura. The individual flavours cancel each other out, so all you taste are this cheesy, salty cream and the unexpected piece of carrot.
From the sets, the Australian Angus Beef Steak Jyu (S$45) is the most popular and we know why. You get a very good portion of grilled steak, sliced into tender strips, with a thickened gravy that has a hint of acidity so it doesn't get cloying, and a thick, grilled mushroom. Rice, miso soup, delicate chawanmushi and a little side dish complete the set.
The kaisen don (S$55) in turn feels a little pricey for the few slices of sashimi and a piece of grilled eel on a bed of rice. It isn't so much understated as it is underwhelming, as if almost afraid to attract any kind of attention. If we could have it sent back to the chef to ask him to chop up the sashimi, marinate the tuna and turn it into a bowl of chirashisushi, we would.
Dessert is pretty and refreshing - a scoop of matcha ice cream on a bed of stewed red beans, chewy balls of mochi and a fresh strawberry.
Much of NAMI's appeal is its surroundings - a panoramic view of the city, easy-on-the-eye interiors and attentive, warm service. The sleek, blond wood counter has a sci-fi-like wall that looks like it's been covered with aluminium foil, while the chairs are draped with a leather cushion that flops over the seat and back. At night, you can sit around an enjoy tapas right up till midnight.
NAMI is amiable, eager-to-please and pretty, very much the newbie trying very hard to make a good impression. And when you're faced with such unbridled enthusiasm, it's really hard not to like it.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.