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Steak out at Gyu Bar
The Gyu Bar
30 Stevens Road
Tuesday to Sunday: Noon to 3pm and 6pm to 11pm
SINGAPORE doesn't exactly need another Japanese restaurant, but being rather smitten with yakiniku after a couple of visits to Okinawa and Osaka, we head off to The Gyu Bar to rekindle holiday memories of Japanese-with-a-touch-of-Korean table barbecue experience.
Of course, we all know how all this will play out once expectations come into play: We'll lament that it's not quite the real thing, it's expensive, the kimchi's not so good, and being caught between Long Beach Seafood and a curry restaurant doesn't quite summon the same ambience as a traditional wooden house in Okinawa or the buzzing energy of Nanba Station's side streets.
So it's not the real thing, but Gyu Bar - located in a cluster of eateries built around the new Mercure and Novotel hotels in the prime Stevens Road/Balmoral neighbourhood - has its own appeal.
Open by the same people behind Sushi Kimura, the vibe here is less upscale and more cosy-casual, friendly and down-to-earth. At dinner time, a nice touch is taking your pick of a wall display of cute cups and having it filled with organic sake on the house.
The only annoyance is the oddly-designed sofa seats, made of several pieces that fit together but keep separating with every sudden move. You need sturdy thighs to keep them together. We're sneaking in some super glue next time.
Lunch offers value rice sets priced from S$18 to S$35, but the bill adds up at dinner. The most expensive item is the 300g omakase beef platter at S$178, which is enough for two with other add-ons. At face value, S$178 makes you feel only lightly stabbed in the wallet rather than eviscerated. But bear in mind it still works out to just over S$50 per 100g.
Gyu Bar's unique selling point is wagyu from Kumamoto prefecture, featuring unique cuts that you supposedly can get only if you buy the whole cow, which it does. They don't get the entire carcass because bones are not allowed in, so it's the deboned meat which is air-flown chilled, not frozen.
The special cuts include Tomo-sankaku, which isn't on the ala carte menu because there's too little of it, but is one of the five different cuts from the omakase platter, meticulously sliced and labelled from sirloin to short plate.
Apart from the steak-cut sirloin, you get four very thin slices of meat from each label - you can grill them yourself at the table, but expect the restaurant manager Amber to step in occasionally to save your Tomo-sankaku from going up in smoke.
Not that there's much chance of that as you're grilling a slice of pale, creamy fat with just faint shades of red meat peeping out. Once it loses some of its fat, the remainder is just pure melt-in-the-mouth goodness.
Wagyu tongue is chewy but you might get a few bouncy bites in between. Shin Tama comes from the knuckle, yet is buttery tender, while short plate is the leanest. The sirloin steak is seared till rare and whisked off into the kitchen to be sliced and plated. The extra marbling can be a bit cloying but easily remedied with a dab of wasabi and salt.
For variety, well-grilled pork neck or tontoro (S$22) is firm to the bite but juicy and bouncy. Just about anything you put on the grill will taste okay - it's just the other Korean-based dishes that lag behind.
Japanese yakiniku has its roots in Korean barbecue, but Gyu Bar goes a little overboard. Kimchi (S$10) is homemade but doesn't pack the right balance of garlic, chilli and vinegar. A namuru (S$16) which resembles banchan, is pricey and so-so - a trio of cooked spinach, bean sprouts and some kind of very salty, string-like mushrooms.
Ishiyaki bibimbap (S$22) has hardly any beef in the hot stone bowl of overly soft rice mixed with a motherlode of gochujang, kimchi and the same vegetables from the namuru. There are some nice crispy bits but those mushrooms are starting to get on our nerves.
Especially when they turn up again in the only soup on the menu - a potent kimchi chige (S$20) or jjigae, which is more of a chilli-fuelled stew but with added broth. It's rough and gruff - great if you have a hangover but hardly matching the less-is-more Japanese ethos.
While it can't compete with its Japanese counterparts on price or variety (AVA doesn't allow bones and innards to be brought in), Gyu Bar is at least a more comfortable and better ventilated place to dine in. Give it some time to sort out the rest of its menu and it'll draw in its own fan base soon.
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