IF 2012 was the year of Spanish food, 2013 is quickly shaping up to be the year of Japanese food. More than 10 new Japanese restaurants have opened and will be opening their doors around the cusp of the new year. And not just another bamboo-clad sushi bar, mind. A handful among these new openings are run by non-Japanese restaurateurs looking to give traditional cuisine a modern lift.
Later this quarter, local hotelier and restaurateur Loh Lik Peng will pair with top chef Andre Chiang to unveil their as-yet-unnamed modern yakitori bar on Teck Lim Road. Also incoming on nearby Bukit Pasoh Road is Hashi, by the people behind Italian and French fine dining restaurants, Oso and Absinthe. Former Nobu Melbourne head chef Tadashi Takahashi will helm the modern Japanese restaurant. "Singapore's F&B scene is as established as that of the UK and Spain. People should be tired of the usual dining concepts by now because we have seen so much," explains Warren Wee, who last month opened aviation-themed Sushi Airways in Kampong Glam. "That's why we didn't want to be your typical sushi chain restaurant."
Over at Dhoby Ghaut, former advertising executives Joseph Koh and Omar Marks set up Maki-san sushi, a fully customisable maki roll stand - a Subway version of sushi, if you will.
Instead of hushed whispers and minimalist interiors, Maki-san's brightly coloured walls and cartoon artworks mark it as not your usual Japanese restaurant. And in the student-populated neighbourhood, it works, while the health food options (you can ask for brown rice and sesame wrap instead of seaweed) draws in a regular office crowd too.
But how far can one go before a strong concept and bold branding becomes regarded as a gimmick?
"I wouldn't rely solely on a theme. Themes don't have longevity," says Patrick Fok of soon-to-open Mariko's on Jiak Chuan Road. Though the decor of the ramen eatery-bar pivots around a fictional manga character from post-war Japan, he emphasises that "ultimately you need to have a consistent food quality that people want to come back to".
Both Mr Wee and Mr Koh admit that their fun concepts sometimes mislead patrons to have low expectations of their food, but most change their minds after initial visits.
"Even though the idea may be gimmicky to some, we are still serious about the food," says Mr Wee. He should know, his extended family runs a food import business, and the restaurant's chef Wong Eng Chun was formerly the head chef at the Grand Hyatt.
"People say things like, 'You can't have truffle fries and sushi on the same menu. It's just wrong. I won't eat here'. Ultimately, you can't please everyone," concedes Howard Lo of Tanuki, a Japanese-inspired fusion raw bar which serves mould-breaking creations such as steak tartare in sushi rolls. "But the funny thing is, if you go to Japan now, you'll see lots of French-Japanese cuisine, or Italian-Japanese cuisine."
"Japan itself is leading the effort to modernise their cuisine."
Take that, traditionalists.