Wednesday, 17 September, 2014

Published January 13, 2014
High art of the Japanese open kitchen
Chef Kitagawa Tomohiro excels in traditional Kappo cuisine, plating up elaborate treats for the senses, writes JAIME EE
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Wielding a precise hand Chef Kitagawa (above) masterfully displays his Kyoto ryotei - or traditional restaurant - experience in the dishes he prepares: mixed sashimi featuring the textures of clam, prawn, squid, tuna, egg and cucumber; perfectly grilled Kagoshima beef served with shiitake mushrooms; and dreamy salt ice cream drizzled with caramel sauce. - PHOTOS: JAIME EE

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Kappo chefs are the guys who spend years learning to make the perfect dashi (fish stock); who simmer, broil and fry their way through each season's bountiful produce.


Kappo Yorito

60 Robertson Quay #01-04A (The Quayside)

Tel: 6733 6315

Open for dinner only Mon to Sat: 6pm to 2am

"THE chef came from Kyoto just three months ago, so the food is still authentic," says our friendly young Japanese server in a conspiratorial, yet reassuring, tone.

The ensuing laughter isn't so much because of the irony of the statement, but more that he actually says it - he being a transplanted nihonjin who's lived in Singapore since he was a child. Such unexpected candour is so refreshing, especially when you've been inured to the vigorous authenticity claims of Japanese restaurants here, whether their chefs come from Saitama, Guangzhou or Bukit Ho Swee.

That's why it's imperative that you head down to Kappo Yorito sooner rather than later, before chef Kitagawa Tomohiro becomes subconsciously exposed to the Singaporean palate, and visions of grilled cod smothered in gratinated mentaiko cream dance in his head.

The restaurant itself is low-profile chic, although its address in The Quayside condo gives it a respectable dose of urban coolness. Beyond that, the restaurant has a Tokyo-esque air about it - from its detailed decor to the chef's prim demeanour, right down to the semi-curious glances you get from the moneyed Japanese clientele (including its owner).

Kappo Yorito is neither an izakaya nor a sushi bar and not even a modern kaiseki joint. But as its name suggests, it serves Kappo cuisine - a generic term meaning to cut and heat but is essentially the Japanese precursor to the now-trendy open kitchen.

Except that in this context, it describes a style of cooking that goes back centuries and is just as respected an art as kaiseki (where presentation and imagery is as important as taste) or sushi (where grown chefs cry at the hands of masters whose art of slicing becomes the object of American documentaries).

Kappo chefs are the guys who spend years learning to make the perfect dashi (fish stock); who simmer, broil and fry their way through each season's bountiful produce. Traditionally, their restaurants are tiny set-ups because they cook and prep in front of their guests, hence the counter concept. These days, though, table and private room dining are a lot more common.

At Kappo Yorito, chef Kitagawa's Kyoto ryotei (traditional restaurant) experience comes to the fore with a string of immaculately executed dishes in the two omakase options offered - $198 and $258. If you're already prepared to pay $200, then top up the extra $50 as that gets you a couple more elaborate creations that are well worth it. For a taste of the Japanese new year, chef Kitagawa kicks off with a few savoury tidbits: plump herring roe that's bouncy and not as salty as the regular variety, topped off with freshly shaved bonito flakes; tender sweetened black beans; and moist, almost juicy slices of dried mullet roe.

This promising start segues into a seasonal treat (for the $258 set) - thick, milky and mildly sweet miso soup so rich and comforting that it's no wonder the Japanese start off the year with this security blanket for their tummies. Melting soft daikon and sticky, chewy mochi complete this happy picture.

Chef Kitagawa is no slouch with raw fish either, as he convinces you with a merry melange of chopped mixed sashimi in a symphony of textures from soft to chewy and crunchy - clam, prawn, squid, tuna, egg and cucumber nestled under cold slippery jellied dashi and a blob of sweet uni.

Unlike most marinated mackerel where vinegar tends to dominate the flavour profile, chef Kitagawa's version has just the lightest tang with the mellow smoothness of barely cured fish - and more important, it's served at the right temperature. It's the same with the premium toro (from the $258 set) and the crunchy squid and clam (from the $198 set). He certainly has a way with fish even when it's cooked, as is clear from the deceptively simple grilled kelp bass with a hint of seaweed and miso permeating the bouncy flesh.

Less inspiring but acceptable are the fried discs of Japanese crisp-tender yam simmered in dashi - a textural foil to the creamy nuggets of shiroko (cod milt) that are coated in cornflour and deepfried like agedashi tofu, which changes the texture slightly to its disadvantage.

The perfectly grilled Kagoshima beef is nicely marbled if slightly gristly, served with shiitake mushrooms.

If you think the meal ends off with rice and dessert, don't. A large copper cauldron simmering at a corner of the chef's workspace holds the stock for some high-end oden you may not find anywhere else in town.

Interestingly, the stock is not bonito-based dashi but clear duck consomme, seasoned with soy and mirin. You're given a menu of oden items to choose from, or you can just ask for everything - fish cakes stuffed with burdock strips, cabbage rolls stuffed with duckmeat, seasoned soft cooked eggs, tofu patties and more. It looks like it's free-flow too, as we're asked if we want more. But you'll be too full by then - there's still rice or soba to go.

We pick the soba - which chef Kitagawa makes himself with bottled water from Japan. The chewy, slightly hard result is not the best but a pretty good effort. If you still have room, squeeze in a scoop of dreamy salt ice cream drizzled with caramel sauce.

This is by no means groundbreaking cuisine - in fact it's all comfort food - but chef Kitagawa's precise hand and attention to detail are what make Kappo Yorito a bright start to our culinary year. If kappo chefs are supposed to be jacks of all cooking trades, this is one chap who excels in all.

Rating: 8


10: The ultimate dining experience

9-9.5: Sublime

8-8.5: Excellent

7-7.5: Good to very good

6-6.5: Promising

5-5.5: Average