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A promising start for Esora
15 Mohamed Sultan Road
Open for dinner only Tuesdays to Sundays: 7pm to 9pm. Closed on Mon and public holidays
GIVE it its own TV show, already.
We're not producers, but Esora is the kind of restaurant that feels like it warrants its own episode of Chef's Table, just from the way it looks and the slow-motion, camera-panning effect that it's perfectly designed for.
Just standing outside the Mohamed Sultan shophouse puts our mental cinematographer to work: The pretty young server diligently wiping the glass door outside ... slowly opening to reveal this show-stopping haven of modern Zen ... cue camera close-up of the sculpted potted plants ... sea of blonde wood and stone walls inspired by Japanese paper screen doors … ending at the stunning stone wall leading to the kitchen, with a laser-sharp cutout to form a bar counter.
Welcome to the best-looking restaurant to open this year. It is perhaps better described as what happens when Odette goes to Kyoto and culturally appropriates it, albeit in a good way.
Esora is, of course, the handiwork of the Lo & Behold Group, and it is its first stab at high-end Japanese cuisine. Helming the restaurant - with help from some of Odette's bright young staff - is Shigeru Koizumi, whose resume includes stints at Nihonryori RyuGin in Tokyo and Odette itself. His style isn't remotely like Ryugin, which leans towards loud, intense flavours, but he does share some affinity with Odette for its lighter, more understated flavours and working style.
For its current soft-opening, chef Koizumi plays it safe - too safe, in fact, with food that piques your interest but doesn't have enough depth to reel you in. By Tokyo standards, it is a little lightweight, but in the Singapore context, it is a pleasurable mix of pretty food in picture-perfect surroundings - served with a liberal dose of reality in the form of loud, hard-core Singlish-speaking diners that fill the larger tables.
You have two choices for dinner - S$188 and S$248, which adds an extra two courses. Not feeling particularly extravagant, we stick to the S$188 menu, which is a good-enough showcase for us.
First up is a welcoming cup of dashi broth, which chef Koizumi prepares in individual batches, to perk up your palate for the meal to come.
An Odette-style snack plate doesn't disappoint: a trio of bites such as a refreshing gelatine sphere encasing a burst of tomato consomme and cucumber; super sweet grilled Hokkaido corn atop a corn cracker filled with corn purée; and a warm pumpkin croquette.
Eye candy is provided by the chef's take on monaka, the Japanese red bean stuffed wafer served mainly as dessert. This time, the wafers pack in foie gras terrine, a slice of sweet Japanese mikan orange, mikan jam and a shower of shredded ginger flower, kinome leaves and crushed nuts. This arty sandwich is presented on a bed of kaffir lime leaves in a wicker basket for an Asian twist.
It is pleasant, if a tad convoluted, with the foie gras - meant to be the star - overwhelmed by the combination of jammy sweetness and the astringent shredded herbs and nuts, which trigger an inexplicable memory of Thai miang kham.
But we do like his treatment of Japanese ayu - a Kyoto staple traditionally served grilled with its bitter innards intact, and which we have never acquired the taste for. Chef Koizumi takes out the bitter stuff and stuffs the filleted flesh into a deep fried cigar-shaped spring roll, while the tail and spine are deep-fried to a crisp and dotted with umeboshi paste that is a perfect foil to the oiliness. The head is also edible, with a hint of trademark bitterness. It could be crisper, but it's a great snack.
His sashimi platter passes muster - so-so murusaki uni on top of melting soft eggplant; smoky striped bonito and Japanese mustard; super tender akami and toro tuna; smooth textured 10-day aged grouper with baby okra and spicy ponzu jelly. All are quite enjoyable, especially when the chef slips us a couple of slices of excellent sanma or Pacific saury - smooth, elastic and delicate.
Hot dashi broth with conger eel is classic and tasty, followed by the main course of Omi beef sirloin poached in an oil bath. Plump and fatty, it's brought under control with a dab of fresh wasabi. Maitake crisps and purée of maitake and onion give it a Western vibe, which is fine until an aged vinegar glaze muscles in and clashes with the wasabi, throwing the combination off-balance.
The chef gets back in step with the final dish - crabmeat cooked with tender Japanese rice in a donabe (clay pot). This is the highlight of all Kappo meals, so we're glad he didn't fiddle with this tradition.
After a pre-dessert of peach sorbet and fruity sake jelly slush, we get a really good hojicha creme caramel served in a tin, covered with chocolate shavings to resemble dried tea leaves, with an added flourish of shaved black truffles, which do wonders for the chocolate and caramel combination.
If it were a TV show, Esora is currently in pilot episode mode. You're just starting to get introduced to the plot and its characters, so things are a little slow-moving for now. But there's enough to make you want to stick around for more episodes, so let's see where this show takes us.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times 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.