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Japanese fare spiced up by friendly, most obliging chefs
Chikuyotei (UE Square)
#01-61, UE Square (River Wing)
207 River Valley Road
Tel: 98589892 or 6235 2758
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm.
HERE'S how bad our Japanese is.
We are at Chikuyotei's new branch in UE Square - our first time as we've never been to its original outlet in the Intercontinental Singapore.
We've heard delicious stories about its signature unagi rice where the eels are brought in live. What we want to know is whether there's any connection between Chikuyotei and its popular namesake in Tokyo - a no-frills eatery dating back several generations.
Here's a rough recap of our conversation with the Japanese chefs (in sort-of English):
Us: "Is this a branch of Chikuyotei Tokyo?"
Chef: "No. Chikuyotei have many shop in Japan. This one first one outside Japan."
Us: "Wait, so you're not a branch of Chikuyotei but you're the first Chikuyotei outside of Japan?"
Us: "Uh, OK. But you don't have the same things on the menu like their unagi omelette."
Chef: "Ahh, I can make that for you. Next time you come."
Us: "Oh, because you used to work at Chikuyotei Tokyo then?"
Us: "The unagi sauce is amazing."
Chef: "Hai, this is special sauce. It is 100 years old. So every time we make, we add to old sauce."
Us: "Uh, right. So you're not a branch of Chikuyotei but you can make unagi omelette and you have a sauce that is 100 years old but your restaurant is what, less than five years old counting the one at Intercontinental?"
Such is how the conversation goes. But what we later remember is that the very first Chikuyotei was opened in the Mandarin Orchard back in 1992 by restaurateur/supplier Yoshihiko Nakakita. Chikuyotei Japan had a share in that restaurant, and presumably gave it a batch of original sauce. But it closed down in 2006, and it was only in 2011 that Nakakita-san revived it in the Intercontinental. But how he kept the sauce during the five-year gap is beyond our ability to find out.
But rest assured the syrupy, not-too-sweet teriyaki-based sauce with the goodness of a century's worth of eels and counting, is the defining moment of a meal at Chikuyotei. Drizzled over plain rice, it even surpasses the char-broiled unagi itself, which for all its freshness is a little flabby in texture and taste unlike their fatter and toned cousins back in Tokyo.
The UE Square outlet - which faces Mohd Sultan Road in a semi-enclave of mid-price Japanese eateries - looks too fancy to blend in with its rough-edged neighbours. But it's a welcome reprieve, especially with its calming interiors of soothing blond wood, patterned glass panels and a neat see-through kitchen where the eels are skewered and grilled. Instead of just variations of eel on rice, Chikuyotei wants you to take its modern kaiseki seriously, which is why dinner here is a choice of two sets - Omakase (S$128/S$178) or Unagi course (S$128 to S$218).
The chefs here are friendly and most obliging, even slipping in an extra serving here and there if you order different sets, so your dining partner gets to try some of what you're eating if you're too selfish to share. As far as ingredient quality goes, it hovers at slightly above average level. That means the sashimi is fresh but not excellent quality, and the grilled crab leg, while thankfully fresh rather than frozen, is just acceptable.
But you do get what you pay for, as the dinner sets are priced realistically lower than other fine dining establishments. Plus you get 10 courses for the S$128 Omakase, which includes the crab leg.
Apart from a starter of tai sashimi followed by a pressed mini-loaf of fish cake and snow crab in a clear broth, you also get aged toro and saury sushi and a selection of thin-crusted tempura - prawn, shiitake mushroom and firefly squid. Your rice course is a mini version of unagi don, while your partner who orders the Unagi course gets fewer courses but a big bowl of rice and eel, priced according to how much eel you want. This classic donburi compensates for the anaemic grilled unagi before it that comes au naturel without any sauce. Without anything to cloak its tasteless, muddy flesh, it makes you feel indebted to the person who invented teriyaki sauce.
Dessert is a simple glutinous rice ball wrapped in a fragrant leaf and strawberry drizzled with condensed milk the way the Japanese like it.
Unagi don will always be the mainstay of Chikuyotei, so make sure you get your fill of it here. Anything else is mere distraction. But given how the chefs make you feel at home and really want you to experience the variety they offer, it's hard to refuse.
So go ahead and indulge. But maybe you don't want to instigate a conversation about the difference between unagi and anago. . .
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.