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Perceptions of sushi
#01-11 Raffles Hotel Shopping Arcade 1 Beach Road Singapore 189768
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Sat: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 10.30pm.
Closed on Sun
PERCEPTION is a powerful thing in F&B. It's what makes us line up at Shake Shack (in a different reality from now). Makes us dine at a restaurant like Gaggan and swear we've been kissed by the emoji of a culinary god. And makes us believe that if a Japanese chef is known for making great sushi, he must be infallible.
As it turns out, even the best sushi chefs can have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, and Koichiro Oshino of his brand new namesake eatery can attest to that. Who would know that the rice gods and the shop's air-conditioning would conspire against him on the day we visit, mucking up his shari (sushi rice) for the lunch service.
But we know none of this at the time. It's our first visit to Oshino, run by the original head chef of Shinji by Kanesaka when it first opened in Raffles Hotel 10 years ago. As Chef Oshino is a celebrity of sorts in the local sushi scene, we're just excited at the prospect of tasting his sushi - usually monopolised by his regulars at Shinji, which we are not. With his new intimate eight seater, he can't escape us. An audience with Chef Oshino does not come cheap, even by Singapore's already pricey standards. There are only two options at lunch: S$180 for a standard sushi-only meal, or S$360 for omakase (the website is a bit misleading, saying it starts from S$300). We get both to compare.
We reckon Chef Oshino's trying to change things up a bit when he dives straight into sushi for the omakase, instead of the usual protocol of sashimi and cooked appetisers. We get three in quick succession - flounder, red snapper glazed with his original soy sauce, and Spanish mackerel. Clean slices, shiny and poised on red vinegared rice that's oddly sticky, pasty and grainy.
Since we don't know the Japanese words for "what kind of style is this", we chomp on, trying to savour the fish in spite of the off-kilter rice. Maybe it's the Oshino style, a method that we're not familiar with, we muse. Is it fashionable to do al dente shari now? It can't possibly be undercooked. He's an expert. It must be his signature style - since he serves sushi first instead of sashimi, maybe he intends for the rice to get progressively cooked as the meal goes on?
Such thoughts race through our mind, distracted occasionally when the chef delivers the other omakase components: fat botan ebi with a more welcome sticky succulence, to be simply dabbed with wasabi and a touch of shoyu. There's also strips of sayori or needle fish - glistening and opaque in a light marinade and perfumed with minced herbs and flowers. Nice.
A decent combination of crab and uni on yuba in a savoury thickened sauce is passable, with unusually firm, almost-bouncy rather than creamy bafun uni - a texture we've not encountered before either. But this seems to be a sushi meal of several firsts anyway, so we explain it off as maybe some hidden sea urchin muscle the chef has discovered. Slices of baby tuna have a pleasant smooth suppleness but little taste, and we prefer the surprise refreshment of a piece of sweet kumquat than the withered piece of grilled semi-dried pomfret it comes with.
The sushi starts up again - horse mackerel, fatty tuna, marinated tuna, squid, creamy uni, striped jack, chewy clam - nothing particularly impressive in quality - and that same rice. We're convinced it's undercooked by then, but the chef seems cool and doesn't seem aware of anything amiss. He continues to take his rice out from a large bucket under the counter, and we will him to taste it - maybe he doesn't know - and at one point he does. We watch with bated breath, but like a castaway waving at a rescue plane which hesitates and then flies off, he proceeds as per normal. Convinced that we're mistaken, we obediently continue with the rest of the 15 pieces (omakase) and 12 (normal set lunch) - by the time the final maki arrives, we even imagine that the rice tastes slightly more cooked.
A niggling curiosity after paying our hefty bill leads us to call the management, while texting a Japanese sushi chef friend about the existence of al dente sushi. Came the reply: "Shari shall be cooked - no risotto-style". And the revelation: A glitch in the airconditioning somehow affected the cooking of the rice, leaving the whole batch improperly cooked, with no time to cook a new one in time for the lunch service. But as part of Oshino's service recovery, all the customers' bills, including ours, were refunded.
It's a noble gesture that shows the restaurant's willing to take the rap for a bad judgment call. Everybody has a bad day, and everyone makes mistakes. Rice aside, there are other issues at hand like value-for-money, ingredient quality and wow factor. It's a very nice space and Chef Oshino clearly has impressive credentials - he's created a perception of excellence, so we're waiting to see him live up to it.
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.