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Satisfying izakaya cooking at Mobomoga
#01-58 UE Square River Wing
207 River Valley Road
Tel: 6219 3430
Open Mon to Sat: 6pm to 12am
HUNGER may be the best sauce, but uncertainty is a garnish that doesn't go well with any dish.
As the Covid-19 virus steadily overturns life as we know it, dining out is no longer what it used to be. You're not even encouraged to go out, but when you do, there is no longer that buzz of anticipation and enthusiasm from chefs eager to impress you with their cooking. Instead, you're mostly greeted with a mixture of relief (that they have a customer) and a brave-yet-wistful demeanour that's almost painful to see.
Outside the new-ish izakaya-sake bar Mobomoga, a notice hastily pinned on the door tells you about the new normal - a one-metre social spacing measures for restaurants. It doesn't apply to us because the place is completely empty when we step in. Granted it's early, since this is more of a late-night joint popular with Japanese expats and chefs, but one of its English-speaking servers says they've only had a handful of customers in the past week or so.
We only heard about Mobomoga recently - a tongue-twisting, quirky sort-of speakeasy that hides behind a plain door facing Mohd Sultan. A sake ball normally seen outside Japanese breweries is the only clue of what it is, and the only way in is through a door-within-a-door that you squeeze through like a fat pet cat - into a burrow-like space guarded by a Japanese guy wearing a fedora.
Mobomoga - a truncation of "modern boys and modern gals" - is dark and cramped, with counter-only seating around an open kitchen and bar where food and drinks are prepared in front of you. It's got an eclectic, cluttered vibe that reminds you of izakayas in smaller Japanese cities and suddenly we feel a pang of deja vu, right down to the awkwardness of not being able to converse in their language. A disco ball hangs listlessly from the ceiling. Apparently they turn it on for fun when things get really rowdy at night, at least in the not-so-distant past. Now it just hangs there, looking like it desperately wants to get out of there and look for a party somewhere else.
Fedora guy doesn't talk much. He's too pre-occupied with his large collection of sake bottles displayed in a large chiller. We stare at him staring at his bottles, wondering what kind of conversation he's having with them telepathically. It must be scintillating, but we wish he would come over and start cooking or something.
We realise that he's the owner/sake expert when the real chef Tanaka-san appears - a bustling, scurrying, cheerful Niigata native who's a jack of all Japanese cooking from the way he dispenses sashimi, appetisers, kushiage and sukiyaki with diligence and speed.
It's exactly as you would expect from a good izakaya - simple, comforting and well-executed food with a good range of sake that's priced very fairly and is highly enjoyable. Cauldrons filled with an evil black bubbling brew yield some lip-smacking Shizuoka-style oden - radish (S$4); bits of fatty beef and tendon skewered on a stick (S$4); hard-boiled egg (S$3) and a braised cabbage roll stuffed with minced pork topped with salty salmon roe (S$6); each is marinated within an inch of its life in a salty-sweet, thirst-inducing potion, but it's quickly balanced out with a salve of mustard.
Five types of sashimi can be had for an acceptable S$45 - and apart from flaccid chutoro (tuna belly) and a so-so grilled scallop wrapped in nori, the quality isn't bad at all. Ishidai (sea bream) and sumi ika (squid) are mellow and sweet while kanpachi (amberjack) takes the top spot for a plump juiciness that might make sushi chefs jealous.
If you like more imagination with your sashimi, there's the palate-tingling slippery ice fish (S$8)in a sharp vinegar dressing; delicately sticky-sweet shrimp tossed in a malted salt shiokara (S$12) that tastes a little like herb-inflected shio koji; lightly grilled firefly squid (S$12) and the simplest but sweetest fruit-like tomatoes or strawberries tossed in a creamy tofu dressing (S$10). A baby uni and ikura don (S$22) on overly seasoned rice is ok but skippable.
Make room for Chef Tanaka's kushiage or deep-fried breadcrumb-coated morsels. The star is a creamy pea croquette (S$4) that's an absolute treat of sweet mushy peas contrasted with a light, non-oily crunch. A squid version is also good, with a herbed minced chicken fritter topped with vegetarian caviar coming in third.
Any hangovers are easily corrected by the in-your-face sukiyaki (S$26) that begs for a steaming bowl of rice to mitigate the syrupy-salty sauce that clings to the slices of Miyazaki wagyu like a rabid fan to a K-drama star. Firm tofu and sous vide egg stand by. If there's still room, a maki roll of tuna and gooey egg yolk confit is a rich but welcome twist to the usual tuna roll.
Somewhere in between, Fedora Man - actually Touyama-san - ambles over to recommend some sake and he is genial and warm. It's to his credit that he's created a place that's authentic and sincere in its service and food at prices which you know he tries hard to keep reasonable. He doesn't even add service charge or GST to his bill. Yet you can see that the current situation has him - and a lot of restaurants - in a bind. Hopefully, the latest budget will help, because this is a place we want to return to - again and again.
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.