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The S$49.90 question
22 Scotts Road, Goodwood Park Hotel
Tel: 6734 6281
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 3pm;
6pm to 10.30pm
SO I had lunch the other day with my alter ego: a penny-pinching, bulk-buying, conveyor belt sushi-guzzling consumer activist who once campaigned against selling doughnut holes separately from the doughnuts they came from. "It's just morally wrong," says alter ego. "You can't have two bites of the cherry - it's almost as bad as double-dipping."
We were at Shima - which in its heyday in the 80s shaped a whole generation's view of Japanese restaurants as smoky counter-top cooking joints with bandana-clad chefs tossing ladles in the air and shovelling cooked meats and vegetables onto your plate ala minute. Going home smelling like grease and soya sauce was a proud sign of your ability to pay for such a meal - not poor ventilation.
Fast forward a couple of generations and Shima is still amongst us, albeit in a totally different playing field. We have real Japanese chefs these days, and teppanyaki has long been pushed aside in favour of more fashionable - and smoke-free - sushi and omakase. In a case of sticking to what you know, Shima closed for two months and re-opened recently with new furniture and owners, but with the same all-you-can-eat teppanyaki buffet, plus an ala carte menu thrown in.
Stepping into the new-old Shima is a bit like turning off the switch to the bright afternoon sunlight outside. The interiors are cramped and broody-dark, lit mainly by spotlights and glistening steel teppanyaki counters. If you don't want to sit around the two counters (which are quickly filled up) opt for the more comfortable booths and try not to find fault with its plasticky upholstery and the black-tiled floors.
There is a Chinese restaurant feel about the place - maybe it's the dim sum lunch efficiency of the waitresses in business-like attire who don't pander to your rose-tinted stereotype of genteel Japanese hospitality. They know what you're here for - the S$49.90 buffet (S$59.90 on weekends) so they'd rather just cut to the chase.
The S$49.90 buffet lunch is the reason that my alter ego is here. To debate which is the better meal - this, or a similarly-priced set lunch at a fine dining restaurant. However, the alter ego displays a clear bias by demolishing the first round of salmon sashimi and maki, which is instantly replaced by a plate of thick-crusted, mushy prawn and shisamo tempura.
"A good meal is subjective," the alter ego manages to say between mouthfuls. "Price is real. Would you pay S$49.90 for this or a couple of grams of white truffle on your pasta? Ooh, garlic fried rice!"
"That's not the point," I argue. "You can get a three-course set lunch for this money at any restaurant. Less, in fact. You can get a good meal with better quality ingredients, cooked with more flair, for S$35. This rice is clumpy and sloppily fried."
"Sure, but I can't get a refill of anything," says alter ego. "You sure you don't want another serving of this salmon poached in a sweet shoyu broth? It's nice and moist."
"No. You can't order it now anyway. You have to go through the full set first. You've still got sautéed prawns, steak, chicken, oysters and fried bean sprouts to eat still. Are you storing fat for the winter months?"
"If you're so picky, order something from the ala carte menu," challenges alter ego. "Look, four kinds of sashimi for $45 - pallid tuna, so-so shrimp, waterlogged octopus and decent white fish. Is that worth the money? Or would you rather have steak that's done passably, ordinary prawns and chicken, odd-tasting fried oysters and the screaming baby at the counter as a free extra?"
"You sure I can't buy you a nice S$45 set lunch at Les Amis? It's just across the street. They use real chandeliers, not spotlights."
"No, I like it here. I want to get my money's worth. You're just a snob."
"Your brain can't tell the difference because all the blood's gone to your stomach."
Moral of the story? Don't take your alter ego to lunch. And the next time you're deciding between a buffet or a fine dining set lunch, ask yourself: which one will you really enjoy?
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good