Shinji by Kanesaka, Singapore
So there I was, running out of blogging steam, when Kicci ups and submits his guest post for our Omakase experience at Shinji. Good timing! I think he makes a great food writer and his passion for Japanese food really shines through in this post. Enjoy!
My love for Japanese food probably started about 5 to 6 years ago, when I stumbled upon Aoki restaurant by the Les Amis Group and Shiraishi restaurant at The Ritz Carlton Millenia Singapore. I constantly asked myself why I loved Japanese food so much. It was certainly not about the ambience of the restaurant or the service of the staff, though both mattered.
Above all, I came to realize that it was because of the unadulterated and clean flavors that allowed the freshness of the ingredients to shine. While clean, the flavors of Japanese food were never one-dimensional. It is hard to think that food so simple can yet taste so nuanced. That’s Japanese food at its best.
Shinji by Kanesaka (“Shinji”) is the first and probably only outpost by highly-acclaimed sushi maestro Shinji Kanesaka, who oversees the original 2 Michelin starred establishment Sushi Kanesaka, located in Ginza, Tokyo. Not being the original restaurant does not mean that the quality at Shinji is not up to par. Much effort has been put in into replicating the atmosphere and food quality found at Sushi Kanesaka.
Having been to both the original outlet in Tokyo and the outpost in Singapore, I must say that you can safely save on that air ticket to Tokyo and have an almost identical experience just by going to Shinji. (That said, I’ve booked my air tickets for Tokyo for travelling in December 2012…)
The ambience of Shinji can be described as minimalist, though not quite spartan. It is something I would describe as being quintessentially Japanese – you do not see fanciful furniture and lighting in the restaurant, but you feel like a lot of thought and planning has somehow gone into the set-up. This actually is true for the food as well. No fanciful truffle shavings or sauces, just plain good food.
Ok, now on to the real deal itself.
I selected the Omakase Shin set dinner course (S$530 AUD$415), which was the priciest of both the lunch and dinner menus. If this experience was like a Singapore Airlines journey, then Omakase Shin can be compared to the A380 Suites. Indeed, “it is a class beyond First”. The Omakase Shin was the bomb – no skimping, no hold-backs -the real show.
Our first course was a starter of Chilled Edamame Soup with Ikura (Salmon roe). The thing I really like about Japanese food at such a caliber is that, whatever the chef claims the dish is, you can really taste it. Sometimes, at dodgier restaurants, you cannot really reconcile what you taste with what the dish is claimed to be.
This is never the case at Shinji. The Edamame Soup with Ikura was not unlike eating a bean smoothie. It was cool and refreshing, yet thick enough to allow the richness of the bean flavor to shine through. The addition of the somewhat briny but not fishy Ikura allowed a bit of saltiness to wake the taste buds up, and prep the palate for even more exciting things to come. Boo liked the bonito smokiness which he could sense permeating throughout this dish.
What followed was quite a dramatic spectacle, a duo starter of Awabi (abalone) from Okinawa, and Sawagani (baby crabs).
Our chef, Yoshi-san, also displayed the live specimen of the Sawagani crabs moving about in a glass jar! Boo baulked at the sight of those live baby crabs when the chef brought it out with such sadistic glee. We both actually felt a bit uneasy, but we both also agreed that the Sawagani baby crabs were delicious with their rich and creamy flesh, even if they were a bit pokey and sharp to bite into.
The abalone was quite a contrast to the crabs, texturally at least. Somewhat chewy, but not at all rubbery, the abalone was sweet, with a clean bite, with a lingering after taste that hinted of the ocean (something you don’t quite get with Chinese versions out of a can, that can taste texturally quite like Wrigley’s chewing gum).
The next two courses were sashimi courses. Incidentally, it was Boo’s first brush with real wasabi. He commented on how the hand-grated wasabi was actually a bit sweet, and had a mild herbaceous edge to it. It was, in his words, “crazily fresh”. He liked how he could feel the fibres and how it bore a faint resemblance to horseradish.
The tai (red snapper) sashimi was mildly sweet with a clean finish. The addition of soya sauce and wasabi lifted the whole dish and accentuated the fish’s natural flavors. That is what good condiments too. Accentuate flavors, not obscure them.
The next sashimi was chutoro (medium fatty tuna). This was soft and velvety, to an extent that made Boo describe as “fish ice cream”. He said it even had a hint of maple syrup or honey to it. He was probably getting a bit delirious. Jokes aside, the chutoro sashimi was sweet and buttery, not unlike eating medium rare wagyu beef. While chutoro may be cheaper than ootoro (very fatty tuna), many people prize chutoro for their texture has it has more of a well-rounded balance of both bite and fattiness to it.
The next dish was a serving of uni (sea urchin) with Japanese yam, lady fingers and seaweed sauce. If anything, this was more of a revelation for Boo, who finally had a chance to taste uni that was freshly sweet, instead of the conventionally poor-quality ones, which tasted like the “jetty, with sea-scum hints”.
As for me, I liked the uni too, but felt that the other elements, especially the Japanese yam and lady fingers did nothing much to enhance the overall offering. The Japanese yam’s taste, while slightly sweet and earthly, was too mild to stand up to the uni’s flavours. The seaweed sauce as a counterpoint fared better, functioning not unlike a soya sauce, except with a more flavoursome twist.
The ankimo (monkfish liver) was exceptionally executed. Boo agreed with me on how it tasted like the foie gras of the sea. It was creamy but not to the point of inducing nausea. The sweet dashi sauce helped to counter the richness of the dish perfectly. Boo and I loved this.
The kegani (hairy Japanese crab) served with the accompanying ginger vinegar was perhaps this meal’s best example of how Japanese condiments are so good, sometimes they end up stealing the limelight from the main dish itself (fortunately or unfortunately). Now don’t be mistaken, the crab itself was really sweet with the firm thread-like flesh, but the ginger vinegar was like drinking wine!
The sweet, floral notes of the ginger vinegar complemented the flesh of the hairy crab like a match made in heaven. The vinegar was gentle, but somehow complex – there were probably many more ingredients inside the stock that looked deceptively simple. I could not discern what other ingredients had gone inside, but each slurp got better and better. We literally took the bowl of the ginger vinegar and, if I may quote Nigella Lawson, “applied to face”.
The last pre-sushi course were a few pieces of katsuo (skipjack tuna) sashimi in a savoury (unidentified) sauce. Katsuo is the fish whose dried flesh and skin is used to make the ubiquitous bonito flakes. The katsuo sashimi still bears some of that smoky flavours you get in the dried up version of the fish.
The first sushi was Karei (Flounder) – a white fish that was slightly chewy with a clean finish. Boo’s comments on this first piece of Shinji sushi were that it tasted very well balanced. In particular, he noted that the rice was very well separated, and the fish had a hint of lime on it.
The second piece of sushi was Shin-Ika (baby-squid). It was noticeably sweeter and a lot less chewier than regular squid. Boo and I both appreciated its soft, clean finish. Chewing on this piece was effortless and enjoyable.
The next piece was Chutoro (medium fatty tuna). This was probably the best piece that night. The flavours shone out of every dimension. There was enough fat which gave the Chutoro buttery and oily (but not greasy) undertones. It tasted sweet and almost perfumed, in a manner not unlike Wagyu beef. Most importantly, the fat was immaculately balanced by the still firm-enough flesh that gave the whole sushi enough bite. Boo went ecstatic with this piece too. I quote him, “it’s like eating dessert!..omg… so soft.. so unctuous!”
Boo took notice of how the sushi master makes each piece of sushi. Indeed, it was quite a sight seeing the chef feeling and measuring each mound of rice, as though he was calculating the weight of each mound.
Ootoro (very fatty tuna) sushi came up next. It was like Chutoro, just on a much grander scale, at least in terms of the oiliness and butteriness. Boo admitted that he could not really tell the difference, except for the ostensibly oilier taste. But that is what Ootro is, just Chutoro, with much more fats. Not everyone finds the Ootoro more appealing always, because some do feel that the higher fat-to-flesh ratio can be too surfeiting.
After the fatty tuna debauchery, the fare turned humbler with Aji (horse mackerel), which our chef commented that it was his favourite fish (I’m sure as food, and not as a pet to rear..). The little bit of green spring- onion and leek was only a small blob on top of a much larger piece of fish, but what a difference it made to the dish by accentuating all the fresh flavours of the fish!
The maguro-zuke (marinated tuna) was well accepted by me, but Boo found the marinade a touch too strong. To each his own I guess. I definitely liked the firm texture of the fish nonetheless.
The next piece also produced differing views at the table. I liked the Shiro-ebi (white baby shrimp)’s sweet flesh with its clean finish. No fishy aftertaste whatsoever. Boo picked out the sweetness of the flesh too, but found the sweet and sticky texture of the fish odd and somewhat unappealing.
This is the same uni which we tasted previously in one of the pre-sushi starter course. Nothing to complain…
We also noted how the chef was serving a little girl with her family mini bite-sized sushi, which was especially cute!
Anago (eel) was prepared two ways – one sprinkled with just sea-salt, and another brushed with a sweet sauce.
The sea-salt one (left) highlighted how fresh the fish was, while the one brushed with sweet sauce (right) seemed to showcase how succulent the fish was. Boo took note of how the flesh hinted of freshwater rivers.
At this point, the room started to dim which made everyone think there was a blackout of sorts. But alas, because I’ve been to Shinji before, I knew what exactly was happening! Someone was celebrating their birthday at Shinji!
The chefs would all don their birthday masks – a whimsical display of oversized spectacles and party hats and sing a birthday song to the birthday person. Besides the free show, there was also a very charming sushi-cake, made out of sushi rice and ingredients out of a California roll. Brownie points for ambience!
We washed all that down with a somewhat unexciting clam consommé (clam soup really) that was sweet and smoky – in a way that reminded boo of preserved mussels.
The last piece of sushi was a Negitoro (minced fatty tuna) roll. Good, but not spectacular. When you have had other pieces like the surreal Chutoro and Uni, this paled in comparison (expectedly).
The Tamago here is smooth, and tastes both sweet and savoury at the same time. The savoury notes comes from the prawn paste that is pureed into the egg mixture. Apparently, Takashi Usuba-san, who has since flown back to serve at the original Sushi Kanesaka in Ginza, Tokyo, told me that it takes about 1 hour each day to prepare the tamago.
You have fruits, and then you have Japanese fruits. And Japanese fruits are like the Godiva of chocolates. I’ve ordered fruit platters (think 1 slice of musk melon, 2 cherries and 2 grapes) at Aoki before and they cost me S$40. Don’t’ fool around with Japanese fruits. They give you pleasure, but also cause your wallet pain.
That night, we had the pleasure of having musk Melon from Shizuoka prefecture, peach and grapes from Okayama prefecture. They were all super sweet. In particular, the musk melon and peach were really so fragrant that it was almost perfumed.
Often, people ask me if such restaurants of such caliber are worth the price. Value for food is a tricky concept, because it takes into account not just the cost of the meal, but also the quality of the ingredients, ambience etc. Good food at a cheap price? Definitely value for money. Bad food at an expensive price? Definitely not value for money. But what happens for good food at an expensive price? Somewhere down that line things get a bit more subjective. As things go up in the premium range, the increase in price for that small increase in quality tends to be exponential.
So to conclude…
Shinji, well let’s not beat about the bush, is extremely expensive. But the quality, well, is also extremely high. Is it the best sushi restaurant in the world? Hardly, it may not even be top 20. Best in Asia? Well, maybe top 3 or top 5. Best in Singapore? Definitely. So it is value for money, because to me, it’s the closest to sushi heaven you’d get in Singapore (which is 7 hours and 3500 miles away from Tokyo).
Signing off, Kicci
Our personal sushi chef for the night, Yoshi san