By Grace Ma
Feb 2, 2021
SITTING AT THE FIVE-SEAT HINOKI COUNTER of Shoukouwa with symmetrically laid out settings before me, the tight spacing reminiscent of cozy sushi omakase restaurants in Japan, and listening to the staff converse in Japanese, I could have sworn in dreamy delight that I was back in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Yet, I was also keenly aware that in the midst of a pandemic, where hundreds of businesses – especially F&B – have been scuppered in Singapore, here I was in a privileged position with three other journalists in a two-Michelin-starred establishment that’s booked out a month in advance. (In an era where folks are spending their vacation money on locally obtainable luxury, by the way, it’s the same for many other fine diners in the country). And we were about to taste Shoukouwa’s latest and most expensive omakase menu: the S$650 “En.”
The price is significantly higher than even the costliest tasting menu at three-Michelin-starred Odette (S$398) and two-star Zén (S$450). But that has obviously not deterred 40 percent of the restaurant’s diners from choosing En since it launched in January.
Nor, I realized quickly in the 18-course journey, if one can afford it, should it.
The En menu includes a chef’s special and seasonal courses not found in the usual Hana dinner menu. Unparalleled knife skills, precision cooking and the freshest, rarest ingredients all came together like an aria that continually felt like it was reaching its top note, only to soar again in the next course. “En was created to cater to the demand from regular guests for a more premium menu with even more highly prized ingredients,” said head chef Kazumine Nishida, who took over the restaurant’s reins in October 2019. “It’s a platform for me to feature seasonal and hard-to-get ingredients such as ‘lost’ winter bonito and wild fugu shirako (milt).”
That day’s special was a delicious Iwate mackerel, shari (sushi rice) mixed with sesame seeds and chopped shiso leaf wrapped in a kelp sheet, which was then sliced and served into our hands with crisp nori.
The jagged ridges from a deftly sliced steamed abalone cradled an umami abalone liver sauce that made me wish it were a polite Japanese tradition to lick off one’s crystal plate.
And the oils that flowed into the sushi rice from a binchotan-grilled nodoguro (black throat sea perch, another rare and expensive ingredient that gives the bluefin tuna and abalone a run for their money)? Another divine taste gone too soon in a mouthful.
The star was undoubtedly the seasonal mayoi katsuo (“lost” bonito) that literally melted the moment it touched my tongue. Think of it as the marine version of Wagyu. Lost bonitos are fish that strayed from their schoolmates who were heading north from the Southern Pacific waters and somehow ended up in the colder waters of the Sea of Japan. As a result, they have a higher fat content compared to regular bonitos. I hope they keep swimming awry, I thought, as I savored the two eight-centimeter pieces for as long as I could, while floating on clouds with the light-and-sweet Nanbu Bijin Junmai Daiginjo sake (at S$255 a bottle) that accompanied our meal.
With Japanese restaurant openings a dime a dozen in Singapore, Shoukouwa’s secret to staying at the top of the game is keeping to the basics. Since 2016, it has had the same trusted supplier liaising with the top producers around Japan. The restaurant, which is part of the Emmanuel Stroobant Group that includes the two-star French Saint Pierre, flies in produce four times a week. Chef Nishida (only a youthful 39) and attentive restaurant manager Desmond Wong have been with the restaurant from day one. Even as a sous chef, Nishida was always hands-on at the counter. Now he continues the Edomae sushi tradition with equal reverence as his predecessors while finding creative ways to present the familiar.
Believe the hype, folks. For my part, I’m already plonking pennies to celebrate my half-century milestone there.
shoukouwa.com.sg; must book well in advance; meals from S$320 per person for omakase set lunch.