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Sushi that gives you bang for your buck
#06-03 Cuppage Plaza
5 Koek Road
Tel: 9012 3151
Open for dinner only Tues to Sun: 6pm to 10.30pm. Lunch by appointment only.
THE address says it all. Cuppage Plaza. Aka Little Japan. Where the pricey veneer and practised omotenashi crafted for high-spending Singaporeans in chi-chi locations fall away with the flick of a noren, revealing the unembellished, edgy realness of nihonjin on their own turf.
While it was the dining and drinking domain of Japanese-speaking-only expatriates, it's not any more, thanks to greedy locals wanting a taste of sake and izakaya served with a dollop of (now less so) culture shock and attitude. The restaurants now are as much geared to us as they are to their compatriots, but at least they retain pretty much the same qualities - authenticity, good pricing, and fun.
And that more or less describes Sushi Kenji, a likeable cubbyhole of a restaurant on the sixth floor. It's so small that were you to stride in at a fast clip, you would be peeling your face off the back wall before you can brake. There's no rear entrance, no separate little kitchen - just one counter, seven diners at most with social distancing, and Kenji Nakagawa: chef, dishwasher, cashier and tea-maker all rolled into one.
Chef Nakagawa is what we might call an acclimatised sushi chef. One who's wise (or resigned) to the foibles of Singaporeans, ie, their penchant for lateness, an aversion to 'fishy' fish like kohada or marinated gizzard shad, and their insatiable appetite for a good deal. So, he tries. Very hard. No second seatings (so no heart attacks when the first one comes late and the second comes on time); good pricing - just two menus priced at S$88 for sushi only and S$128 for sashimi and sushi; but he stops short at not serving 'fishy' fish like shime saba or marinated mackerel because, really, there is only so much cultural decoupling he can take - "this is Japanese taste!".
Because he knows Singaporeans like to be well-fed, and don't want to pay a lot of money, he packs in as much as he can into the S$128 menu.
Of course, no matter how he slices it, there's no way you're going to get premium otoro or salt water Murasaki uni in your omakase. And neither should you expect it because, as always, "you gets what you pays for" when it comes to Japanese food. Anyone who tells you otherwise will also convince you that Norwegian salmon sushi is Edomae.
It doesn't mean that you don't get a good spread, because you do. Just to get things going, there is a little bowl of cold, shimmery, slippery Japanese mushrooms with scant threads of dried chilli for decoration and a fitting kick of spice. That's followed by a scalding hot bowl of quivering chawanmushi that is more dashi than egg, delicate and wobbly, hiding little bits of bamboo and a last minute whiff of yuzu.
There's a platter of sashimi - medium fat chutoro, hotate (scallop), amaebi (shrimp), kombu-marinated tai (sea bream) and shima aji (horse mackerel). The quality is medium rather than premium, about par for the price point. If you're having sake, the punchy, savoury, crunchy herring roe with marinated seaweed and thin strips of dried anchovies makes a good drinking buddy.
Eight pieces of sushi go by fairly quickly. There's crunchy tsubugai or hornshell clam, prawn, Hokkaido hokigai and a surprising mongoika or cuttlefish which is a firmer, crunchier version of regular sumi ika. One of the pluses about Chef Nakagawa is the way he shares his knowledge of little known, not necessarily expensive ingredients. Just like the shime saba which is salted and vinegared to remove the fishy smell, and how the test of a chef's skill is to get the flavour without leaving too much salt or vinegar behind. His version, topped with a whisper thin layer of pickled radish, does just that. His anago sushi is enjoyable too, torched to release dribbles of oil and a smoky fragrance.
But if you think the slab of fatty otoro on the last sushi is the end, hold on. A little bowl of rice topped with a generous serving of clean, fresh-tasting uni and a mega load of salmon roe is next, followed by a marinated tuna handroll and soup, by which time you're stuffed. There's no sweet tamago to end off, but a little scoop of commercial matcha ice cream is consolation enough.
Sushi Kenji offers a mid-quality but a very acceptable meal in very modest surroundings - it's affordable enough for you to keep going back, especially when the chef's easy-going manner makes it such a pleasant experience. For that, he fully deserves to be full for dinner every night for the whole of August (so try your luck with lunch). He works hard for your money - and it shows.
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.