There’s never a dearth of Japanese restaurants in Singapore. But if it’s quality you’re looking for, then perhaps this very abundance is going to be more of a hindrance than a help since most seem to be aiming to outdo the rest with even-more-value-for-money menus while ditching quality. I will admit that I do sometimes cave in for more wallet-friendly sushi, just because they’re there and I’d gnaw a finger off if I didn’t get any.
Rakuzen, as I was pleasantly surprised to find out, has most of its ingredients imported directly from Japan, from its sashimi to its rice. No middleman is involved, so all you get is quality food without the burden of carrying any extra costs because of reselling. Their lunch and dinner sets are especially notable for that value-for-money quality that seems to be a constant criteria for most people.
Their second outlet at Tampines opened on the 14th of September, just a month or so back. The restaurant is welcoming, bright and airy, with light wood finishings and a pleasant ambience, and when I was invited to dine there for lunch on a weekday, I must say that their lunch crowd looked incredibly promising. It’s no wonder, really, when their set lunches (usually bentos) start from $14 onwards.
This beauty right here is but one of Rakuzen’s Special Broiled dishes, the Fire Mackerel ($16). The saba arrives lightly scored in diagonal cuts and is marinated for at least two hours with tangy rice wine vinegar before being wrapped in konbu for extra umami.
Now, I love pyrotechnics. Put me anywhere where there’s a light show, flames, and sizzling fat, and my eyes will be satisfied. All dishes from the Special Broiled section of the menu will arrive looking pristine and … pure … before a wait staff – armed with a blowtorch – starts searing each piece, the skin blistering and charring, releasing a beautiful smoky aroma, and then suddenly your dish has attitude. You know, the golden-brown, crisp, yet fatty and tender kind.
It’s your choice whether to drape a thin slice of sweet, pickled ginger over the mackerel, but personally, I loved how there was sweet crunch with smoky, tender fish. A slice of the saba alone is light, delicate, doesn’t particularly reek distinctly of mackerel, and should be savoured with the ponzu sauce that accompanies the dish.
We weren’t served this first, of course, we started out with appetisers, but I felt that this was one of the highlights of the meal and I have to share the cool stuff first.
Perhaps these shouldn’t merely be called appetisers, since we had to unanimously agree that the Himatsubushi ($5) almost needed a beer to go along with it. Bar Snacks, perhaps. When Chef Naokatsu Koda came over to the table, he knew what we were thinking and had to ask us twice if we were sure we didn’t want a beer, (‘Asahi? Or Sapporo maybe?’).
These are julienned burdock (a common root vegetable used in Japanese cuisine) strips, coated with potato flour, and then deep-fried. Forget potato chips, because these had a lovely sweetness, and nutty flavour amidst an addictive crispness. The occasional burst of lime pairs remarkably well too.
Yet another bar snack. We had second thoughts on that beer offer. This is the Ehire ($8), a preserved, dried, grilled stingray fin imported from Japan. It’s like fish jerky, only far tastier than it sounds. Popular versions of these dried fish are usually fugu, or puffer fish, but stingray is interesting. Some slices are crisp, and the others more chewy. They are slightly sweet and just what you need if you need to gnaw on something other than your finger. I preferred it without the mayo though, because it was delicious enough.
These are small horse mackerels, fried to a crisp yet soft on the inside. The Mame Aji Tsumami ($8), tastes best with a squirt a lemon and should be eaten whole. As with all mackerels, the horse mackerel was slightly fishy, which I thought was just right since saba doesn’t usually bother me.
The corn that Rakuzen uses are all imported from Japan and are delicately sweet and juicy. Corn and butter is always a winning combination, and with the Grilled Corn with Butter ($5), you have a choice of digging in once the butter has melted evenly, or wait until the small flame below the metal bowl cooks it a bit more, caramelizing it. Waiting just a little more will yield an aroma very similar to a waft of Garrett’s popcorn. So patience in all things, because it’s worth it.
The Moeyo Beef Roll ($18), was my favourite. Hands down.
This is yet another dish from their Special Broiled section, and needless to say, I was mesmerized once again by the flame licking the slivers of raw tenderloin, turning them from a vibrant ruby red to a charred, light brown.
This is a gorgeous row of sushi. Just have a look at the individual grains of rice. They have that perfect white opaque ring on the outside, with a semi-translucent core. That’s the Japanese style of al dente for you. These were grains of rice with ‘bite’, that stuck together firmly and held together a chunk of creamy avocado, and tempura tenkasu (batter bits).
Texturally, this was a winner. Maddeningly tender, medium rare strips of beef, soft avocado, crunchy tempura batter, and slightly chewy rice. There, I’m not that hard to please am I? Give me crunchy and I’m sold.
Yaki Onigiri ($5 per piece). Brushed with a layer of soy sauce, and then grilled to an even golden-brown. There were no fillings, much to my surprise, but the rice was plenty tasty on its own with the savoury sauce, crunchy outer crust, and a chewy interior. It’s a simple dish, and pleasing too. Sometimes all you need is just good soy sauce with rice. Grilled.
Rakuzen’s rice is imported from the Akita prefecture of Japan, the brown rice flown in and then milled on the premises into white rice. Customers can choose between brown or white rice when ordering, which I found to be an excellent and rare alternative!
Rakuzen’s Okonomiyaki ($10) is one of the thinnest I’ve had, and one of the lightest. Just thin wisps of mayo and Japanese worchestershire sauce, a mound of crinkling bonito shreds, and a layer of tiny fried Sakura ebi. The batter itself is mixed in with some nagaimo (Japanese yam), cabbage, and carrots, and then pan-fried on the teppan. Very palatable, in contrast to the heavier, denser types.
Almost like a palate cleanser of sorts, the Asari Sakamushi ($10) tasted clean and light, the short necked clams just steamed in a broth of sake and dashi.
Their sashimi stands out as well, and is air-flown from the Ishikawa and Kagawa prefectures in Japan twice a week. The selection is great and the prices not too exorbitant either, starting from $15 to the Ofune ($80) featuring 8 kinds of sashimi suitable for sharing among 3-5 persons.
They do have another outlet, their first, at Millenia Walk, in case Tampines is a tad far.
With so many items on the menu, it can get difficult to choose. But if you need any guidance or focus, then head straight for their Special Broiled section, in which I spied a Moeyo Unagi Roll ($18). I cannot imagine the way the slices of unagi would sear underneath the flame. That’s what I’m having when I head back, for sure.
This was a tasting session organized by Sixth Sense Communications & PR Consultancy.
Address: 300 Tampines Avenue 5, #01-01A, NTUC Income Tampines Junction, S529653
Tel: 6786 8484
Mon-Fri: 11.30am – 3pm (last order 3pm), 6pm – 10pm (last order 9.30pm)
Sat & Sun: 11.30am – 3pm (last order 3pm), 5pm – 10pm (last order 9.30pm)
Rakuzen (Millenia Walk)
Address: 9 Raffles Boulevard, #01-16/19, Time2@Millenia Walk, S039596
Tel: 6333 1171
Mon – Sun: 11.30am – 3pm (last order 3pm), 6pm – 10.30pm (last order 10pm)