Friday, 9 January 2015

A Review of Teppei, Singapore - Is this Singapore's Most Popular Restaurant?

I visited Teppei recently and I was prepared to hate this place so bad.  

Chef Yamashita Teppei in action
It was bad enough when I tried calling earlier in the week to make a lunch booking, only to be told that they don't accept bookings.  Regular readers will know that the one thing I hate worse than a restaurant that doesn't allow BYO is a restaurant that doesn't take bookings.

I was then told that I needed to be in the queue prior to 11.30 am in order to get a seat at 12:00 pm.  Thankfully, my lunch companion for the day, globetrotting blogger Kenneth Tiong, was on long leave and volunteered to join the queue early.  Sometimes, just sometimes, I do manage to catch a lucky break.

When I get there, Kenneth is at the head of the queue, and I notice a prominent sign stuck on the wall.  "Omakase Dinner is booked out until 31 March 2015.  I check the date on my dumbphone (it's a blackberry): good God, it's running a three-month waiting list!  And I'm not talking about Fridays or weekends: every single dinner sitting, Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, EVEN SUNDAYS, has been booked out three months in advance!!!  In a country of veritable food fanatics, is Teppei the most popular restaurant in all of Singapore?

I had no idea what to expect, and I was very surprised at how basic the place was.  It's basically a rather (very) cramped 21-seat wooden counter doing a decent impersonation of the Black Hole of Calcutta.  Behind the counter, Teppei and his two kitchen staff labour mightily to feed the insatiable hordes (when we leave an hour later, there is still a queue of six parties at the front door).

Soup: Miso Soup


I'm not sure whether I got this soup as part of a set, but every diner seems to have it.  It's not bad, with shreds of wakame seaweed, chopped scallions and shimeji mushrooms.  Halfway through the meal, as my table is getting cluttered with all sorts of food, I put my empty bowl on the counter, hoping one of the overworked floor staff will whip it away.  One of the cooks tops up my bowl, and does it once more before the end of the meal.  On a frigid December day (by Singapore standards anyway), the hot soup is most welcome.

Appetiser: Mixed Vegetable Tempura

Tempura Pumpkin (top) and Sweet Potato (above)

Good.  The batter is golden, maybe overly so, and not too oily, while the vegetables are nicely cooked through.  My only gripe is that there was no grated daikon in the tempura sauce; I would have liked a bit of that tart freshness to cut through the oil.

Entree: Sashimi Moriawase ($30++)


This wasn't on the menu, but Teppei was cleaning and slicing and trimming fish in front of us, so we weren't exactly rocking the boat when we asked for some assorted sashimi.  The quality is perfectly reasonable, with the scallops in the top left the clear standout.  Like most half-decent Japanese restaurants these days, freshly grated wasabi accompanies the platter.  However, on of the items in the middle of the platter (chutoro?) was not properly trimmed and cleaned, quite frankly an unforgivable sin.  Then again, at the price being charged, it would be almost mean to complain.

Main Course: Bara Chirashi ($18++)


You've probably read enough blog reports to know what this tastes like, if you haven't already had the pleasure of tasting it.  It is perfectly satisfying, even if it doesn't have the variety of ingredients that go into some higher-priced, more vaunted renditions of this dish.  To be honest, I found the fish here was fresher than in the chirashizushi that I had at Aoki a couple of years ago (and which went for twice the price).  Kenneth remarks that the rice could be a bit softer and fluffier, and he is right, but I do like my rice with a bit more texture.

Extras: Engawa Sashimi (Flounder Fin; $20++)

Just as I thought we had finished, Kenneth sees Teppei trimming some flounder.  He tries to get Teppei's attention,  "Sensei", he begins (Kenneth's very polite).  "Engawa?"  Teppei looks at him.  "Eh?  This is hirame", comes the response.  "Hai, sensei", Kenneth says, "but do you have engawa?"  Teppei continues to stare, as if talking to a slow child,  "Hi-ra-me", he enunciates for our benefit.  But Kenneth is undeterred.  "En-ga-wa", he says.  You can see the penny drop in Teppei's eyes.  "Engawa sashimi", Kenneth repeats, to make 100% sure he's made his point.  Teppei bows with a obedient "Hai", and I think I see the shadow of grudging respect flitter across his eyes: this kid seems to know his shit.


Engawa, Kenneth explains patiently to me, is the sashimi from the "inner fin", the firm, chewy, crunchy, strip between the main body of the fish and the fin proper.  Apparently, the tissue of the engawa does all the work in moving the fin around, so it has a firm, crunchy texture.

A close-up of a sliver of engawa
Kenneth tells me he had great engawa at Sushi Mizutani, the highlight of what was apparently a very disappointing meal at the two-Michelin-starred sushi purveyor.   The flavour of Teppei's engawa is remarkably clean and lightly sweet, and the texture truly unique.    Kenneth approves, although he rates the Mizutani engawa higher.  I hesitate to add that a meal at Mizutani costs around six times as much.

Conclusion

Japanese restaurants in Singapore have been making a big deal in their publicity materials about omotenashi, a uniquely Japanese concept of hospitality.  It is, apparently. a difficult concept to explain or define,  but can be loosely summed up as a hospitality in which the host anticipates the guest's needs before the guest asks, but without the connotations of servility and status difference that mark so many service relationships in Asia.

The very stretched and occasionally gruff service at Teppei is hardly the classic conception of omotenashi, but it makes enough little gestures to leave the guest feeling like he has been taken care of.  Complimentary hot and iced tea are offered and refilled throughout the meal.  On the counter are pots of food to which guests are welcome to help themselves, filled with what looks like sauteed beansprouts, and some sort of nimono with pork and daikon (I didn't try them).  Chef Teppei himself has no airs, dressed simply in a white T-shirt with his name on it and multi-tasking like a manic octopus, looking up only every now and again to take a sashimi order from a guest, or to smile and holler his thanks as they depart.

And the prices!  Singaporeans are world-class when it comes to queuing up for all sorts of cheap / free stuff.  There's a Hainanese rice stall near where I work which offers meat, vegetable and rice for around $2.  There is a massive line there all throughout lunchtime, but the food itself is positively ordinary.  Teppei, however, overdelivers at its price point.  Personally, I'm not sure anything is worth waiting in line for half an hour during a working weekday lunchtime, but at the other end, you are getting a good meal as well as a cheap one. In this age of overpriced Japanese food, that may be something worth planning for three months in advance.

TEPPEI JAPANESE RESTAURANT
1 Tras Link, Orchid Hotel
Singapore 078867
Tel: +65 6222 7363
BYO Policy: $20++ per 750mL bottle, BYO not otherwise allowed.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Reservations required for dinner (three months in advance!), not accepted at lunchtime.

3 comments:

  1. great post as usual Julian :) I'm also on a Japanese roll for the next couple of weeks, still trying to work my way around all that this wonderful culture offers us in food and particularly in Singapore. We were in Tokyo on the weekend so I'm feeling that the stars are aligning and all things Japanese are coming my way :)

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  2. Thanks V! You need to blog on the Tokyo restaurants. I haven't been to Japan in ages and would love to see your take on them.

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  3. How much was the tempura?

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