Saturday, 14 February 2015

A Review of Mikuni, Singapore - You Don't Need to Be Japanese to Cook Good Japanese Food

I had the good pleasure of running into Nick Flynn, the F&B Director of the Fairmont Singapore and Swissotel the Stamford, when I was last at Jaan.  A knockabout Aussie bloke with a good sense of humour, we made it a point to catch up for a drink in the future without the distraction of Julien Royer's food, the views at Jaan and my writing obligations.

As it was, Nick was kind enough to invite me to dinner at Mikuni, the Japanese restaurant on the third floor of the Fairmont.  Chef Moon Kyung-Soo, of Korean descent but who has worked with some of Japan's top chefs (including a stint with Kunio Tokuoka at Kyoto Kitcho Arashiyama), has helmed the kitchens at Mikuni since its opening in late 2011.

Mikuni is a large and roomy space, with various rooms devoted to particular Japanese cooking styles, including a sashimi counter, teppanyaki showroom and robatayaki grill.  I had a good laugh walking into the robatayaki section and seeing a couple of Japanese businessman swaying and downing sake like it was going out of fashion, while the robata chef handled sharp skewers over an open charcoal fire, squatting dispassionately like some sort of kimono-clad Buddha.

As Nick and I sat down to what would prove to be an absolutely stonking dinner, a delicious little thought crossed my mind.  You know those bloggers who take comps from various restaurants and whose words are worth the paper they aren't written on?  They think they have it good because they reckon they're getting the best possible experience from the restaurant, on the house.  Well, I had the pleasure of knowing that tonight, Chef Moon wasn't looking to impress a bunch of entitled freeloaders, but his boss (Nick, obviously, not me).  Notch one up for the good guys (and I brought along a couple of bottles of good Alsace Riesling to uphold my end of the bargain).

Chef Moon is a bit of a talker, which is great as I like passionate chefs.  So there I was, listening to him talk about his background, and he asked me whether I had any food allergies.  Of course I said no.  Then he asked me "Are you OK with globefish?"  It had been a long day at work so the words didn't process, but I hadn't yet met a fish that I couldn't stomach, so I said breezily, "of course".

Sakizuke: Hokkaido Snow Crab, Yuzu Jelly, Sevruga Caviar

Good.  I must admit that crab doesn't really move me much these days, which is not to detract from the freshness of this specimen.  I like the thin film of yuzu jelly on top, which adds a lovely yet moderate tartness to the dish.

Futamono: Globefish, Abalone and Matsutake Soup, Steamed in Coconut

Chef Moon was quite proud of this preparation, explaining that this was his tribute to the local coconut double-boiled soup.  However, he double-boils it in the coconut shell for only 15 minutes so the richness of the coconut doesn't overwhelm the wonderful ingredients that form the base of the soup.  The stock is made from fugu bones and...did someone say fugu?  Well, yes, "globefish" is apparently the new accepted synonym for fugu, presumably because puffer fish sounded too scary for the wannabe-foodie set.  No biggie, the odds were stacked against me getting poisoned, although I semi-jokingly asked Nick whether Chef Moon had a fugu preparation license.  He smiled at me cryptically.  I started to get nervous (although I later learned that Japan only allows pre-cleaned fugu to be exported, so we were OK).

My half-Cantonese blood can't say no to a good clear soup, and the soup is gorgeous, with nice earthy, smoky hints from the matsutake and marine sweetness from the abalone.  Despite Chef Moon's adamance about having to accommodate local preferences and tastes, the aesthetic of this presentation is unmistakably Japanese: when was the last time you saw a Chinese restaurant plane down the sides of the coconut shell to a perfect cylinder?

Mukozuke: (clockwise from top): O-Toro, Fugu, Shima-aji

Sensational. The fugu, as was to be expected, was quite neutral and more a texture food.  O-toro is, well, o-toro, but the real revelation of this selection was the shima-aji (striped jack).  Lightly oily on the surface, but with a gorgeous crunch and a beautifully sweet finish on the palate.  A perfect match with my 2011 Leon Beyer Riesling Reserve.

Fugu Cheek Kakiaage with Grilled Peppers

My friend the fugu was back for more.  Despite me having eaten parts of him in the soup and the sashimi, like Jesus, he turned the other cheek.  So I ate that too, suitably coated in Chef Moon's seasoned batter. Succulent, and great drinking food.  The Riesling Reserve holds up very well against the kakiage as well.  While the 2008 Leon Beyer Riesling Rare did open up with lots of air and even more coaxing, it really is a mere infant and should ideally be given 2-3 years more before broaching.

Yakimono: Kinki Shioyaki

Sensational.  The heat of the robata grill has transformed the texture of this specimen into all sorts of awesome.  Salty, nicely oily, chewy, crunchy, tender, gelatinous, all in the right places.

Edomae Sushi (l to r): Tamago, Chu-Toro, Ama-Ebi with Uni

Pleasant, but it was a bit of a let-down after the sashimi revelation.  From left, tamago, tuna and botan ebi with uni.  I'm a bit of an uni slut so the last was my favourite of the three.

Gohan: Ohmi A5 Wagyu and Black Truffle Donburi

A nice little bit of classic fusion with the addition of seasonal fresh black truffles.  I would have preferred the wagyu to be cut a little thicker so that I could appreciate the texture more fully, but this was a good finish to the savoury courses.

Mizumono: Evian Water Cake, Almond Powder, Crushed Crackers, Maple Syrup

Moon was very eager to share how he first encountered this dessert, a mizu shingen mochi, in Yamanishi Prefecture last year.  According to Moon, the dessert will dissolve into water within 30 minutes, so it is only available to be eaten on the premises of two shops in Yamanishi.  He was so impressed by the dessert that he worked to reverse engineer the recipe once he got back to Singapore.  The original mizu shingen mochi is apparently made from underflow water from Mount Kaikoma, but Moon had only Evian to work with (poor soul).

After a build-up like that, was disappointment inevitable?  Actually no.  The water cake was incredibly clean-tasting and refreshing, literally melting in the mouth.  With its accompaniments providing sweetness and texture, this was a quite accomplished, if not exactly traditional, dessert.  Big props to Moon for bringing this unique regional treat to Singapore.  Next time though, I'll order two, eat one and see if the other one actually melts in the promised 30 minutes...


It is trite to say that fine Japanese cuisine, perhaps more so than any other, relies on the quality of its ingredients.   Instead of just relying on the tried-and-tested, it was interesting to see Moon pushing himself to deliver some individual touches and innovation.  And the finished product at Mikuni is excellent.

On a perhaps more serious note, Moon is living proof (if more was needed) that you don't need to be born into a culture to master its cuisine.    Too often, we are guilty of presumption and prejudice that it takes a French chef to cook good French food, an Italian chef to cook Italian food, etc.  Worse, our prejudice is not even cultural, it is racial - we seem not to mind so much if the French food is not cooked by a Frenchman, provided it is cooked by a Westerner.  And this seems to apply doubly to Japanese food because of Japan's traditional attitude to race and culture.

You know the trick on Kitchen Nightmares when Gordon Ramsay gets some downtrodden cook to whip up a dish, serve that to the boss and the boss praises it to the skies, thinking that he's eating Ramsay's cooking?  I think we all need a dose of that humble pie and realise that what matters is not whose name is over the door, but what's on the plate.  Whatever its chef's ancestry, Mikuni delivers a very strong and convincing Japanese cuisine.

And on that note, I wish all some of my readers a Happy Valentine's Day, and to my Chinese readers, 新年快乐 and very best wishes for a Happy and Prosperous Year of the Goat!

80 Bras Basah Rd
Third Level, Fairmont Singapore 
Singapore 189560
Tel: +65 6431 6156

Reservations recommended.

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