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New Japanese restaurant Takayama will surprise you with little details

Well-grounded in traditional Japanese cuisine, it manages to wow with the originality in its details.

Takayama Japanese Restaurant
Downtown Gallery #01-09/10
6A Shenton Way
Tel: 6224-0864
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6.30pm to 10pm.
Dinner only on Sat. Closed on Sun and public holidays

Go into a new Japanese restaurant and you already know what you’re going to get. A shaved-head chef in starched whites who serves you proper sushi, sashimi and a few cooked items in hinoki-enhanced surroundings. Or a slightly more casual kappo-style chef with a bit more flexibility with his hair, churning out a slew of raw, grilled, fried and braised dishes, all meticulously presented. Then there’s modern-Japanese, where the chef is neither bald nor speaks Japanese, and qualifies his cuisine by topping everything with mentaiko mayo.

Now you have Takayama – helmed by a chef who comes from out of left field, whose cooking style stays within the parameters of well-grounded Japanese cuisine, but with such subtle, near-ingenious touches that you don’t realise till the end just how original a meal you just had.

Head chef Taro Takayama Photo: Takayama

Creativity has a way of sneaking up on you at Takayama – an upscale kappo restaurant named for head chef Taro Takayama, whose low-key, almost quirky personality is the major reason for its appeal. His credentials include stints at three Michelin starred eateries Kashiwaya and Koryu in Osaka, before arriving in Singapore in 2013 as the master chef at the Japanese ambassador’s residence. He was more recently the chef de cuisine at Mandarin Orchard’s buffet restaurant, where he must have been under-utilised before someone at the top made the right call to install him at this OUE-owned space at the new Downtown Gallery.

Chef Takayama lucked out with this space too, where no expense seems to have been spared to outfit it in Japanese hinoki and elm, and dining chairs customised and crafted in Kyushu. It’s distinctively Japanese yet with a nod to the present – an aesthetic that extends to the food.

(RELATED: Why Kyushu is Japan’s holy ground for the gourmand)

The pricing is not cheap but the pain is tolerable, starting from S$190 for an eight course omakase dinner. The price goes up to S$280 and S$380 for more luxe ingredients. Lunch is of course more pocket-friendly at S$68 to S$98 for a seven course set.

Our curiosity is piqued from the first course – an unexpected mound of pale cauliflower sherbet that’s refreshing, not at all vegetal, with just a bare hint of sweetness that paves the way for assertive, crunchy deep fried baby shrimp.

Chef Takayama rather coyly describes the next course of snapper shirako as “Japanese popiah” – actually deep-fried spring roll skin encasing a dangerously hot, molten blob of creamy milt. Simmered wasabi leaves and stems sit on the side, along with a dab of rich paste made of wasabi leaves cooked in sake lees and miso.

All this while, classical Chinese music with full-on guzheng twanginess plays in the background. It feels off-kilter, but not to chef Takayama’s Chinese right hand man, who is totally in the groove as he meticulously – and rhythmically – hand chops tuna into a fine mince. He carefully arranges a mound of it over a deep orange pasteurised egg yolk that has been cured for a few days, and tops it with caviar pearls and gold leaf.

The satiny texture of the tuna tartare, sticky-chewy egg yolk and the briny pearls of caviar already make it a successful course in itself, but it’s actually part of an elaborate hassun or appetiser platter that chef Takayama painstakingly puts together. In fact, his attention to detail almost borders on anal. First, he arranges the little dishes in clockwise order according to the lightest to the strongest flavour.

Second, because he gets bored with the idea of one-soya-sauce-fits-all in most restaurants, he makes his own variations from ponzu sauce to thick glazes made from cooking konbu, bonito and shoyu together.

He turns soya sauce into a foam to go with slices of tai sashimi; aged home-made ponzu sauce to dress up thick wedges of buri from Fukui; and toro in the thick sweetish glaze. Making up the rest of the platter are lobes of Aomori uni seasoned with feathery salt flakes; steamed abalone just short of tender; and a piece of Osaka’s signature pressed mackerel sushi where you get the full taste of mackerel and chewy rice without the vinegar overkill of the original.

The chef follows up with a playful guessing game as he serves a “dessert” of monaka – the airy, crisp Japanese wafer shell – filled with ice cream. It’s foie gras – light, airy and whipped, so understated that you get the flavour without the heaviness while candied dekopon (orange) peel cuts the monotony.

An innate sense of balance lets him get away with jumbling up fresh tofu, cold somen tossed in a savoury sauce made of in-season firefly squid and young burdock, sweet kumquat jelly and dashi and wasabi sherbet. There’s some crazy mojo going on here that pulls everything together into a cohesive whole.

A main course of miso cod and grilled French duck features aggressively marinated fish that’s tamed with the acidity of pickled ginger flower, and slightly tough duck slices that’s more interesting for its condiments of Cambodian peppercorns and moromi – fermented soybean mash that’s the precursor to soya sauce.

After a simple ochazuke or rice in hot dashi with seaweed and umeboshi plum marinated in honey, the meal ends with delicate Shizuoka musk melon and finely diced Nagoya strawberries in a honey jelly. Petit fours of red bean jelly (Japanese nonya kueh) and chewy sakura macaron are a final flourish.

For a culture that’s big on homogeneity, chef Takayama stands out for gently bucking convention while staying true to his roots. It’s one thing to excel in craftsmanship and discipline, but to capture his sheer love for what he does – now that’s pretty special.

Rating: 7.5


WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN

10: The ultimate dining experience
9-9.5: Sublime
8-8.5: Excellent
7-7.5: Good to very good
6-6.5: Promising
5-5.5: Average

Our review policy: BT 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

This story was originally published in The Business Times.

Photos: Takayama