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By-the-numbers Michelin fare at Terra

Terra Tokyo Italian knows precisely what makes for Michelin crowd-pleasers.

WHAT do you do when you lose a Michelin star? Major sulking is a definite option. Depression? Don’t. A Marc Veyrat-style epic tantrum about incompetent inspectors who don’t know their cheddar from their Comte? Well, it would be fun to read about, at least.

Or, maybe you could just double down and work at it till you get it back.

That seems to be the case at Terra Tokyo Italian where, after the thrill and ignominy – of winning a star in 2016 and losing it the next year – chef-owner Seita Nakahara didn’t break his stride, and kept going until his vindication at this week’s Michelin guide awards.

On our part, we haven’t been back in years, although our last fond memory was of his parmesan risotto – creamy piping hot goodness served from a crater dug out out a giant wheel of cheese – way back when he first opened in 2015. And his dreamy Hokkaido uni pasta with a sauce of lobster bisque whipped with uni instead of cream.

So when the rumour mill threw out a hint about Terra’s possible Michelin reinstatement, we scooted down to reacquaint ourselves before even more people get the same idea.

Like it is with someone you haven’t seen in a few years, things change. Terra looks older now, and its once refreshing decor with warm terracotta tiles and a big blackboard with the day’s specials now look worn around the edges and almost dated. These days, omakase dominates, which makes it easy for the chef to control costs and ingredients, but also puts a cap on your freedom to choose what you want.

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Prices have also gone into premium territory – S$208, S$308 and S$408. Set lunch at S$58 and S$128 is your only cheaper option and even that is a fixed menu. If a star is the aim of all this rigidity, then it looks like Terra is officially Michelin-compliant.

In place of a menu, there is show-and-sell. A tantalising tray of white truffle, uni, glassy-eyed fish, langoustine and the occasional large turnip and tomatoes appear, showcasing the premium produce of Japan that will go into your meal – the cost of their airfare conveniently built into your menu price. This is usually our cue to feign a sudden family emergency and skedaddle out before they close in for the kill, but since we already know the menu price (and thankfully no insidious supplements) the sticker shock comes before your amuse bouche.

Make no mistake – the food is as you would more or less expect from a Michelin fine-dining restaurant. And if you’re a regular, it’s clear that there’s a certain rapport between guests and servers (and some special treats too). But if they don’t know you from Adam, it’s purely a transactional experience – you pay your money and you get your food. No more, no less.

Our S$208 menu starts with a clear bowl of light, creamy corn mousse with the sweetness of the Japanese kernels that decorate it, and a surprise nugget of burrata cheese within. Our well-heeled neighbouring diners get a shower of white truffle in theirs.

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There is a bruschetta duo – crisp, light toast squares topped with cold sweet raw baby shrimp and a base of sweet-tart Shizuoka tomatoes in the first, and a generous topping of Murasaki uni on the other. Good and rich, but reticent in the creamy and tasty department.

A frito of tachiyo or scabbard fish has the light airy crispness of tempura batter but a European pairing with celeriac two ways – pureed and julienned in a perky dressing. A sliver of prosciutto reminds you that this place is Italian.

There’s a quick deja vu moment with the pasta course – house-made capellini in a robust home-spun tomato sauce and generous chunks of crab leg that take us back to the early days when you had the luxury of choice. It’s not the uni pasta we like, and we still prefer the chewiness of store-bought pasta, but it’s hard to compete with the richness of handmade noodles.

Hata fish fillet thoughtfully partnered with a piece of cheek that you can dig into and be rewarded with tender morsels, sits in a dashi broth – a large hamaguri (clam) lending briny depth and flesh, if chewy, meat.

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Finally, a crusty striploin of Tochigi wagyu is a trade-off between a satisfying charred crunchy exterior and meat that’s not as melt-in-the-mouth as expected. A sweetish mustard jus has a miso-like resemblance, which competes with the creamy taleggio sauce that spills over from the roasted onion on the side.

To end – a slice of very ripe cantaloupe, paired with homemade vanilla ice cream, wine jelly and nuts for crunch. Safe, pleasant, risk-free.

And that pretty much sums up the meal. A playbook of tried and true recipes, priced high to justify the quality of ingredients needed to score Michelin points – almost like spotting questions in an exam. Well, it worked. Terra has passed with flying colours. Now, how about some real cooking action?

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

Photo: Terra