Something’s happening on the second floor of Shaw Centre. Once a veritable dead end beyond the Spanish restaurant Taperia, someone has sprinkled magic powder and, almost overnight, sprouted a collection of slick eateries which now give diners reason to venture those few extra steps from the escalator.
That someone is the Les Amis group, which has been on an opening spree of late. Having outgrown its monopoly of restaurants on street level, it has created a mini dining enclave on the second level with fresh concepts targeted at the mid-high price range. Apart from the much-bigger Tarte – Cheryl Koh’s line-up of designer pastries – there’s also a cosy tapas bar run by Taperia, and Jinjo, which manages to find a fresh niche in the overcrowded Japanese food scene with its emphasis on sumiyaki and donabe rice pots.
We’re fascinated by the doorway – deliberately made low so that you have to bend down to enter and get the “wow” effect of the full space when you straighten up. It reminds us of Japanese samurai castles, which had meeting rooms with really tiny doorways so that warring samurai were forced to leave their swords outside before they could squeeze in. Because, well, you can’t trust an overzealous samurai and his katana.
Because we’re not there to discuss affairs of the Shogunate, and there’s always the chance some oblivious diner may forget to duck, the restaurant will remove the low-hanging solid wood screen by mid-month.
Just as well, perhaps, since you don’t want anything to obscure the view of Jinjo’s centrepiece – a long, charcoal-fired grill manned by two chefs who dole out everything from grilled sticks of chicken parts as well as luxe fatty fish and meats. Sumiyaki basically refers to chicken cooked on the grill, but Jinjo’s flexible menu offers a full range of dishes for a complete and varied meal.
From the yakitori section, the chicken gizzards don’t get much love from the grill since they lack any natural fat. They’re a little tough, but on the flip side, the wings are an addictive snack of crispy skin encasing juicy meat within.
Grilled beef tongue is hard to find and difficult to do well. Here, it’s a decent effort – you get a mixed bag of tender-crisp bites amid some chewy bits.
(Related: Why are some Japanese fruit so expensive?)
The general rule is that the fattier the meat or fish, the better it will taste as in the grilled Kama, where super rich tuna belly appears as a charcoal black briquette but you bite into tender still-oily flesh, served with grated daikon and a potent chilli paste to counter the fattiness. Next time we’ll try the nodokuro, a creamy-fleshed black throat perch.
Call us a cheap date but our favourite is the grilled chicken necks, where the mix of cartilage and meat has been meticulously stripped from the bones and charred over hay for a lovely smoky fragrance. The soft-tender strips are doused in a punchy ponzu sauce, Miyazaki-style, with a less-aggressive, rounded citrus flavour minus the acid bite.
Also good is the grilled pork jowl – marbled meat without the belly fat gives you tenderness and bite at the same time. No muss, no fuss. Just simply prepared meat that you enjoy on its own.
For natural sweetness, check out the roasted sweet potato from Chiba which is velvety soft and served with a slab of butter for you to slather on. It’s tender enough, but we wish they could char it till it’s completely burnt on the outside and caramelly sticky sweet on the inside.
So far so good, but the meal hits a high for us towards the end when we order the piece de resistance – luxurious truffle rice cooked in a donabe or Japanese rice pot that we’ve never seen served in Singapore before. It’s always the highlight of an upscale kappo meal in Japan when the chef presents freshly cooked rice in individual pots with a flourish, before lovingly mixing it all up and serving it to you. Here, the rice is fluffy, chewy and heady with the scent of black truffle and bits of minced konbu, and so addictive you might want to shell out for the larger pot if you haven’t ordered too many grill items beforehand.
The sleeper hit of the night is also the cheapest – the super-comforting ramen in rich, hit-the-spot chicken broth. There’s nothing in it except for a couple of seaweed sheets but the slippery, chewy noodles don’t need anything else.
For dessert, head chef Makoto Saito delivers his signature warabimochi – sticky-chewy morsels of jelly-textured mochi coated in soyabean powder. Don’t sniff at the soft serve yoghurt either, which has been churned into a smooth, satiny finish. It’s a fitting, refreshing end to a meal cooked almost entirely on hot coals.
It’s hard to go wrong when you’ve got good-quality ingredients that you don’t mess with. Jinjo has got the formula right and does it in a classy but cheery, non-threatening ambience. Any samurai would lay his sword down for this.
T: 6732 2165
#02-19/20 Shaw Centre
1 Scotts Road
This story was originally published in The Business Times.