Reviews of a Gourmet Snob: Chikuyotei, Meritus Mandarin

Ever since I came to Singapore, I’ve kept hearing about Chikuyotei for two reasons. First, it’s Singapore’s only Japanese restaurant that specializes in eel (unagi), a dish that is quite difficult to prepare properly. Every now and then, hope has overcome bitter experience and I’ve tried my luck elsewhere, always ending up with a slab of fishy rubber coated with excessive amounts of sauce. And second, it has the reputation of being one of Singapore’s most expensive restaurants of any kind: a reporter friend of mine, who often went there on the company dime, used to tell stories of how many zeroes the bill could have at the end of a sake-soaked night. This, too, is a part of the restaurant’s 150-year heritage: the original Chikuyotei is located in the Ginza, Tokyo.

So when a friend of mine offered to return a previous favor and take me there, I jumped at the chance. The rather non-distinct restaurant is tucked away on the 5th floor of the Meritus Mandarin, one of Singapore’s older hotels, and on this New Year’s Eve was only half full, with couples enjoying a quiet splurge and one rowdy group of salarymen whooping it up in the corner.

Chikuyotei’s popularity with Japanese resident in Singapore stems from the fact that they make absolutely zero concessions to Western (or Singaporean) tastes. But unlike its Tokyo forbear, the Singapore outlet has been forced to expand its offerings beyond eel and also offers up a full range of Japanese izakaya (pub) fare: you could probably order noodles and a beer and sneak away for less than S$50 a head, but you could also order five pieces of tuna belly (S$100), some Kobe beef sukiyaki(S$123) or even ask for some wild eel (S$36/100g). Full courses start from S$110/head, but we opted to just get two dishes of Shizuokan farmed eel and a few appetizers, with a small bottle of Suigei (“Drunken Whale”), a slightly sweetish sake, to wash it down.

First up was kankoku-fu negi sarada (Korean-style spring onion salad, S$8), which consisted of chopped spring onion topped with sesame seeds, chili powder and soy-based dressing. It tasted exactly what it sounds like.

Second was ika no uni-ae (squid with sea urchin, S$15), in which a thimbleful of chopped raw squid was soaked in sea urchin roe. I’m not a great fan of either ingredient by itself, and mixing them together doesn’t much improve the result.

And third was konowata (S$10), a new acquaintance for me, served looking like a wad of phlegm dotted with a raw quail egg nestled in a spoon. I poked in a chopstick, licked, and felt ill when I remembered the last time I had tasted this nasty zing followed by a cloyingly putrid aftertaste. I’ve eaten silkworms, beef testicles, raw horse meat and dog stew, but firmly enshrined in my mind as the worst thing I’ve ever tasted is ika no shiokara, a pickle made from sliced squid soaked in fermented squid guts that has even made it onto Fear Factor. It turns out that konowata is almost exactly the same thing, except that it’s made from sea cucumber entrails, not squid. Mmm. Being the chivalrous gentleman that I am, I assisted my dining companion in tearing up the guts into eatable small chunks, then wiped my chopsticks clean and tried not to gag as I watched her slurp it down.

At this point, the restaurant’s sommelier — an acquaintance of my friend’s — showed up and kindly treated us to glasses of white wine, a fruity but dry French Chardonnay from the Loire valley. It was nice gesture, but well versed in the ways of Japanese etiquette, my friend knew we had to order two more glasses to compensate: it was a different (and very tasty) wine whose name this time escapes me, but the glasses were slightly larger and we paid $21 a pop for them. Even in Japan there ain’t no such thing as a free glass of wine…

At last the eel came. First up was the Kansai-style shiroyaki (S$38), plain old grilled eel, served with soy and wasabi on the side as a dipping sauce. It was alright, but didn’t really taste like very much, just vaguely fishy. But then came the Tokyo-style kabayaki (S$52), gently coated with sauce, and it was worth the wait. The meat was so soft it fell apart at the touch, and the skin too was so soft it could easily be pulled apart. I still prefer charcoal-grilled eel, which makes the skin and edges nice and crispy while sealing the moisture inside, but this was still far an away the best I’ve had in Singapore and made it at #3 on the all-time top eel chart.

The final bill came to S$220, which I thought was a pretty darn steep price for a rather modest quantity, but my friend thought was quite alright. “Sommelier-san is opening a new restaurant in Sentosa that will cost at least that much per head, so next time it’s your treat!”

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