SINGAPORE - Among the growing number of annual food events in Singapore, the one I now look forward to most is Gourmet Japan.
The event, which took place from May 6 to 29 this year, has been organised by Sphere, a subsidiary of Singapore Press Holdings, and Poulouse Associates for the past three years. I attended only the past two and I am hooked.
Unlike many other high-profile gourmet events, there were no visiting masterchefs, only Singapore-based chefs and those running restaurants here. And since the Michelin Guide has not launched in Singapore, there were no Michelin stars to brag about.
Yet, it trumps all the star-studded food extravaganzas.
Not every meal I attended was spectacular. Nonetheless, standards were high, with the range running from good to excellent - often corresponding to the prices of the dinners.
There were many highlights for me. The most memorable was at Shinji on May 27, which was also the most expensive dinner at $668 a person. That was certainly a hefty price, even if it came with eight fine Japanese whiskies - including rare bottles of 25-year-old Hakushu and 25-year-old Yamazaki.
The whisky matching was done by the general manager (quality communication) of Suntory's spirits division, Mr Mike Miyamoto, who flew in from Japan for the event.
And the restaurant at the St Regis hotel, under the expert hands of resident head chef Shunsuke Kikuchi, delivered the goods for those who dug deep into their pockets to attend the dinner.
I was not the only one swooning over the steamed abalone. Rarely had I tasted fresh abalone so sweet. And the slightly chewy - not tough - texture allowed the flavour to seep out slowly as you chomped on it.
The marinated grilled fatty tuna steak with white asparagus was another excellent dish - the tender fish was full of aromatic oils. And it was a pleasant surprise to find the asparagus made into tempura, the crisp batter and sweet vegetable excellent complements for the tuna.
I had eaten those two dishes at Shinji before, but the generous servings that evening left a more indelible impression.
The 25-year-old Yamazaki, too, was intoxicating, with potent fumes which heralded deep flavours on the palate hinting of dried fruit.
Dinner the following night at Yoshiyuki ($398) was very good too, but in a very different way, despite the fact that the same Hakushu whiskies as the night before were served again.
Chef Yoshiyuki Kashiwabara specialises in kaiseki and his flavours were lighter and more delicate, exemplified in dishes such as steamed yuba which came topped with uni and ikura. Yuba is tofu sheet, the skin which forms when you boil soya milk, and its clean taste was flavoured perfectly by the tasty sea urchin and salmon roe.
But the meal at the restaurant in Forum The Shopping Mall did end with strong tastes, when the chef topped a bowl of rice with thin slices of beef poached in a sweet broth and a perfectly cooked hotspring egg. Mixed together and eaten with pickles and miso soup, it was a perfect ending.
In Scotts Road, Ki-sho's dinner ($378) on May 7 was another highlight. The food was paired with Tengumai sake from an award-winning brewery which has been around since 1823.
With eight different sakes served through the evening, one might be forgiven for waking up the next day with no memory of the food. But, for me, it was impossible to forget chef Kazuhiro Hamamoto's Hokkaido sea urchin with Italian oscietra caviar mixed in a ricevinegar jelly. Or the sea urchin rice with chutoro and salmon roe.
The Kobe wagyu sukiyaki, which probably spent just two seconds in boiling broth, was however too raw for me.
At the ME@OUE dinner ($248) in Collyer Quay on May 29, two chefs from Japan took charge of the kitchen - chef Masayasu Yonemura for the Japanese and French dishes and chef Chen Kentaro for the Chinese courses. The food was paired with Japanese whiskies and shochu.
Comparison between the chefs was inevitable, and chef Kentaro undoubtedly stole the show with his two contributions - a gush-worthy foie gras chawanmushi topped with a rich king crab soup, and a speciality from his family's Shisen Hanten restaurant, mapo tofu with Koshihikari rice.
There were other meals and other highlights - including a delightful scattered rice from Tenshin on May 8. Bits of prawn coated in crispy tempura batter were lightly mixed with rice, an excellent idea as the clean taste of the steaming grains took away the oiliness of the batter.
But there were disappointments too. For example, the $338 Tenshin dinner, at the Regent hotel, where tempura was matched with Champagne Palmes d'Or, was let down by the first couple of deep-fried items. The prawn tempura, in particular, was pale and limp.
But overall, it was a good festival, with fewer dud events than others I've attended. Yes, the dinners were expensive, but so were some of the disastrous gala dinners at other festivals.
What I am also impressed with is that Gourmet Japan focuses on Singaporebased chefs. The fact that they do not have a litany of stars to their names means nothing. Many of them are world-class masters of the kitchen - and I'm sure they will get stars if the Michelin Guide comes here.
Of course, they have home-ground advantage compared with chefs who fly in bleary-eyed and are expected to whip up dinner for hundreds of people the following day.
Gourmet Japan dinners are held in the chefs' own restaurants and for numbers they are used to. Yet, they are not the normal meals you get when you pop by the restaurants on other days.
Many of the chefs sourced for ingredients they do not normally use, such as the Hokkaido hairy crab cooked with sea urchin gratin at Shinji.
Or they created a special dish, such as chef Kentaro's foie gras chawanmushi.
There were also the whisky, sake and champagne pairings to make the meals special. Though one did wish, after three nights of whisky pairings in a row - for Shinji, Yoshiyuki and ME@OUE - that there had been more variety in the drinks.
This article was published on June 12, 2014 in The Straits Times.
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