Anyone who watches a satay man fanning his charcoal fire and thinks, "I can do that", is probably the same person who burns his short rib at a Korean barbecue and lies, "I like it all charred and crisp". Take it from one who can cook A5 wagyu on a Japanese hot stone and make it rubbery - when it comes to grilling, timing is everything.
Yen Yakiniku is an unassuming eatery in Ann Siang Road that has been quietly open for the last six months, grilling varied cuts of meat to perfection for not more than 12 customers at a time. Even though the counter seats around 20 or so, there are only three chefs skilled enough to ensure that every wafer thin slice of ox tongue is cooked to just the right doneness and texture.
Heading the tight team is the boyish-faced Jones Chen - a Taiwanese chef who spent some eight years at the highly rated Da Wan Yakiniku in Taipei before relocating to Singapore - whose task is to make Yen as close to the original as possible. Without knowing what Da Wan is like, we have no yardstick for comparison, but it's good enough that if price were no issue, we would forego any all-you-can-eat-bulgogi buffet for an easy-going night out here.
The menu is straightforward. There are a few sides like the Yen's special salad (S$14) - finely julienned cabbage and Japanese mizuna tossed in a peanut- studded tangy sesame dressing that's supposed to be a replica of Da Wan's original. Topped with pieces of fried egg tofu, it's refreshing if slightly tart and salty - while it doesn't stand out, it's a great alternative to coleslaw.
A helpful drawing of a cow and its parts comes in handy in locating the various cuts of meat featured on the menu. No prizes for guessing where ox tongue comes from as we're shown four thin, raw slices (S$18), topped with chopped green onion and sesame seeds that will be lightly grilled on one side and seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper.
Chef Chen is so picky that he doesn't trust anyone else to cut the meat, says our assigned grill man as he carefully lays the slices on a heavy stainless steel grate that sits above angry red charcoal briquettes glowing in a compact grill.
The tongue - Australian - is sliced such that it can cook through on just one side, so you don't upset the pile of green onions as you savour the juicy, ever-so-slightly-rubbery flesh. It has just a hint of gamey odour, unlike the clean, lovely tender bounce of the thick cut Japanese ox tongue (S$25) that costs so much firstly because it's wagyu, and secondly, you only get three to four slices of this size and texture from each tongue. Just lightly seasoned, it ends our search for perfect tongue in Singapore.
You get a sense of chef Chen's skill when a plate of thin-sliced pork jowl (S$12) is shown to you - impossibly thin that it's almost transparent, it looks like it was sliced by a Japanese sushi chef. Grilled crisp along the edges, the pale pink flesh has a firm, fatty bounce to it.
For melt-in-the-mouth beef, it has to be the wagyu oyster blade ($48) - four thin but large slices of fatty Toriyama beef with just some chopped onion, salt and pepper for seasoning. Natural juices and the fragrance of the meat make this the highlight. You might be able to do better with the S$150 portion of wagyu that's the special of the night, but we pass on that.
Instead, the wagyu intercostals (S$26) - which refer to the muscles along the ribs and not any border conflicts between unfriendly cattle - are chewy but full of intense beefiness, and so are the thin cut US short rib (S$18). Don't look down on the chicken thigh (S$12) even if it's frozen and from Brazil. It's tender, well- marinated and the sauce is great with a bowl of plain Japanese rice. If you need vegetables, the Japanese corn is super sweet while the grilled eringi mushrooms are pretty nondescript.
Yen is a nice break from restaurants with their emphasis on composed meals and fancy philosophies. Here, the variety is simply in the cut and origin of the meats and the skill comes from the cutting and the grilling. The quality varies as the Japanese meats are clearly superior to the Australian and US cuts, but to go in that direction would make it more prohibitive than the already pricey average bill of S$120 to S$150 per head for a decent spread.
And don't worry about giving yourself away to your vegetarian friends if you're meeting them for a drink after dinner. Even though the cooking smell intensifies midway through your meal, built-in exhaust fans under the counter catch the fumes before they can settle on your clothes.
With the chefs more comfortable speaking in Mandarin, Yen offers a more down-to-earth vibe than its hipster neighbours. When you're tired of small plates concepts or pretentious paleo/detox diets, Yen offers you a meal you get really get your teeth into.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
15 Ann Siang Road
Open for dinner only Mon to Sat:
6pm to 12am.
This article was first published on November 23, 2015.
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