Things that bring joy -
A meal, lovingly prepared then greatly appreciated.
Good wine, shared with friends and strangers.
Familiarity, somewhere new.
We've been eating Uncle Lawrence's cooking for eight years now, following him as he's moved from Santaro at the Amara Hotel, to Keppel Club, then his previous venture Hinoki in Chinatown, and now Shinzo, his labour of love located at Carpenter Street in Clarke Quay. We were introduced by Uncle A & Auntie A (Though if you don't have family friends to bring you, you can call or email the restaurant for reservations), and the first dinner we all had was memorable not just for the excellent food, but also for the fact that I got bopped on the head that evening by a stray champagne cork that ricocheted off the ceiling. Thankfully there have been no further mishaps that I can recall, perhaps because we always leave very cheerfully drunk.
Meals with Uncle Lawrence are an indulgence, and while we don't actually need excuses to eat good food, we decided that a sending-off party as I made my way to London for my Master's degree was as good a reason as any to call Uncle A, Auntie A & G down for a get together at his new place. Tucked away off the madness of the rest of Clarke Quay, you may miss the doorway if you aren't looking, but we found it easily enough thanks to the big sign out front, after following our usual modus operandi of cabbing down. D is always left in no state to drive after these dinners, so it's become a sensible necessary precaution.
I got Uncle Lawrence to mug for my camera after the usual greetings, intent on documenting everything for my blog.
"Find a nice angle ah."
My own picture doesn't really do him justice, so here's a better shot that I requested. Here he is, with a very good looking plate of sashimi in hand.
In Omakase, you're basically leaving the design of your meal over to the chef, in a gesture of trust and appreciation for their abilities. The new place has a bunch of specially designed menus, including the special Early Bird Omakase Course, that allows you to indicate what sort of dishes and price range you're comfortable with. In all my years of dining with Uncle Lawrence I've never once even touched a menu though, because D and Uncle A have full confidence in his abilities to put together spectacular special menus for us. This essentially means he feeds us amazing course after amazing course until we have to be rolled out the door.
The new restaurant is an intimate place, specially designed such that every diner has views of the open kitchen, and the ability to interact with the chefs. Anyone who's ever dined with him will tell you that the food is top-notch, but what makes the experience truly special is hanging out with Uncle Lawrence himself. This can mean anything from being on the receiving end of a healthy dose of fatherly advice doled out with good humour to downing vodka shots depending on the evening (Sometimes, both can happen within a span of fifteen minutes - those are the best nights). We began this dinner snacking on grilled dry leatherjacket, a versatile fish related to fugu (Puffer fish), but without the risk of poisoning. Served with Japanese mayonnaise and a spoonful of tobiko (Flying fish roe), it's a great accompaniment to beer or sake.
Our next course was slices of hirame (Flounder) sashimi, artfully arranged and served with a piquant shiso sauce. Flounder makes for excellent sashimi, especially thanks to its ever so slightly crunchy texture. That evening, there were eleven of us having dinner in the restaurant, and it was fun looking at what other people were being served as well. There were two ladies who'd started earlier than the rest of us, and as our meal began theirs was winding up, so we had a glimpse of what we potentially had in store for us. It was all very exciting.
G was taking pictures on his phone as well, and we had a mini race over who could take the better picture in less time when we were served our uni (Sea urchin) sashimi. BB's intense displeasure at having to wait while I take pictures has trained me in the art of the quick-draw, and before G had angled his bowl to his liking, my phone was back on the table and I was slurping up my serving of sweet, fresh uni.
Post-uni, we were given sharing plates of fried baby trout with Caesar sauce. Beautifully crisp on the outside, on the inside the pieces of fish were juicy-moist with big white flakes of flesh. Thanks to the layout of the counter, we could easily watch as the next course was prepared, and be kaypoh (
nosy inquisitive) about what we were going to be served.
It turned out to be thick cuts of aji (Horse mackerel) served with ginger, light soy sauce, chilli oil, thinly sliced chives and a sprinkling of bonito flakes, that danced about as the dish was served. Aji tends to be one of the stronger-tasting varieties of fish, so serving it this way very effectively showcases the crisp texture without the fish feeling overwhelming. We'd been drinking a very good sake picked out by Uncle Lawrence up to this point, and when the bottle ran out D decided it was time to break out the vodka he'd been gifted from Russia, and share it with everyone in the restaurant, including the rather bewildered other diners. It broke the ice though, and we spent the rest of the evening getting to know the other people along the bar.
flamethrowers kitchen torches soon made an appearance, and delicate, oily pieces of aburi (Flambéed) ootoro (Fatty tuna) were set on our plates. Uncle Lawrence explained that a thicker cut of tuna was used for this course because the piece of fish shrinks down under the flame, releasing lovely, fragrant oils from the extensive marbling. The fish was decadently melt-in-you-mouth soft, and a rare hush fell over our portion of the table as we savoured it.
More tuna belly followed, this time in normal sashimi form. Just look at that marbling, isn't it gorgeous?
M isn't too good with rich foods, so I got to nick her portion as well. Lucky me.
We moved on to more fried fish, this time a basket of sole served with ponzu dipping sauce. The basket was made up of the carefully shaped then deep fried bones of the sole.
Uncle Lawrence came round to break up the fish bone basket, telling us "The bones are the best part. Come, eat!" True enough, while the fish was tender, the bones were wondrously crunchy with a delectably milky flavour to them.
We moved back to pieces of sashimi, including these slices of kampachi (Almaco jack), and a piece of sweet, fleshy hotate (Scallop) each. By this point we were beginning to flag, so Uncle Lawrence orchestrated a short interlude of drinks and appetite whetting pieces of pickled radish and onion bulbs as we prepared ourselves for the next course. Uncle Lawrence cooks from the heart, and makes damn sure you're enjoying yourself, which is something we appreciate.
Uncle Lawrence trained under Chef Nogawa, who was Singapore's most renowned Japanese chef, and retains the traditional principles of serving fresh, seasonal produce flown directly from Japan, combining that with great skill. At the same time, he'll dare to push boundaries for a truly creative dining experience, which makes every meal exciting and educational. The rest of the staff here are excellent as well, and you can banter with just about anyone.
Our main course was pan-fried Shiga Ohmi Wagyu steak, served with shimeji mushroom tempura. Ohmi beef is considered one of the top breeds in Japan, with a history of being considered good enough to cure all manner of ills. Happy cows make for good meat, and you can just taste how pampered they were. Uncle Daniel is in charge of the hot dishes, and apart from the expertly seared beef, the shimeji tempura was perfectly cooked and bursting with mushroomy goodness.
King crab leg tempura came after, and good as it was, we were sort of flopped over the counter after we scarfed it, clutching our bellies and crying "I don't think I can eat any more!". This provoked a round of laughs, and the group of three left in the restaurant with us shared their bottle of 1989 Bordeaux while everyone waxed lyrical about their dining history with Uncle Lawrence in an outpouring of love. It was very touching. There may have been a tear or two.
On more protests that we couldn't possibly have any more for fear of exploding, Uncle Lawrence did requests, which of course D & Uncle A couldn't resist. So, we ended up with an extra piece each of Aburi Ebi (Shrimp) and Ebi with Foie Gras sushi. Insanely rich, but utterly to die for.
Our last dish was Wagyu beef soumen, where the thin noodles are made of fish paste, cooked quickly to ensure it retains its chewy texture. As the bowls were doled out to everyone, someone rushed in wearing their pyjamas, and it turned out to be the wife of one of the other diners, who'd driven down once she heard they were going to have the soumen, which happens to be her favourite dish in the world.
For all the generally older crowd, the atmosphere is never, ever stuffy, and there's always such an air of happiness in the room as everyone engages in the highly enjoyable act of appreciating good food under the watchful eye of a master host. A vast majority of the other diners are regulars, so if you visit you're bound to run into us one of these days. We're a very dedicated bunch.
Don't be afraid to have a chat, you'll be part of the club soon enough.