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Hinoki Restaurant at China Square Central Review

8:07 PM claire 0 Comments

If you’ve been to Japan and dined at a japanese restaurant there, you’ll find that many places in Singapore do not match up to that expectation once you’re back. As such, I have been on a hunt around Singapore to find affordable japanese food (pardon the occasional indulgences) to curb my cravings and pamper my taste buds.


So when the invite came for my family and I to check out Hinoki Japanese Dining’s seven course mini kaiseki (traditional, multi-coursed dinner), both excitement and trepidation were within reason – Its main chef Santaro Li had the pedigree, having served his time well in prestigious restaurants like Kanetanaka in Ginza or training under “Iron Chef” Michiba Rokusaburo. But could Japanese really be done by, well, a non-japanese?



Hinoki is conveniently located at China Square Central amist a beautiful shophouse cluster design to cater to the office crowd  and had a posh, private exterior. The interior had an 18 seater sushi counter, a separate private room and other seats for casual dining. We decided to sit at the sushi counter to observe the chefs at work, and spotted a cute sushi clock on the wall, the use of a microwave to dry seaweed wrappings, as well as chefs speaking to each other in dialect.



We were not presented with a menu, but were told that there are 3 different mini kaiseki sets to choose from. Priced at $85, (with a full omakase kaiseki set also available at $138 or $168) and with my family of four, we opted to have two of the Wagyu beef sets and one each of the Gindara and Tempura sets.

The full omakase set has mentaiko oysters!! I want!!

Appetizer

The seven course meal started off with a simple appetiser of dried scallops and cold tofu with eggs. Drying certain types of foods – such as the scallops – intensifies the flavour, and the small dollop of yuzu (citrus) soy sauce on top helped to give the mochi mochi (chewy) scallops that extra kick when munching on them to release the flavour.



The tofu was barely discernable under a mountain of roe and scallions; and topped off with a dash of century egg yolk – part of chef Li’s fusion fare. Our father dislikes tofu, but even he scarfed up this combination that made for a rich and buttery smooth combination.

Sashimi

Almost as quickly as the one-bite starters were done came everyone’s favourite sashimi. A collection of the basics – salmon belly, maguro (tuna), hamachi (yellow tail), swordfish and tako (octopus). They were fresh and juicy, and upon inquiry, Chef Li noted that their stock comes straight from Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo, Japan. My favourites were the slightly sweet salmon belly that melted in my mouth along with the hamachi that was full of flavour from its freshness. This was gulped down pretty quickly, but I felt that the wasabi had lost some of its zest, perhaps it was left uncovered or not grated freshly and I wished there was a little bit of ginger to help cleanse the palate between bites.

Chef Li was a delight to talk to in person, with a warm personality and an easy grin. It was interesting to watch him work (he served a few others while we were there), serving dishes in traditional Japanese senses and styles, presenting sashimi platters that were elegant to look at while also maintaining amazing freshness and flavour.

Soup for the Soul




It was only a little later, on perusing their menu that we realized that they had swapped dish two and three around – our third dish was a hearty soup. Looking rather oily, but tasting clear and smooth with brown beech mushroom (buna shimeji) and scallions that just warmed up the insides alongside the soft swordfish belly meat. While swordfish is usually a little bit more crunchy with its meat, swordfish belly is quite fatty, creating a more tender but distinctive taste without becoming too oily.

Tempura vs Wagyu vs Gindara (Cod Fish)

From here on out, most of our dishes differed. My brother’s fourth dish was a tempura set that came with ebi (prawns), shiitake mushrooms, sweet potatoes and other assorted tempura staples. Though it was not too oily and tasted well with the dashi, the prawn itself was not chewy or tasty, which was a little disappointing.






Our mother had the mentaiko Gindara fish which was steamed to perfection, skin was tasty without any ‘fishy’ taste and the sweetness of mentaiko was simply divine. Undenyably one of the best dishes of our meal, and our mum had to fight the rest of the family off from taking more than a single bite out of it. I’ve got a soft spot for mentaiko as it just adds so much depth and flavour to dishes, whether in its plain or spicy variations.

My father and I had the wagyu beef, which turned out to be the most disappointing of the entire meal. It tasted like regular stir-fried Chinese-style beef, the sort anyone finds at their local zhi char store or restaurant, and the wagyu was cooked to well-done. While tastes differ on how cooked they want their meat to be, wagyu when well-done loses half the point as the fat sizzles off during the cooking process. It was moist and chewy with a little fat going well with the stir-fried vegetables, but it simply did not excite us as much as the mentaiko did.

Unagi and Tempura


Delicious eel with pickles

My brother had a small serving of unagi (freshwater eel) with vinegered seaweed and pickled cucumbers, which he mixed together to eat. This created a fascinating new blend of tastes that was at one moment sour from the vinegered vegetables and in another sweet and juicy from the eel. The vinegared seaweed was light, not overpowering but complementing the freshly broiled eel, and the cucumber gave an added crunch to the dish. It was unexpectedly one of his favourite dishes.


Dish five for my parents and I was tempura, albeit only vegetables. 


Legendary Chirashizushi and Unagi


Our sixth – and final before dessert – dish was hot fresh unagi with miso soup while my brother had a luxurious chirashizushi bowl all to himself :( 

The unagi was the traditional sort, well-broiled and dripping with sauce over a bit of rice.


But it paled in comparison to the chirashizushi bowl, which was like having another round of mouth watering sashimi all over again. I was so envious I wished I had picked the tempura set for myself! The bowl had more of everyone’s favorites, including ama-ebi (sweet prawn), crab meat, roe and regulars such as salmon and maguro all with the expected freshness. This was all on top of a layer of rice flavoured with furikake (flavoured condiment). Hinoki should name this kaiseki set as the Sashimi set instead of Tempura because the servings for sashimi was much more generous!

Washed down with some miso soup that was thick and fragrant :)

Dessert – sweet and refreshing               

Dessert was a scoop of home made yuzu that was refreshing and a good end to the meal. It had bits of oranges that was chewy and a little sour to perk you up.


All in all, our favourites were the Tempura and Gindara sets! The tempura set had a generous portion of sashimi and delicious unagi pickled mixture which was a welcome change. The Gindara set had an awesome cod fish mentaiko which we had to resist our urge to lick the plate clean.  Please, please get them when you’re at Hinoki, make a reservation before you head down to get sushi counter seats which, in my opinion, were the best seats. Service wise, the waitresses would refill our green teas on request and clear our dishes promptly – maybe at times a little too prompt, but I would prefer if they were friendlier or more cheerful. The ambiance also felt a little off, with the radio playing latest English music hits and table arrangements looking more utilitarian rather than fitting in with the style.

Hinoki isn’t the type of place to bring for a romantic date, but a casual gathering with colleagues over lunch or dinner. The sushi and sashimi selection were really fresh and well-presented, be sure to drop by especially if you’re working around the area. Remember to try their mentaiko cod fish or chirashizushi bowl!

Thanks Epicurean Concepts and Jolene for the wonderful meal!

Hinoki

Mondays to Saturdays
11:30 am to 2:30 pm, and
6:00 pm to 10:30pm.

Closed on Sundays.
For reservations: +65 6536 7746


22 Cross Street,
#01-50/53,
China Square Central,
(South Bridge Court)
Singapore 048421
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