Izakaya Nijumaru, Cuppage Plaza

Cuppage Plaza’s like, Kabukicho and Shinjuku-sanchome if it were compressed into a single building and in Singapore.

Seriously, the unassuming, seemingly deserted asylum is a cesspool of vice, temptation and seduction. In the upper recesses, concealed exteriors reveal little of the amorality and eroticism of a society that eludes all but the Japanese – the only hint of sleaze is the rare big-breasted jungle red-lipped Filippino prancing out of the complex for a smoke. “No tattoos, no berms, no slippers”, demands the haphazard pasted notice. It’s not only the men who’re tainted – the women too, have their own erotic hives with the subtle but certain “for ladies only” notice the only tease of the foreplay in action happening behind closed doors. Interspaced between all this prurience are portals into the gastronomic paradise that is Japan. With most donned with little more than a signboard and a closed-door, each opens up to a different district. From ramen shops and top-notch, high-end standing sushi bars to izakayas, each scene’s like a peek into Tokyo. In fact, you’d be hard pressed to find non-Japanese among the service staff and dining crowd – this is one place that truly doesn’t feel like Singapore. If the Japanese frequent, the food must be good. Yet, for all the consistency, aside from Osho Ramen, the institution’s eateries remain a black hole within the local blogosphere, with little to zero mention. Located along the city’s premier shopping avenue, in such a central area, it was just downright weird. There are mentions, but nothing specific, so Darren and I made the opportunity to explore this vacuum.

Like the rest, Izakaya Nijumaru’s interior is concealed but slide the door and peek in, and you find a Tokyo-style izakaya. The establishment takes up half of the third floor complete with segregated dining areas – the non-Japanese are seated in the largest dining area, away from its intended clientele, the Japanese. Speaking the language won’t help you access these microcosms, so just be glad you’re offered a tease. The menus are only in Japanese and romanji, so if you can’t tell your yakimono from your yakiniku, it may be…well, uncomfortable – so, take a risk and order anything from the menu as if you know what you’re talking about, you won’t regret it. While asking is often the best course of action, it wouldn’t be most prudent to do it here, for the staff are allegedly known for their disdain for explaining to non-Japanese what what is (although they did do it when we asked, but admittedly not with much patience).

There’s a significant selection of yakimono items, so we decided to give one a go. Yakimono, if you didn’t know, are grilled and pan-fried dishes – foods are pierced with a skewer or placed on a wire net and grilled over an open fire – the most well-known dishes prepared in this style are yakitori and saba shioyaki (grilled salt-seasoned mackerel). Unsure what was what, and handicapped by prices, we went for the cheapest – shitake mushrooms. We expected nothing but perfection, especially with a veteran Japanese chef at the helms, and we got exactly that. Instead of the rubbery texture that characterizes mushrooms when grilled or barbecued, it was soft, smooth and each bite melted in the mouth. The open fire enhanced the rustic flavors of the shitake, and complemented well with the squeeze of lemon. Having tried Hide Yamamoto earlier in the year, I’d have loved to try the other items to see how they compare, but alas, my bento awaits.

Completely unaware what the Nijumaru bento actually was, the anticipation was palpable. When it was served did I find out that it was really a showcase of the chef – tempura, saba shioyaki, sashimi and a mouth-watering pork belly – a tasting menu if you will. Each with its unique taste, all while building on the previous course, it was a worthwhile twenty-dollars spent.

I’ll be back, not just to Nijumaru, but to Cuppage Plaza.

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