I guess when most people think of dining at Sentosa Golf Club nowadays, Il Lido is the first and probably only place that comes to mind. Philippe Starck decor... Garibaldi pedigree... much treasured haunt of apparently every minister and tai tai in town. Sadly though, a trip to Il Lido seems more about having your hair up and your nails done than actually enjoying the food. Which, from personal experience and even more from trusted secondhand reports, appears to be a fairly difficult thing to do (enjoy the food I mean, not your nails. Ahem.)
Nogawa evidently lies in Il Lido's publicity shadow, but ill-deservedly. The food is simply amazing. Ridiculously fresh, sometimes weird, always wonderful. If I hadn't chanced upon pictures of Nogawa-san from his website (he's the one next to MM Lee btw), I would have imagined him as the Willy Wonka of Japanese cuisine, replete with headband-wearing, sashimi-carving Oompa Loompas.
Ok, so maybe I exaggerate. A little. The dishes we tried did deconstruct into fairly basic components, and many recipes may very well be tried and true, but the quality of ingredients and dedication in preparation must be unrivaled by any restaurant in Singapore.
Which is possibly to be expected. Nogawa-san is widely considered the father of Japanese cuisine in Singapore. One evening at Hachi, our favourite Japanese restaurant and one of Singapore's best kept open secrets, we happened to find ourself chatting over the counter with both chef Watanabe-san and KF Seetoh as to the top Japanese restaurants in Singapore (aye, Seetoh of Makansutra fame. Not to name drop, but credit where credit is due. I haven’t yet reached the upper echelons of food bloggerdom whereby I can claim to have discovered and be singlehandedly responsible for the success of one Singapore’s now most beloved and famous eateries *coughcrabbeehooncough* hey, indulge a girl in a bit of bitching, maybe I'm just jealous ;) ).
Anyway, I believe it was Seetoh who brought up Nogawa first. Either he or Watanabe-san then informed us that Nogawa-san trained many of Singapore’s top Japanese chefs, including (if I remember correctly, don’t quote me on this) Yoshida of Sushi Yoshida and Tatsu of Tatsuya/Tatsu Sushi). How can you say no to that?
After a bit of googling, I learnt that the Nogawa brand extends to three restaurants – Akane at the Japanese Association on Adam Road, Nogawa at Le Meridien and Nogawa at Sentosa Golf Club. While I was really keenest to try Akane, apparently you need to be a member of the Japanese Association to dine there. Like any obsessed foodie, I then investigated how to join the Japanese Association, hoping that my recently acquired JLPT3 certificate would be useful currency. Unfortunately it takes more than a piece of paper and a bunch of anime DVDs to qualify one for membership – you actually need referral letters from two existing members! Anyone??? Please???
Anyway, long story short, we ended up at Sentosa Golf Club. The restaurant was very much what I’d hoped for – elegant, modern, great counter seat from which we could catch all the slicing and dicing action (although no view into the kitchen), and, best for Philippe (who since arriving in Singapore has turned into an uncle-wannabe), a gradual stream of post-golfing uncle regulars entering, ordering off-the-menu items which we could then piggyback off (“we want whatever that is!!!”) and raucously discussing politics, golfing expeditions and the now-infamous-but-then-still-current Zidane headbutt.
Sorry, that was a long sentence. Please pause for breath now.
Sooooo. The meal turned out to be much more than that – the kindly young chefs at the counter took great pleasure in presenting us with little ‘on the house’ specials after every 2-3 courses, and even greater pleasure in explaining to us how the dishes were prepared, which ingredients were special for the season and should be particularly cherished, and so on. Will therefore end my long prologue (I’m starting to rival Chaucer in these) and share those gems of knowledge together with the pics. Happy virtual eating!
Oh, and for the curious, dinner came up to $400, of which $100 was wine. Definitely pricey but we went all out since it was a special occasion (according to Philippe, the first time I’ve bought him dinner since we were dating in 2000 :P). Also the menu is very flexibly priced if you don’t want to spend so much – individual dishes start from $15-20 each, while kaiseki menus are priced at $100, $120 and $180 – which is honestly not too bad if you consider the quality of the food, especially the sashimi. I’m guessing eating at a similar establishment even in Tokyo would cost heaps more, not to mention anywhere outside Asia.
First up: Sashimi
Salmon, tuna belly, amaebi and hamachi. Ever since playing around with a Tetsuya recipe for Hamachi with Blood Orange Vinaigrette dressing, I order it almost every time I have sashimi. But it's never been like this - creamy, rich, sweet and seductive... I was literally stunned by how different it could be from the fish I thought I knew. And let's not even get started on the tuna belly and the amaebi. Amazingly, the sashimi we had at the Tsukiji fish maret at 7am didn't even come close to this. The plate pictured was $45 but so mind-blowing it was worth any cent.
(Quick aside - I'm always a bit wary of using so many superlatives when writing in case all it does is expose my limited experiences. If by any chance you've tried e.g. sashimi that is much better than this, then do feel free to disagree, but please at least share with me where the better experience is! I am always grateful to be proven wrong and to learn that food much better than anything I've tried does exist :) But that said, I swear this sashimi is the best on the planet and worth selling your firstborn child for :) )
Shameless food geek photo #1: freshly grated wasabi
The chef at the opposite end of the counter from us was very amused by how we'd run across the counter, snap a pic of whatever he had and then run back like nothing happened, avoiding eye contact all the while. The grown-up equivalent of the bean bag shuttle runs we used to do in school! Evidently I still suck at them :P
Next: Free food #1 - shiro baigai (???)
House special courtesy of the chef. The name sounded like shiro baigai but not sure if I caught that right. We'd tried something similar looking at Kazu before but that turned out really nasty. But this one was really amazing. The creature had been marinated in a soy-based almost braising sauce/gravy and served cold, and tasted like abalone but more complex, with each chew releasing alternating layers of salty and sweet.
Traditional and good. 'Nuff said.
Grilled Kurobuta pork slices
Thin thin thin (somewhere between prosciutto and ham) slices. What was amazing was that the pork was grilled over a charcoal flame, and you could really taste the delicate smokiness. A first for me. Hopefully not the last!
Shameless food geek photo #2: Little big crabs
See how those two baby crabs appear to be in the midst of a heartwarming embrace? Well, first they're not baby crabs, they're full grown miniature crabs (ok big deal). Secondly, they are not clinging fondly together - they are clutching each other in frozen terror. Actually not frozen. They were thrown into boiling oil. Yup. That's either the grip of mortal fear, a final bitter attack ("you bastard! I told you we shouldn't have swum towards that guy with the net!") or quite possibly a vain attempt to escape imminent death by trying to climb on top of your fellow condemned. The crab version of Vesuvius. Fyi, we didn't order them, the uncles did. So judge the uncles!
On a cheerier note, we had the same corn as in the picture as a complimentary amuse bouche. It's from Hokkaido and the sweetest corn I've ever had. Dunno if they sell them in Japanese supermarkets or at Japanese food fairs, but definitely try it!
Something we finally actually paid for: Mini beef cutlet
Sinful but good. Was a little bit different in that the beef cutlets (wagyu by the way!) were first wrapped in bacon before getting breaded and fried, which enabled me to be health-conscious by sliding off the bacon-breadcrumb layer and eating just the beef. Except of course I then gave into temptation and ate said bacon-breadcrumb layer on its own :) Sauce was the traditional katsu sauce.
Yes, I died for you, you bastard: Tiger prawn roll
This was something we filched off the uncles. Tiger prawn, breaded and fried, in an inside out roll with mango and avocado slices and tobiko. Philippe burst a gut laughing when I innocently commented "I can't believe they found such long prawns!" but fell strangely silent when, upon eating the roll, he couldn't find any connecting bits (i.e. where they would've combined two normal length prawns to make a fake super long prawn). The jury is still out - mutant prawns or no???
Grilled cod with salt
Good, good, good.