Singapore is exceptionally well-versed in Japanese cuisine.
We’re blessed with a spate of dining concepts that feel and taste so genuinely authentic, that a top-notch omakase meal in the motherland might not seem any different. If you’re in the mood for sterling edomae sushi, there’s a cosy, ten-seat-or-less restaurant for that. Ramen? There’s probably an excellent slurp shop near you. Bangin’ yakitori and sake? We can’t count the number of reliable izakayas with two hands.
Which makes Kinki at Customs House something of an oddball in Singapore’s Japanese dining scene. It’s sort of Japanese, but not quite in the way you may be accustomed to. You won’t find noodles or grilled skewers on the menu, though Kinki serves upmarket sushi, sashimi, and maki (they call them Rock & Roll). Those were not what we came here for.
Chef Terence Ong, who’s been helming Kinki’s kitchen since 2014, has given the restaurant menu a bit of a spruce-up, with bold, wanton dishes that give the 2020 gloom a kick in the butt. Nagano pork (chosen for its tenderness and superior marbling) turns up as a slab of crispy, juicy katsu with a fiery buffalo taste that sent my meek tastebuds blazing in a good way. The crusty lamb rack is a doozy for fans of the cut: fine-quality chops are wet-aged in a koji yeast brine for a day, then seared and coated with panko and — get this — mentaiko before going into the oven for a bake. Dehydrated ginger slices and a salad tossed in house-made ginger dressing cuts the gaminess of the lamb nicely, and we’ll gladly have it on its own.
If I’ve to name a single rockstar on the menu, it’ll be the unagi claypot. It’s not exactly new; the elusive chef’s special was previously served only to those in-the-know, but I guess the secret’s out now. This steaming, magical casserole of exquisite char, gravy-laden grains and melt-in-your-mouth eel is made with rice that is first fried with chopped unagi, finished in the claypot and appears on your table with a generous slice of unagi slathered with a house-made sauce. So good it gave us vertigo.
It’s recommended that you turn up in a group of three or more, because the snacks are marvellously devourable. You’d be damned not to order the tuna tartare tortilla, a superbly fresh and devillishly clean-tasting starter with chunks of soy-aged bluefin maguro, mozzarella, avocado, pickled shallots, Japanese parsley, cherry tomatoes, tempura mushrooms and peppers covering a deep-fried piece of tortilla. Another “raw” plate that will please beef-loving carnivores is the gently seasoned wagyu tataki that’s sprinkled with garlic chips, spicy ponzu, parmesan and microherbs. And we can’t think of anyone — save for those with seafood allergies — who can resist the deep-fried and perilously addictive squid cartilage with lotus root chips and kimchi tartare dip.
Pre-covid, Kinki had a rep for sweaty, riotous nights at its rooftop bar — which, by the way, offers some serious cocktails (the glitter-infused and deceivingly strong Gold Quencher and She’s So Unusual won our hearts). It’s quietened down now thanks to social distancing rules, but this also means the food, in all of its delicious, not-quite-Japanese brilliance, can finally get a well-deserved spotlight.
Kinki, 70 Collyer Quay #02-02, Customs House, Singapore 049323, +65 6533 3471
(All images: Kinki)