$15 Buys You This Awesome Tempura Bowl

UNDERCOVER RESTAURANT REVIEW: The catch? You gotta get in line for the tasty tendon at Tempura Kohaku. (A version of this story first appeared in Issue 1351, Sept 5, 2016.)

We like to think of ourselves as the type of diner who’d rather put their time to better use than join long queues for food. Yet here we are, on a Monday night, in a snaking line at two-month-old tendon joint, Tempura Kohaku, a small eatery within Japanese dining enclave Eat At Seven. It’s been 45 minutes, and our feet are aching. We’re only still here for the sake of this review. Well, and also because we’re really craving the tendon here (short for tempura donburi, or rice bowl), which we already tasted once weeks ago, after a more manageable 20-minute wait at 3pm. We are sandwiched between a couple patiently playing Pokemon Go on their phones, and a group of glum-faced aunties. Time stands still as we inch closer to the restaurant’s entrance, where we spy office ladies inside slowly nibbling on each grain of rice, all while leisurely sipping endless refills of iced green tea. They seem oblivious to the hungry faces (read: ours) outside. We fantasise about charging in with pom-poms and a megaphone, and shouting: “Hurry up, leh!”

tempura kohaku queue

Instead, we mull over the menu for the 10th time. Not that there’s much to mull over. There are essentially only two main choices: a non-vegetarian or veggie tempura rice bowl, with regular or spicy sauce. Tempura Kohaku is owned by Japanese restaurant group Kings Know Inc, which runs a chain of eateries in Tokyo­­ — but does not include a tempura specialist joint. (The same company also owns a pork cutlet place called Tonkatsu Agedoki next door.) Anyway, since Kohaku is not a famous brand name, why the crazy lines almost daily? Because Singaporeans, it seems, have an insatiable appetite for deep-fried grub, even better if it’s Japanese. And there’s the fact that it’s cheap: a heaping bowl costs just $15. It's the second tendon specialist to open in Singapore, after ramen chef Keisuke’s also crowded Tendon Ginza Itsuki in Tanjong Pagar.

tempura kohaku decor

THE LOOK: Finally, we are ushered into the compact 43-seater, after having to wait a further 10 minutes while the friendly servers clear the vacated tables (this makes our total waiting time 55 minutes). The dining room is brightly-lit and comfortable enough, if no-frills. The heart of the restaurant is the open kitchen where the tempura is fried to order, and a wooden counter wrapped around it. We are glad we are seated at a table away from the slightly greasy-looking kitchen. Thankfully, there is only a faint perfume of sesame and soybean oil permeating the space, unlike the greasy fog choking rival joint Ginza Itsuki. The soundtrack on both our visits is the vigorous plucking of traditional Japanese string music, which adds an urgent note to the growling from our stomachs.   

tempura kohaku tendon
Carb fest: The Kohaku Tendon also comes as part of a set meal ($19.50) with a bowl of udon, if you’re super hungry.

THE FOOD: There is another 15-minute wait for our food. There’s a good reason for this, according to the restaurant’s general manager. He says the deep-fryer imported from Japan can only cook between six to 10 pieces of tempura each time. The machine boasts a filtration system which pushes the dirty bits down, ensuring fairly clean-tasting oil even after repeated frying (the oil is refreshed daily). Our orders, when they arrive (hallelujah!), are a sight to behold. The signature Kohaku Tendon ($15) sees a mound of gleaming, al dente Nanatsuboshi rice from Hokkaido piled precariously high with eight large pieces of golden tempura. It is served with the lid of the bowl perched on its side like a glorious backrest — overturn this and use as a receptacle for holding bulky tempura as you plough through your meal. What makes a bowl of great tendon? Well, good rice, for starters. Fresh seafood and vegetables, obviously, cloaked in a slightly sturdier than usual tempura batter, so that it can stand up to the lashings of sauce splashed on it. And this offering from Kohaku has all those boxes ticked. Most importantly, the fried items have no trace of stale grease, unlike the bowl at Ginza Itsuki. The highlight: two springy prawns swathed in a slightly thick but tasty batter that remains crunchy in most spots despite being lavishly drizzled in a rich, savoury-sweet sauce of soy, sake, mirin and black sugar. Even the normally dull chicken breast tempura is lip-smackingly delicious. No wonder: it’s marinated with shio koji (a fermented blend of koji — rice inoculated with food-safe mould — salt and water), known for its tenderising and umami prowess. Elsewhere in the Himalayan hillock of sinfulness: firm French beans, sweet corn, succulent squid, crab stick, plump shiitake mushroom, pumpkin. If high-end tempura is exquisitely light and fluffy, then this is the heartier, ribsticking salaryman version. A similar sauce is used in the Kohaku Tendon Spicy Flavor ($15), except that it is aggressively spiked with chilli. Our dinner partner enjoys it, but we think the fieriness distracts from the flavour of the sauce and tempura. There are no side dishes here, the only option a small bowl of fat udon as part of a larger set meal. Instead, we settle for grazing on the crisp, palate-cleansing pickled daikon and ginger scented with zesty yuzu peel that’s complimentary at every table. Oh, and time taken to polish off our tendon? Twenty minutes.

VERDICT: **** An appetising, affordable bowl of deep-fried decadence. Our arteries are probably relieved we can’t just waltz in for tendon on a whim here without having to endure a long wait (because time is money). Tip: try off-peak hours like 3pm on a weekday.

Update: Tempura Kohaku has since opened a second branch at 64 Circular Road, where the queue is slightly shorter. 

#03-311/331, 3 Temasek Boulevard, Tower One, Suntec City Mall, S038983. Tel: 6333-4386. Open daily. 11.30am-4pm; 5pm-10pm. Last orders 30 mins before closing.

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