Former pro snowboarder, Iron Chef America contestant (too bad he lost to Bobby Flay in that episode), ‘celebrity’ chef. Yet, we’ve never heard of Korean-born American Akira Back before his eponymous restaurant opened in Singapore three weeks ago. Still, his story sounds interesting, and we are curious to check out his brand of modern Japanese cuisine with Korean and American influences. If you were wondering about the chef’s unusual surname, Back’s real moniker is Sung Ook Back, while ‘Akira’ is his nickname.
THE LOOK: We walk in during the restaurant’s first week of opening. Unsurprisingly, it’s almost empty for dinner. It’s housed within the former South Beach Hotel, now rebranded as JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach. And this was where the now-defunct hotel’s signature eatery ADHD used to stand. The upmarket, slightly loud Philippe Starck décor largely remains, with white antler chandeliers and a video wall. But the brighter colours have been somewhat muted and artwork by the chef’s mum now adorn the walls. We choose a table at the more private sunken recess close to the window. The service tonight is lovely. We ask for a taste of two wines before deciding on one, and the friendly sommelier uncomplainingly pops open two new bottles just so we can sample them. Pity the choice of music is giving us a slight headache. A techno remix of Michael Jackson’s ‘Remember the Time’ cheapens whatever designer fixings the place boasts. Chef Akira briefly pops out of the kitchen during our visit (he’s gone now) to say hi to another guest. But in his absence, Japanese chef Tomoyuki Kiga, who worked at Akira Back in New Delhi, takes charge.
THE FOOD: The menu of sharing plates, sushi and main courses reads like one from a funky modern Asian restaurant in LA... circa 2000. Well, chef Akira did work at one of America’s most famous, long-standing modern Japanese restaurants: Nobu. No wonder a quick check of Nobu’s menu online reveals a few similarities. Like the Yellowtail Jalapeño with Yuzu Soy ($25), Nobu’s version of Nikkei cuisine (food introduced by Japanese immigrants in Peru, where chef Nobu worked for a stint). Fresh sashimi garnished with discs of the green pepper bathe in a super refreshing, citrusy pool of soy. Yum. Next, the starter of Tuna Pizza ($25). Sheets of silky raw fish appear almost painted on a thin, crackly tortilla crust smeared with truffle oil ponzu mayo. It’s pretty moreish, but after two bites, the tuna leaves a faintly fishy aftertaste.
Meanwhile, the AB Tacos ($25) with wagyu and ponzu tomato salsa sound fab on paper, but what we get is boring minced beef pocketed in fried wanton skins masquerading as tacos. For sushi, we thought it made sense to order the modern maki rolls instead of the traditional stuff since we were in a fusion restaurant. Well, we thought wrong.
The Hot Mess ($23) roll is appropriately named. Too much heavy crab tempura smothered in Korean gochujang-spiked ponzu aioli, too little rice. The limp bean curd skin holding everything together does nothing for this dated dish. But we suppose it’s something that Americans, who chef Akira is used to cooking for, will appreciate.
What we do love wholeheartedly here: the 48-Hour Tajima Short Rib ($48). The slow-cooked wagyu is a triumph in braised meat — buttery-soft and inundated with rich, beefy succulence. If only there were some carbs, like mashed potatoes, to soak up its divine juices.
VERDICT: *** The restaurant serves a few delicious dishes, but it’s not as edgy as it markets itself to be. In fact, the cooking here reminds us of mod Asian plates we’ve eaten in LA and Las Vegas a decade or more ago. And at prices that creep towards fine-dining despite its smart casual branding, we expect more.
Level B1M, JW Marriott Hotel Singapore South Beach. 30 Beach Rd, S189763. Tel: 6818-1914. Open daily except Sun. Tue-Sat, 6pm-11pm. Last orders at 10.30pm.