The story is charming: Osaka’s oldest premium tempura restaurant, Ippoh Tempura, which opened in 1850, has set up a branch in Singapore by way of fifth-generation member of the founding family, chef Masaru Seki, who runs the brand’s Tokyo branch. Unlike the cheap, hearty tendon bowls more common in Singapore, specialist tempura restaurants like Ippoh are swish temples to fried food. And prices are correspondingly steep. Chef Seki has partnered lifestyle maven Christina Ong of the Como group of hotels. His exclusive 18-seat tempura bar is thus housed within Como Dempsey, beside one Michelin-star Peranakan restaurant Candlenut.
THE LOOK: Unlike its larger traditional branches in Japan, the look at this cosy eatery is Nippon resort chic. A bar takes up most of the space, with spotlights shining strategically on the chefand his gleaming aluminium pot in which puffy blobs of tempura sizzle. Today, on the first day of the eatery’s official opening, chef Seki, 50, is taking turns to cook alongside his disciple, Aoki Tomonori, 31. Chef Aoki is a reticent fellow who doesn’t speak as much English as his more charismatic boss. But he will be heading the Singapore kitchen in Seki’s absence, which is most of the time (the master chef has left at press time). Oh, one great thing about Ippoh: its exhaust system is excellent. There’s barely a whiff of grease even at the fry station.
THE FOOD: Only set meals are offered. We’re here for lunch, where prices start from a friendlier $60. We go for the middle $80 set for ten pieces, and the $100 one for 11 pieces. Dinner costs up to $200. The food is fried in small batches in flawlessly clear safflower oil. Why safflower? “Because my parents said so,” replies chef Seki half-jokingly. He adds that the oil is lighter than the sesame blend often used in other Tokyo tempura joints. He pours egg yolks diluted with Japan-imported mineral water into a bowl of flour to create fresh batter, in which he dips goodies like Kuruma Ebi before lowering them in the oil, where they sputter lazily. It’s hypnotising to watch. But after all that build-up, the first two petite pieces of prawn chef serves us are an anticlimax. While the batter is fairly delicate and clean-tasting, it’s very thin and not superbly crisp. In fact, once the prawns are dunked briefly in the accompanying sauce of umami soy dashi, they turn positively limp. So we stick to sprinkling sea salt on most of our tempura today. It’s the same story for our subsequent pieces, although the seafood — like a tender Whiting, springy Hokkaido Scallop and Sea Eel — is faultlessly fresh. To be fair, it is the restaurant’s opening day, so perhaps more time is needed to get the temperature of the oil and stove perfect. But according to our trusted foodie friend who visited the eatery a month after this review was first published, the tempura is still quite limp. Odd, since she says she remembers the food to be crisp at the Tokyo branch of Ippoh. Well, if we’re going to blow calories and cash on expensive deep-fried food, we prefer it ethereally crunchy. But back to the menu.
There’s little difference between its $80 and $100 lunch courses, the main one being the Singapore-exclusive dish of Uni & Caviar Tempura included in the latter. Cold, sweet, creamy Hokkaido sea urchin and briny French caviar dolloped atop a listless piece of battered seaweed. By the time our pre-dessert course of slighty greasy Kakiage arrives — a mélange of chopped prawn, mushroom and veg trapped in batter, served atop shiny rice — we’re restless and ready to go on an extended detox diet.
VERDICT: *** The careful curation of luxe ingredients and austere frying techniques here are admirable. However, the not-quite-shatteringly-crisp tempura — perhaps typical of some upmarket tempura temples in Japan — probably won't suit most Singaporean palates. $$$$
Blk 17B Dempsey Rd, S249676. Tel: 1800-304-3388.
Open daily except Mon. Sun, Tue-Thur noon-2.30pm; 6pm-9.30pm, Fri & Sat noon-12.30pm; 6pm-10.30pm. Last orders 30 mins before closing.