It’s always a bit of a challenge whenever we crave a decent bowl of chirashi. There’re usually only two options: go for a cheap and hearty version, or a haute one from a good sushi shop. The problem with the former is that a well-made offering is rare: we only eat the reliably fresh $18 bowl at Koji (no longer the inconsistent ones from Teppei, or the hefty but mediocre offering at The Sushi Bar). And the latter, well, that sometimes costs so much we think we should just splurge on sushi instead. But now, there’s three-week-old Kuro Maguro at Tanjong Pagar Centre, the new mall above the MRT station, offering something between the two. It serves a more upmarket chirashi of sorts featuring sashimi-style slices of bluefin tuna in rice bowls, as opposed to assorted cubed seafood (though there is one chirashi on the menu) which often includes inferior tuna species such as ahi.
The story behind this eatery is impressive. It’s owned by the people behind Maguro-Donya restaurant at Eat at Seven in Suntec City. Both are run by a tuna wholesaler with its own trawlers, cutting out middlemen and keeping prices reasonable for the luxe bluefin. The company says its fish is frozen at -60°C as soon as it’s caught, which apparently is the optimal temperature for preserving its freshness. And it’s air-flown to Singapore twice weekly. The PR rep says the fish served here is the Atlantic bluefin weighing at least 280kg and caught through sustainable methods (because the bluefin is currently overfished). Why is bluefin the most coveted of all tuna species? Well, it’s the largest, fattiest and also the most flavourful, with varying textures and flavours that can be likened to beef.
THE LOOK: As with most of the restaurants on the first floor of this rather soulless mall, the 30-seat dining room here is narrow, somewhat compensated by its lofty ceiling. It’s no-frills but comfortable enough... as long as you’re here when piling works at the construction site beside the building has ceased for the day (the glass walls aren’t sound-proof). We’re ushered in by a Japanese manager who’s sweet and accommodating despite his modest grasp of English. We prefer sitting at one of the tables instead of the cramped counter, even though the latter gives us a better view of the cool Japanese head chef (left in above pic) whose magnificent permed hairdo is a cross between Takuya Kimura’s and a KTV host’s. Interestingly, chef used to work in a French restaurant back home.
THE FOOD: There are 18 types of donburi, most featuring bluefin in some form. The Toro Uni Meshi ($35.90; above pic) has all our favourite things in it: about five slices of semi-fatty tuna belly, Hokkaido bafun sea urchin and shiny pearls of briny salmon roe. The fish on our first visit is excellent: sliced just thickly enough, pale pink and creamy with fat, each silky mouthful unctuous and tender. It’s incredibly fresh too with no hint of fishiness. Meanwhile, the uni is passably sweet and the al dente koshihikari rice cut with enough vinegar to counterpoint the tuna’s richness.
The slightly more extravagant Kiwami Meshi ($42.80) is our second favourite dish. It also features semi-fatty tuna, plus the more venous, greasier tuna belly, and leaner dark red akami. Imagine a fat-striated rib-eye steak versus a lean yet soft filet mignon. Padding up the bowl further are clean sheets of kanpachi (amberjack), springy shrimp, uni and a dull piece of flame-torched sea eel painted with a too-sweet sauce, the only low point in the assortment.
Speaking of flame-torched, the Toro Aburi Meshi ($32.80) is quite irresistible if you prefer your fish par-cooked. A bunch of tuna belly slices and a dollop of finely chopped meat are dramatically torched tableside by the manager. The fish turns smoky and gently caramelised on top but remains raw and succulent beneath. Fragrant and exceedingly rich.
VERDICT: **** Succulent, well-marbled premium tuna that’s even fresher than what’s served at some swankier sushi restaurants. Our only complaint is that the slicing of the fish here is inconsistent: neat and generously thick on our first visit, messy and more stingily cut on our second. Portions aren’t huge, but the prices are reasonable given the quality of the bluefin here. $$
#01-04 TANJONG PAGAR CENTRE, 7 WALLICH ST. S078884. TEL: 6386-8561. OPEN DAILY 11.30AM-2PM; 5.30PM-10PM. LAST ORDERS AT CLOSING EXCEPT SUN DINNER 9PM.