Stepping into this five-month-old sushi restaurant is a surreal experience. It’s a narrow space carved out from half a vacant shop unit. A simple laminated wooden counter seats 12, empty sake bottles line the cabinets, and, amusingly, the glass door is left ajar — presumably to ventilate the eatery as it doesn’t appear to have any cooking exhaust system. It’s a no-frills Zen oasis from the surrounding musty space at Fortune Centre, which looks and smells like it’s stuck in the ’80s. Through the gap in the door, an elderly gent coughs gustily as he lingers outside a row of shuttered old food kiosks.
And here’s another unusual sight: working unhurriedly behind the fully occupied counter is chef Aeron Choo (above), 23. Female sushi chefs are extremely rare in what’s traditionally a man’s domain. She’s got a childlike innocence about her with her cherubic, boyish face. But she’s no kid: Aeron has been working in the kitchen since she was 14 (as a dishwasher), and later as a cook at Japanese joints like Tanuki Raw. She even landed a brief stint at sushi temple Shinj by Kanesaka, plus a couple of sushi shops in Japan. Now, she’s poured all of her savings into this sliver of a space (nope, no help from mummy and daddy unlike most so-called young ‘entrepreneurs’) and it has paid off — she says she’s already about to recoup her investment. She does everything solo here: take reservations, shop for supplies, prep the fish, cook appetisers and wash dishes. It’s no wonder she sleeps just four hours a day, sometimes spending the night at the restaurant “on a recliner chair”. But it’s okay, because “everything I do here is done with love,” she explains serenely.
THE MENU: Only omakase dinners are served, starting from $68 for about nine small dishes, up to $128 for 14 mostly two-bite morsels. Aeron painstakingly ages some of her fish here. Sushi chefs in Japan commonly age their seafood, especially at higher-end joints. Doing so tenderises the flesh and draws out deeper flavours. It's science: when proteins ferment, MSG is released, lending the seafood natural umami.
THE WAIT: Soon after we’re seated and served water, we receive the first appetiser from our $128 set meal: a smooth and tasty Potato Salad accented with crispy toasted beans and fried tofu. We inhale it in a few bites and eagerly wait for the next dish. It takes another 15 minutes — which feels interminable since we are hungover and skipping the alcohol tonight, so there’s no sake to accompany us during the wait. Finally, chef sizzles up something, and it turns out to be Deep-Fried Gyoza Skin, to be dipped into a smidgen of mashed snapper liver, cream cheese, miso and wasabi. It’s funky, salty, rich and yummy. That too, is gone in two mouthfuls. And then we wait again. We mentally will the guy beside us to quit bragging and engaging Aeron in conversation about his sushi escapades in Japan — we want our food and we want it now. Too bad we fail. Another excruciating 15 minutes later, we’re served a small bowl of Oden. It’s delicious and comforting, but strangely familiar. “It’s like herh peow soup!” remarks our partner. Yes, the rich broth tastes similar to Chinese fish maw soup. It brims with pillowy house-made tofu and prawn balls, cabbage, grated yuzu peel and a soy-marinated egg with a gratifyingly oozy yolk. That’s almost an hour for three appetisers. Now, we’re thirsty and want a refill of water. But we don’t dare say a word — chef is busy slicing what we pray is our fish, in between settling the bill with another couple and our least favourite part: passing the access card for the toilet to another customer (we're germophobes).
THE SUSHI: Hallelujah, sashimi time. A slice of Yellowtail, aged a week, and dabbed with grated wasabi. It is mellow and meltingly tender. The sushi that follows comes at a mercifully quicker pace. It's petite, and not terribly filling, if we're being honest. Fish that's tasty but not the most elegantly sliced rest atop tiny nuggets of nicely al dente rice that’s unfortunately room temperature instead of gently warm. There’s plenty of white fish tonight, including a chewy, springy Grunt Fish. The most luxurious items are the silky, minerally Tenmi Tuna sliced from the leanest part of the fish and aged for four days, and the Chutoro, semi-fatty tuna. The latter is juicy and unctuous, but the huge mound of spring onions beneath it distracts from the tuna’s flavour. We’re told there’s uni in our set. However, we see no sign of it at the close of our meal. “Oh, it was underneath your chutoro sushi,” says Aeron. What little of it was concealed so expertly (probably below those pungent spring onions), neither of us suspected it was there. But that's okay — after almost three hours at this sleepy little joint in Fortune Centre, we are ready for bed.
VERDICT: 3/5 This young chef’s work ethic is almost superhuman and her passion admirable. But we think she needs more time to hone her skills, and also an assistant to ease operations. Still, Kappou is worth a visit because a millennial working this hard single-handedly is a sight to behold — if you don't mind waiting for your food. $$-$$$$
#02-10A Fortune Centre, Tel: 9819-2058 (reservations required). Open daily except Sun, 6.30pm to 11pm. www.facebook.com/KappouJapanesesushitapasbar