A decade ago, if you told us we’d someday adore slurping up soup melted down from globs of collagen that look like stuff pumped out from an obese man’s belly, we’d have wryly shaken our head. Ah, the folly of youth. And so today, we eat our words, and also the aforementioned gross-looking but delicious gelatinous brew. We enjoy it more for its taste and texture than its purported skin-beautifying properties (apparently, you'd have to ingest truckloads of it daily for any visible effect). There’s something addictive about collagen soup’s faintly sticky, naturally creamy mouthfeel. That’s why four-year-old Tsukada Nojo, the chicken collagen hotpot chain from Kyushu, is so popular here. Even with four branches in Singapore now, there’s always a steady stream of customers at most of its outlets. You can’t simply swan in spontaneously during peak hours. Two months ago, the group opened a slightly more upmarket spin-off restaurant called Yonpachi Gyojo, which also has a presence in Japan. It’s an izakaya centred around seafood, especially seafood collagen hotpot. The spiel: its seafood is supplied by fishermen across Japan, most of which are caught through sustainable practices. The 134-seater takes up a corner of UE Square. Another outlet will open next month at Alocassia Apartments in Bukit Timah.
THE LOOK: Decorative fishing nets dangle from the ceiling, while a large TV screen plays footage of Japanese fishermen in action. There’s a wooden counter where chefs slice sashimi, but we choose to sit at one of the more private tables in the spacious dining room. The décor is rustic and cosy. Service alternates between pleasant and too eager — an overly friendly waitress tries to hard sell us some off-menu seafood and even hits us gently on the shoulder like an old pal. We don't fancy being touched by people we've just met. Strangely, the place is mostly deserted the two times we visit, even on a Friday evening. Perhaps the Tsukada Nojo hordes haven't gotten wind of this place yet.
THE SIDE DISHES: Side dishes here are fancier and made with more finesse than at its sister restaurant.
The Yellow Tail Carpaccio ($16) is a good example of how less is more. Sheet-thin slices of clean, fresh fish drizzled with fruity olive oil, a sprinkle of salt and finished with a spritz of bracing lemon juice. Simple but good.
The Dipped Noodle with Shrimp Stock ($14.80) is our favourite thing here. While the reasonably springy noodles aren't the best we’ve had, the accompanying small bowl of prawn mee soup-esque dip on steroids is solid. Chicken collagen and seafood stock are blended with roasted sakura ebi and toasted sesame seeds for an umami punch to the gut. It’s rich, salty and perfect for the noodles to have a quick soak in. We’re not fond of the deep-fried dishes here, though. The crunchy Snow Crab Cream Croquette ($11.80) reeks of stale oil.
THE HOTPOT: Meanwhile, the signature Kaisen Bijin Nabe ($68 for two pax) here looks pretty much like Tsukada’s one. Jelly-like hunks of a chilled, congealed collagen-broth mix are presented in a pot, where they magically melt into murky soup over the portable gas stove. While the full-bodied chicken collagen base stock is similar, here, it is lightened with seafood broth, and apparently, flying fish collagen. It’s less cloyingly thick than the pure poultry version, with layers of sweetness and brine from the seafood. Brimming with flavour, but also a little too much salt. It’s served with a wooden crate of goodies like sliced salmon, petite joints of flower crab whose main purpose is to sweeten the soup more than provide meat, small scallops, clams and springy prawn balls. There’s not a lot of seafood, but the accompanying frills like juicy fishcake, mushrooms and veggies leave us fairly sated.
VERDICT: ***1/2 A quiet, comfortable spot for pleasantly unctuous, umami hotpot and a few other moreish dishes (if you order wisely). But the food can be heavy on the salt — so you blow more cash on booze, we suspect. $$ - $$$
#01-75 UE Square, 205 River Valley Rd, S238275. Tel: 6732-3110. Open daily 6pm-10.30pm. Last orders 10pm. (Closed Jan 28 & 29).