I’ve actually never heard of the place before so didn’t know what to expect. My brother picked it out from hungryangmo‘s blog – the go-to blog for vegetarian/vegan food reviews in Singapore. To add to my ignorance, I wasn’t actually hungry at all (sleepy in fact) having just had my fill from vegan cooking class (which I will write a post about soon).
Let’s just say I was blown away by this experience.. in more than one way. Japanese cuisine conveys the impression of mild, light, clean, fresh and uncomplicated flavors. However, what we had was actually what I would describe as hearty and rich flavors. I suppose this is good/acceptable from the standpoint of a Vata constitution though I can’t say the same for others, especially meat-eaters because the food may more appropriately be described as being on the ‘heaty’ side, again surprisingly because nobody would think of Japanese cuisine as heat-inducing.
Then again, it depends on what you order. There were definitely hits and misses so here’s what we had. I can’t remember the names of the dishes so they’re an approximation from my recollection:
Not a Japanese dish specifically, its actually more of a Singaporean Chinese Vegetarian type dish that is served quite commonly at Chinese-vegetiarian stalls. A choice made by my carb-guzzling Dad who probably likes ordering familiar rather than authentic items.
This was actually very flavorful. It had wok-hei (breath of the wok, go Google) reminiscent of fried rice properly done and the flavors were robust, almost on the rich side. As my family is used to mild flavors, we noted the oily nature of this dish though I think this is acceptable for a dish like fried rice that is generally on the oily side. I loved the plump, soft and chewy Japanese rice grains which definitely were of a good grade and texture.
This dish was done well with its ingredients and flavors in good balance producing an overall full-bodied taste. It is on the heaty side though (maybe because of the strong fire used to fry this dish) and I actually did feel my internal temperature rise after trying this.
Finally my staunch meat-eating male family members and I find something we can agree on. This katsu was actually pretty good. And I say as a faux-meat un-advocate who would rather have real food than processed faux meats any time of the day, any day of the week. It was also highly similar to the actual texture of katsu, as my Dad and bro would agree. In fact Dad said it tastes the same. I disagree though, the flavor and texture is definitely undoubtedly (at least within this discerning vegan’s mind) classic faux meat.
It was savory and spicy – again, qualities that raise one’s internal temperature so on the heaty side. Plus it’s deep fried. Drizzled over and served with a tangy spicy chilli sauce which I recognise uses bog-standard bottled chilli sauce as one of the ingredients, you know, the Kimball kind? Classic Katsu sauce is more of a dark brown color and tastes similar to Worcestershire sauce. I’d say this chilli sauce was an acceptable substitute though I would also say that anything that tastes too reminiscent of bottled sauce cannot really be a good thing in a respectable resturant…
Still, this katsu is really something of an exhibit which, I’m confident, will both satisfy fans of the original Japanese pork katsu as well as be a walk down memory lane for vegetarians/vegans alike.
One of the unfortunate misses, this was too obvious that the technique was off because the skin was really oily. Good tempura skin is crispy and never oily, so the temperature must’ve been too low when these were fried. A pity because making tasty tempura isn’t exactly rocket science if you followed the right technique. This would easily have been much better if only they’d gotten the temperature right.
The family members also felt that the lotus root was too hard. Perhaps if thinner slices were made this wouldn’t have been such a problem. This was served with a mount of grated daikon and pink ginger which I thought was a nice touch, true to Japanese cuisine. What I love about this restaurant so far is that their ingredients are fresh which was what I noticed from the refreshing flavor of the accompaniments.
This also came with a dipping sauce, which I suspect is made of mushroom broth, with grated daikon in it. Grated daikon being a good touch as it offsets the oiliness from such fatty dishes. We will likely not have this again.
By far the best dish in my opinion so far. This ticked all the boxes for me – fresh, tasty, good technique and good balance of flavors and textures. Everyone knows that avocado and nori are inseparable pals, but what made this interesting was the faux sashimi inside the maki which provided a little more in authenticity of textures. This is one of the few occasions where I’d say faux meats do add something extra to a dish. Again, the pickled ginger and wasabi were welcoming sights, they were really tasty and tells me how much commitment a restuarant has in terms of serving food true to the essence of the original cuisine.
The few critiques I have are firstly, though the avocado was sliced thinly and layered immaculately, they were not layered evenly on all the individual rolls. Some had as many as all of the four layers, while some rolls only had 1 layer of avocado. This is surely an oversight in detail. Secondly, I am disappointed to learn (after reading other reviews of this place) that the mayo is NOT vegan. This comes as a surprise to me as the proprietor of this place was a Chinese speaking lady, whom I had assumed understood what being vegetarian (called ‘su’ in Chinese, Chinese vegetarianism actually excludes egg and dairy products so is the same as vegan) meant. I had also tried to verify the inclusion/exclusion of eggs and dairy with some confusion which I will elaborate later on.
We also had one of the hotpots, Seaweed Fried Rice and Buckwheat Noodles which I unfortunately didn’t manage to take any photos of:
5. Buckwheat Noodles
I have to credit this restaurant for its beautiful menu photos that highly correlate to what you’d expect from native Japanese eateries. This soba dish looked appetizing though unassuming, served with standard ingredients such as aburaage (deep-fried tofu skin), tenkasu (deep fried tempura batter bits), spinach, mushrooms in a clear brown soup.
Upon having a taste though, I was really pleased that this was a very respectable replication of Japanese soba noodles. The soup tasted authentic, at least from my standards as a person who has lived in the country for 3 years, and had a rich flavor which is commendable considering that most Japanese cooks would use dried bonito flakes to obtain the desired taste in broths.
Being true to the details of the original dish, this will definitely satisfy anyone’s Kitsune soba fix especially with its hearty broth.
6. Seaweed Fried Rice
Similar to the Olive Fried Rice in terms of richness and heaviness in flavor, this had the addition of various seaweed (sorry I can’t really remember the exact details as I wasn’t in the mood for stuffing myself with carbs during this occasion) such as thinly sliced Konbu and also had Chinese salted vegetables (if I remember correctly!!). The konbu was seasoned heavily, perhaps with soy sauce, which made this already oily and rich dish even heavier.
If you like your fried rice with heavily intense flavors then go for it. Personally, I find these renditions of fried rice tasty but too overwhelming for my delicate digestive tract.
There were a few varieties of hotpot but the one we ordered came with assorted mushrooms (enoki, shimeji, oyster), Chinese cabbage, chrysanthemum veg (Shungiku in Japanese), tofu, vegetarian/vegan gyoza, faux crabstick, prawn and fishcakes and a few strands of starch noodles. My bro thought the quantity of ingredients to be more generous compared to what he’d expected.
The broth was, as true to my impression of how the previous dishes are seasoned, deep, rich and hearty. It actually tasted savory to the extent of coming across as a bit too commercial – tasting close to native Japanese flavors is one thing, tasting close to native Japanese flavors that come out of a packet is another consideration… The Chinese lady who seemed to be either the manager (or wife of the owner?) told us that the broth is made from boiling various vegetables so perhaps this accounts for the intense extraction of flavors in the soup base.
Quite disappointing were the two sauces served – sesame and ponzu. The sesame sauce was watery and tasted very obviously of reconstituted sesame powder due to its mild flavor. On one hand, this rids the sauce of the natural bitterness that roast sesame seeds sometimes have, but on the other means that the aromatic oils and gives fresh sesame seeds a lot of their flavor is also missing from the sauce. It was also tangy and sweet and makes for a somewhat passable quality though rather subpar considering their general integrity to authentic flavors. The ponzu sauce was downright unpalatably sour. Not at all like the pleasant refreshing taste of ponzu sauce, it reeked of artificial citrus flavor much like commercial soft drinks (reminiscent of Orangina, though I’ve not had that in perhaps ten years).
I have no qualms about the hotpot ingredients though you have to expect that the faux seafood is kind of rubbery, a point you’ll have to resign to when eating Chinese vegetarian faux meats. The gyoza was interesting however, with a mashed beancurd, glass noodle and various other inconceivable cuts of vegetables kind of filling all wrapped within a thin dumpling skin. Again, the chef here seasons with a heavy hand so expect really heavy, strong flavorings.
Now for my major gripe about my first dining experience here:
Is this place vegetarian? Or not?
As I mentioned, in Chinese terms, ‘Su’ or vegetarian means vegan. I tried to ascertain various times with various members of the staff as to the ‘vegetarian’ identity of this restaurant. Does this place bloody use eggs and dairy or not?!
One tells me no eggs or dairy, another tells me no eggs but dairy such as butter is used, and the Chinese lady in charge gave me the most confusing answer to my question:
Lady: No eggs are used, but dairy… what do you mean dairy?
Me: Dairy as in milk, butter…
Lady: Well we use mayo, and mayo has milk in it. But we use ‘su’ mayo.
(Well if you mean conventional mayo it has egg in it too. So do you mean you used conventional mayo? Which can’t be the case since your establishment doesn’t use eggs. So if you used ‘Su’ mayo than it can’t have dairy in it then)
Lady: Oh and we do use cheese too.
Me: *shocked* Cheese is used in this restaurant?
Lady: Yes, but we use ‘su’ cheese.
(Um right. So this place is vegan after all right? Could you stop trying to give me such a scarily vague impression of the identity of this restaurant please! It makes me so insecure as to whether eating here would compromise on my beliefs as a vegan. Gosh.)
To add fuel to the fire, and even more confusion, the vegan food bloggers who have reviewed this place have stated in their posts that certain menu items DO CONTAIN DAIRY, especially the mayo (which hungryangmo says contains egg) and cheese, so I don’t know how accurate any of the claims are regarding the vegetarian identity of this restaurant. Surely if you claim to be vegetarian, your staff and most definitely the manager will know exactly what possibly taboo items are included or excluded from the menu.
I wished this restaurant would state clearly, especially since it claims to be ‘vegetarian’ exactly what they mean by vegetarian, more specifically if dairy and eggs are used in their menu items and if used, which items they are. It is really stressful when restaurant staff are not properly educated on the ingredients used as this creates confusion, makes it difficult to find out the truth and gives a very unprofessional first impression.
Verdict and first impression
Overall though, the food served here was of very good standard for a restaurant that uses no meat in its re-creation of meat dishes. Robust and authentic flavors, fresh and mostly quality ingredients used I wouldn’t mind coming back here, or putting it on one of my go-to eateries list if only they’d come clean on what exactly is in the food.