Sometimes it pays to be curious. Last weekend, I was strolling along the shops at Raffles Hotel Arcade, admiring a piece of jewelry here, an antique stool there, when I came across a new Japanese restaurant. The restaurant Kaisan was closed at that time of the afternoon but I poked my head in anyway. And was greeted warmly by the General Manager and Executive Chef Thomas Kok who was doing some paperwork. He informed me that they have been opened only since 1st July. The menu of mainly sushi and sashimi piqued my interest and since I love trying out Japanese restaurants, a dinner reservation was made for a mid week dinner.
It is easy to miss the restaurant. All the doors of the shoplots at Raffles look alike, and the signage is a discreet lighted disc above the door. The interior is rather narrow, with just enough aisle space between the sushi counter and some tables set along one main wall. The seats though, are wide and comfortably padded. The designer had cleverly used neutral cream tones all over the walls and seating so that the unconventionally red lacquered counter anchors the whole look together. The lighting was too bright for me, but this place also projects Japanese music videos on a wall, so the tone is more like sushi/sake bar than zen enclave, which makes it sort of acceptable. The restaurant was also very proud to showcase their Ice Bar, which is a strip of glass set atop a cooling system and laid to 'wrap' around the sushi prep area; this cold moat is meant to keep drinks and food cold but I was not really convinced of its usefulness, to be safe, we asked for an ice bucket to chill our sake.
Onto the food. The sushi and sashimi were superb, as one would expect from a sushi chef like Thomas who has been in the business for over 20 years. The sashimi pieces were cut to the proper thickness which brings out the inherent taste and flavours, and needless to say, all were sparklingly fresh. The white fleshed fish which I usually avoid (therefore I don't know the names) surprised me with its lack of "fishiness" while the fatty salmon and tuna bellies melted in the mouth luxuriantly. If we had to nitpik, we would say that perhaps the chef could have removed the chewy white stringy bits of the tuna belly so that the fish would "melt" better, like how Chef Nogawa at Akane does it, but this is a very minor point. I have a habit of ordering Uni (sea urchin) Sushi because it is my favourite, and it is a good measure, at least to me, of the inventory's freshness. The uni was dreamily creamy and briny as expected, with only a tiny hint of metallic taste, which is close to most of the best versions I've tried in this town. Kaisan is a worthy new entry to the small circle of really good sushi places usually run by Japanese chefs (mostly of the Nogawa alumni).
This is also one of those few places that gets the sushi rice just so, neither too dry nor wet, not too sweet or acidic. Apparently the cook who makes the rice has to titrate the ingredients and cooking times differently every time he makes it, and he is still perfecting this seemingly simple task. Hmm, someone takes his rice seriously.
The cooked foods were no second runners either. Chef Thomas defers to another chef for these items, and we loved the few dishes we tried, like Bamboo Clam Grilled with Spicy Mentaiko, Prawn and Crab Sausage and a slipperily good bowl of kway-teow like rice noodles and beef ribs.
Like most sushi chef, Thomas is happy to chat with his customers and the other 3 cooks are equally friendly. The three young waitresses were less experienced and very slow, we had to prompt them to bring menus, and the cooks had to remind them to clear plates to make way for our food, hopefully their service levels will improve with time.
Being located at a grand hotel and serving premium sushi, one would expect the bill to be frighteningly expensive. It turned out that the prices are slightly lower than most high-end Japanese restaurants, but who knows how long this happy state would remain? Besides the price factor, I would also plan to return soon because next month Thomas expects fresh salmon roe called Soshito to be available, I just can't resist eating these little orange poppers!
Kaisan Japanese Restaurant Pte Ltd
@Raffles Hotel Arcade
Unit #01-21, 328 North Bridge Road