Sushi Chiharu: Home to Japan’s Youngest and Brightest Sushi Chefs
Sushi Chef Issei Taba (田場壱成), 21, didn’t speak a single word of English the entire meal. But all it took was a mere deft flick of the wrists, an impish smile, and a respectful dip of the head for me to establish an amicable connection with the young chef. At the very least, he didn’t think of me as an ignoramus for not being able to identify the Kisu (sand borer) or the Rockfish, so I hoped, as I fumbled with the delicate pieces, embellished by a spot of plum sauce. Dinner tonight is at Sushi Chiharu, located along the gentrified zone of Cuppage Road, propped up between rowdy wine bars and cheerful Mexican joints; needless to say, the struggle to hunt down this hidden ground floor 12-seater restaurant was real.
I arrive, flustered, with a furtive grimace that reflected my distaste for sticky humid situations. Thankfully, Sushi Chiharu was quick to fix that. The sliding doors opened up to an unassuming long dining room that focused on light-tinged wood, there is a therapeutic aroma of Gingko wood in the air and a warm towel is called to your attention.
The world is now a better place.
Dinner commences like a theatre act with the dimming of the lights preparing its audience for the projection of the opening scene: there was Kabocha Suri Nagashi, a genial brew of pumpkin brew and capsicum grounded with faint notes of red miso. It’s about as intimate as a hug can get. Next, a tiny bowl of Conger Pike Eel stewed in Kombu dashi is nudged across the table—I can’t say I’m the biggest fan of its spiky nature, quite similar to the texture reaped from chicken cartilage which leaves a sick crunch at the back of the throat; however the interception of yuzu jelly and shisho leaf made up for those indifferences. In the face of my depreciation, I blame my ignoble tastebuds and I clean out the bowl nonetheless.
Some menus are the product of accidents, some are seasonal by chance, shaped in response to the environment and its provided abundance. Tonight, we salivate as Chef Issei tends to two hunks of ruby red fish, the Maguro (Tuna) and Red Snapper which he proceeds to smoke gently over white charcoal—it doesn’t take more than a quick dip through aged soy to underscore its merits. A sturdy exterior reveals dainty and delicate interiors which take less than 20 seconds to disappear off the dish, much to your dismay. But the chef is quick to pick up the pace with the Torched Hokkaido Crab; a thick sheath of egg coagulated with vinegar perking up the bed of sweet crab meat.
So far, the appetisers have been thrilling. But what you’re really here for is the sushi. And before you get overwhelmed by the cypress wood box and all its dazzling contents (like I did), understand that Sushi Chiharu is a restaurant that specialises in Edomae Sushi, a tradition that spans over 150 years during the Japanese Edo Period (1603 to 1868). Here’s the lowdown, the resultant cultural boom in that era of Japanese history encouraged ‘fast-food practices’, which translated to fish being simmered in broth and cured in salt and vinegar, all in a bit to avoid food spoilage due to the non-existence of refrigeration systems. And despite the general evolution rendering some of these old school techniques obsolete, Edomae Sushi proves to be borderless in its ability to influence food snobs and the passionate cultivists likewise.
You might want to prepare your cameras for this, each and every lacquered morsel, an Instagram bear trap. You’ll start off with the Ika (Squid) which curls at the tips perceptibly with the light squirt of the sudachi lime, the light touch of squid ink salt, a feisty slap in its entirety. This is grounded by a gently moulded mound of Haenuki rice that is well regarded for its unparalleled softness—this is cooked with kombu, rice vinegar and a touch of salt and sugar. It’s understandable why soy sauce is not provided table side—all the seasoning work has been done for you. A whole entourage of sushi is presented to you, and you greet it with starry eyes. Eat it with your fingers, and as quickly as possible so as to avoid the slightest chance of heat temperance, then again patience is not an innate skill of mine. There’s the flounder, then the Zuke Maguro, pickled raw tuna that has been given a quick ‘pick-me-up’ with piquant Japanese mustard.
As far as sushi preparations go, nothing is quite so ordinary here. Kampachi is sliced up and released into a shallow dish of clear liquid. When questioned, the chef explains to the Japanese waitress, “it’s a mix of white soy sauce and ginger which gives the fish more elasticity”. The oily fish springs back with a defiant resistance, enveloping your palate in sensations you never fathom possible from this humble fish. Despite the broad appeal of sardine, the next one is a mixed bag of emotion, mostly due to my heartfelt dissonance with the fish. However, gently slit to hide nubs of ginger and ponzu sauce, I relished it, only for the briefest of moments. I could only be grateful that the excursion hadn’t reached the end yet, with the best, Kisu, Rockfish and the final star of the show, Maguro to seal the deal.
After having 17 courses, there’s no debating whether there is extra room to stomach the final treasure that is in front of you. But if it’s any clue at all, ‘good things are worth waiting for’, and this my friends, I would have staked out an entire week of carb-free diet just to wrap my lips around. As Chef Issei gently wraps the rice mound in freeze-dried seaweed wrap, you watch in awe, enraptured even as he elegantly lifts cured tuna with precision into its warm laps.
The meal is laid to rest quietly with a sweet interception of Japanese rockmelon. It’s neither flashy nor is it a statement about the Japanese craftsmanship. And honestly, it says a lot about the state of affairs here—quiet confidence closely guarded by immaculate knife skills and the respect for culture. Despite Chef Issei’s tender age of 21, you’re in the best hands, a graduate of the Insyokujin college and a successful applicator of the overseas exchange programme in Sushi Chiharu’s outpost in Singapore. Makes you wonder: real talent doesn’t have an age limit.
45A Cuppage Rd, Singapore 229464, +65 9101 3407