Cast Iron: The Art of Aging Fish
So, I’m declaring a love interest. Just understand that this epochal experience came when I least expected it; and if it didn’t strike me as either revolting or paradisiacal, I wouldn’t be reviewing it today. If this sudden outburst of euphoria disturbs you, stop reading now, another more placid review will come along next week.
My latest Japanese crush: Cast Iron—a sizeable outfit in DUO galleria bringing a nerdy approach to the artistry of aged fish and dispatching a variety of treats from sushi and sashimi to robatayaki grilled meats. One would have to look past the superficial first glance in order to develop romantic notions—cavernous interiors decked out in black and dark wood finishings and cheap wooden blinds—a superfluous design detail that did nothing to champion the lavish options on the menu such as the $380 Sashimi platter or the “Tetsu-ryū” Omakase ($180) that I am about to embark on. To understand the cause of my infatuation, I would advise you to settle into your night with a bottle of sake (they are well-stocked), or a weighted Pouilly Fussé. God forbid you aren’t able to wax lyrical about this captivating experience at the end of a sober night. After all, a drunk mind speaks a sober heart (or palate), doesn’t it?
I proceeded in an attempt to lower my personal inhibitions with the Takumi Daiginjo—a pour that exudes finesse in the form of earthy-toned silky smoothness and an astringent citrus finish. Seated squarely in front of the chef’s workstation, one exquisite course after another snakes its way across the dining room and later, across service counters with rapacious fat fingers. The gluttonous excursion through the various prefectures of Japan begins with the textbook silhouette of an oyster, hailing from Saga prefecture. It’s firm. It’s very salty (the kitchen cooks it via sous-vide in seawater). Despite its deft execution and good intentions, this left a bad taste in my mouth. I washed this down with fervent gulps of ice water, oblivious to the fact that this served to commemorate the inception of the great discovery of ageing fish.
The next course of Sashimi platter is meekly introduced, the chef directing our gaze with the guidance of deadly sharp long chopsticks. Slices of Otoro webbed with translucent wisps of fats are perched beside a white-fanning-into-sunset-red slice of Akagai (ark clam). Surveying the platter, a general left-to-right glance will reveal a splendid showing of shima aji (striped jack), Kanpachi (Amberjack), Mackerel and Whelks slow-cooked in sauce till achingly tender. There was nothing to fault here. I worked through the tangles at a measured pace so as to prolong its fleeting luxuries, whilst being drawn to the wall of gleaming perfectly sharpened knives displayed against the kitchen, a tell-tale sign of the chef’s fastidious attention to choosing (and maintaining) their weapons of choice.
“If you hear someone at a sushi restaurant comment on how the fish tastes very fresh, there’s a good chance that person is a sushi novice,” proclaimed Head Chef Anson Lim. I must admit to turning a beetroot shade of red and the next ten minutes of enlightening brought me to a halting discovery of my negligence on the practice of ageing fish for raw consumption.
From sea to table? For sushi cognoscenti, that would be a travesty. The truth is, most of the fish we consume in a legitimate sushi restaurant has been aged to a certain degree, either in-house or by the suppliers. Certain types of fish are refrigerated and aged to enhance its texture and taste, almost akin to dry-ageing steaks for flavour and tenderness. By maintaining close relations with their fishermen, Cast Iron chefs get a better understanding of the state of the fish at death (line-caught, bruising, trauma, etc) and hence are able to deduce the extent of ageing that is required. Under strictly controlled environments, fish proteins release MSG and develop umami and flavour via osmotic pressures—resulting in the glorious platter of Sashimi set before you.
Next up for scrutiny was a modest piece of Kinki fish beautifully embellished with a charred top and a sweet earthy integrity due to marination in red miso. It paved the way for the next course to shine. The Kagoshima wagyu beef finished on gaucho grill and flanked by pickled radish, provide brief moments of respite for the palate in between fat-laced bites. The technicality displayed is riveting: a passionate albeit brief fiery kiss from the grill is all that is needed to implement a ‘crust’ without melting the treasured fats from its stringently rationed cross sections. And the chefs here handle it with the expertise of a millionaire’s matchmaker. The result is immaculate. At this stage, the pedestrian interior of Cast Iron starts to fade away in favour of the deft precision of its fare.
So far, so good. However, the truth is that the cooked courses, terrific though they are, really exist as a prelude to the real reason Cast Iron is so special. And that, of course, is the sushi. Rolling up his sleeves, Chef Luke Jee skilfully coaxes rice into minuscule pillows before rolling slices of carefully sliced up fish over its top. After what seems like a couple of artful tips and flips, followed by a light touch of aged soy sauce, these gleaming packages are summoned to your attention—much like a teasing courtesan—and you approach with lust and wonderment.
Foreplay starts off with the Japanese Tiger Prawn sushi; it’s turgid to the bite, a sign of ageing in the act. Pleasures takes the form of raised eyebrows. You’re intrigued. Red Snapper follows swiftly, then Saba succeeds. It’s gently scored surface providing crevices for the in-house aged soy to seek resting grounds, only to implode on the palate with a resounding noise. Horse Mackerel which would usually pose a challenge has had its strong fishy tones dulled to a gentle hum. You reach out and swipe the morsel off the counter straight into your mouth for fear of the cool package disintegrating owing to its loosely packed structure. It melts instantly in your mouth, with hints of vinegar and the milky creaminess of rice kernels still in tact, like a warm hug.
Things pick up, as the Akami in shoyu graces your lips. It inspires the truth that something so humble and often relegated to commonplace nature, can be lifted to stardom with plenty of heart, soul and dedication. Fatty slices of Otoro may be vying for the top spot, but we think the Black Throat Fish well laced with yuzu koshu wins by a smidge. The sushi course concludes with a proud and deliberate showcase of summer Aka and Bafun Uni—blame it on my ill disposition towards sea urchin, but this wasn’t quite the ‘happy ending’ I was seeking out. Still, with the happy-go-lucky endorphins racing through my body, I was in heaven.
And then there we were, suckling on sweet and sticky musk melon that attempted to take us on whimsical magic carpet rides while engaging to the weighty tune of polite (educational) conversation, part condescending and part awed: it was too much for us. If you think you’re headed to Cast Iron for a plebeian Japanese meal, think again, this unsuspecting star of a restaurant will get you schooled.
7 Fraser Street, Duo Galleria, 01-32/33, 6581 0159