The advent of spring in Japan brings to mind the season’s bounty – the grass-like whiff of bamboo shoots and the brief appearance of the high elusive firefly squid. As the season evolves, so does its string of edible treasures, not least the joys of charcoal grilled sweet ayu and the eyebrow-raising knifework cuts on hamo, both fixtures on kyo-kaiseki menus in Kyoto.
Thankfully for us, these veritable spring pleasures (and more) can be savoured right here in Singapore within the zen confines of Ki-sho at Scotts Road, where Kyoto-born Resident Chef, Kazuhiro Hamamoto, serves his modern take on kaiseki from across a 11-seat kappo counter.
A champion of seasonal Japanese produce, Hamamoto trained in kaiseki institutions the likes of the three Michelin-starred Kichisen, Kyoto, before he left for Singapore where he cut his teeth at the two Michelin-starred Waku Ghin. At Ki-sho, he marries his profound respect for Japanese seasonality with a keen mastery in Japanese cooking techniques.
To savour the best that the season has to offer, we recommend the omakase – dinner starts at $300++ for eight courses (including five pieces of nigiri sushi), $450++ for 10 courses (including 10 pieces of nigiri sushi). With Hamamoto at the helm, you’re assured of first rate seasonal ingredients, arguably some of the best you can find amongst Japanese eateries in Singapore, served at the prime of the season.
Perhaps nothing symbolizes Japanese spring time better than juicy hotaru-ika (firefly squid), a delicacy available for a period of about 1.5 months each year. Hamamoto prepares the glow-in-the-dark squid from Kagawa two ways. First, he poaches it and serves it with penshell, ikura, a stump of white asparagus and spring vegetables in a tangy egg yolk sauce spiked with vinegar and sake. To highlight how fresh and plump the squid is, he also serves the degutted squid raw with nothing but shoyu and a hint of sugar so that nothing gets in the way in your appreciation of the squid – its lusciousness and succulence.
For others though, takenoko or bamboo shoot is the epitome of spring. A varietal from the grass family, this fast growing plant (known to grow 90cm a day) grows from underground rhizome and is cut at the base just as the shoot surfaces from the ground. Hamamoto buys this season’s bamboo shoot fresh from Fukuoka, boils it in rice husk for 2 hours so that its flesh softens to a firm and crisp crunch, smokes it on a charcoal grill and serves it simply with nothing but garnishes of kinome, a tiny Japanese herb big on refreshing mint-peppery flavour. It’s simple, yes, but eating the season does not get better than this, when nothing except the lick of bincho flame is allowed to interfere with the sheerness of the produce.
Instead of dishing out a dashi broth, Hamamoto serves the fruits of spring in a broth – pureed usui mame peas blitzed with mildly peppery sansho flowers, in season for two mere weeks. This is served as a mildly flavoured broth, refreshing as it is, on a blanket of egg custard topped with bits of Japanese mountain sprouts for texture. If this does not conjure up the exuberance of spring, what will?
A Japanese meal is incomplete without a serving of uni. Unbeknownst to most diners, Hamamoto is an “uni purveyor” with a strong network of relationships with Japanese uni mongers, wholesalers and middlemen. By virtue of this, he gets access to first-rate quality and often pricey uni that he uses diligently for different dishes throughout the omakase. Bafun uni from Rausu, best savoured in spring, arrives by way of his signature opening uni caviar dish. For the drunken botan ebi with caviar course, he serves ensui bafun uni from Hamanaka. The same ensui uni also arrives at the finale with folds of Kagoshima wagyu and shavings of black truffle. During the sushi course, he serves a trio of uni sushi – one topped with aka uni from Kagoshima, one with Murasaki uni from Hokkaido and one topped with Murasaki uni from Aomori. While satifying diners’ gustatory pleasure, Hamamoto also displays how adept he is at sourcing first rate uni including the sought-after No.1 rated Higashizawa Murasaki (No.1 is the highest grade accorded to the best quality uni of the day at Tsukiji market), which he serves during the sushi course.
Yes, Hamamoto serves a parade of sushi for the rice course. For the shari, he uses a mixture of three different types of rice, and for the neta, he sometimes prefers to age the fish so as to bring out its umami. Kinmedai, for example, is aged for 10 days before Hamamoto slices it and serves it as a sushi; same for the otoro from a 430kg fish from Chiba, in season for just a month, which Hamamoto ages for a month. But sakura-masu (sakura trout), in season only from end March to April, is served as it is atop a parcel of rice, as is the refreshingly crunchy torigai (Japanese cockle) that arrives with a squeeze of lemon juice.
Hamamoto says that spring is his favourite season to showcase the produce that Japan has in store. We don’t disagree but we reckon that with such pristine edible treasures in spring, Ki-sho might just be one of the compelling spots in Singapore to savour the best that Japanese spring has to offer. Don’t even get us started on its array of transcendental sake and Royal Blue Tea.
29 Scotts Road, Singapore 228 224; +65-6733 5251; ki-sho.com.sg