Despite a dingy facade and racy associations, Orchard Road’s Cuppage Plaza hides a Japanese gastronomic haven.
Opened in 1887, Ginza Yoshino Sushi in Tokyo’s Ginza district has been helmed by four generations of one family, the latest being chef Tokio Endo. It survived the Great Kanto earthquake of 1923 and gentrification of the district, and counts members of the royal family and famous Kabuki actors as regulars.
But business sense outweighed sentiment. Aided by an investor, Endo closed shop and moved to Singapore in June this year, maintaining its petite size with 11 counter seats. Yet, unlike restaurants of similar calibre that have found home at upscale locations, he opened shop at Cuppage Plaza, an old shopping complex tucked behind the bustling Orchard Road stretch. It is one of three Japanese restaurants, alongside Kappo Shunsui and 999.99 (Five Nines), to open at the secluded mall this year.
“I’m not used to the environment yet,” admits Endo, as he presents me with an ornate porcelain bowl – an appetiser with a thick cut of maguro, warm onion puree, and a dab of wasabi. As I eat, he picks out seasonal seafood at the counter, swiftly slicing then displaying them on a platter made by a master ceramist.
From the welcome banner, to importing Japanese produce twice weekly, he is trying his best to re-create the feel and quality of the Tokyo original. But that was at street level, while the new iteration occupies the topmost, and quietest, floor of the mall. The silence is, on occasion, punctuated by giggles from the Japanese karaoke lounge nearby. Unsurprisingly, the location is thus proving to be the hardest for Endo to adjust to.
Throughout its 34 years, Cuppage Plaza has earned a reputation as a breeding ground for vice, its name vilified by images of karaoke hostesses clad in nylon kimonos, and women bound in tight dresses, parading around the building. Its seedy image, however, is merely half the picture. In its midst is a lesser-known haven of gastronomic sanctuaries that many a Japanese expat have come to patronise. Some restaurants, ranging from sushi to kaiseki, have made themselves comfortable at the mall for more than a decade.
Endo’s investor, Hiroshi Arahari, found respite in Cuppage Plaza when he first came to Singapore in 1994. “Already at that time, it was called Little Tokyo,” recalls the managing director of a Japanese food wholesale company. “It’s the one place where you would find so many Japanese in the building.” Even for the building’s proprietor, it is difficult to determine which came first – the gourmet hideaways or the racy pubs – but it was a convenient spot for the Japanese to unwind after work. The building, untouched by Singapore’s aggressive renovations, sticks out like an anachronistic sore thumb. That’s the appeal, he points out. “They don’t want to go to a crowded shopping mall. This is a familiar place – the structures haven’t changed for a long time and Japanese like nostalgia.” It’s something some restaurants, whether deliberate or coincidental, abide by with their interiors. Consider 12-year-old Nagomi Restaurant; its dark decor and traditional style seating make one feel like it’s the setting of an ’80s Japanese soap opera. While the building is old, it is one of the things that makes it unique, concurs chef-owner Nada Satoru. After the space was vacated by a restaurant in 2005, Satoru stepped in to open the 25-seater izakaya and quit his job as a chef at a 200-seater fine-dining Japanese restaurant in Melbourne. “Other than just coming for drinks or bites, Japanese bring their clients here for business meetings too,” he adds.
If there’s a theme among the restaurants, apart from the type of cuisine, it is their bold claim to deliver “true Japanese standards”. Keeping to this, many Cuppage Plaza restaurants stick to importing produce on a regular basis to ensure a consistent supply of fresh ingredients. The effort does pay off with a loyal patronage of Japanese, who take nationalistic pride in their cuisine – adding credence to the location as a taste of home five thousand kilometres away.
“Restaurants here get to concentrate on authenticity more than at other locations,” Arahari adds. He owns another Japanese restaurant in a more prominent location along Orchard Road that sees more Singaporean diners, which has adapted its food according to its clientele’s tastes. Ginza Yoshino, on the other hand, serves Edomae sushi where fish is marinated or preserved using traditional techniques and vinegared rice – Arahari’s definition of “true Japanese standards” – a style that the Japanese diners at Cuppage Plaza are more familiar with.
While the dining crowd is predominantly Japanese, Cuppage Plaza has been seeing growing patronage by local diners. “When salary men come here to socialise with their colleagues, they would sometimes bring with them Singaporeans,” Satoru says. “The locals who come here are usually quite fascinated and they would come here again with their Japanese colleagues or their own friends and family.”
Late closing hours have also made the mall a go-to for chefs on the lookout for a quick supper. Tomo Watanabe, executive chef of six-month old restaurant Kappo Shunsui, counts chefs at Shinji by Kanesaka, Hashida, and Ki-sho as patrons. Kappo Shunsui closes at 2.30am, though the fact that it is concealed behind a fingerprint scanner means business is got mainly by word of mouth. Watanabe hopes to create an enclosed environment for diners to feel comfortable, away from the mall’s other ongoing activities. Nonetheless, in an effort to attract more customers, Watanabe has reached out to the media, and a helpful plug on Instagram by Corner House’s chef Jason Tan have also boosted notice of the hidden 19-seat diner.
For Watanabe, coming to Cuppage Plaza was an opportunity not to be missed.He had closed his Bib Gourmand restaurant in Tokyo, Shunsui, in hopes of achieving a Michelin star in Singapore. But one of the difficulties he has to overcome first (apart from getting fresh seafood in an import-strict country) is language. He explains, with the help of his English-speaking restaurant manager, that he wants to explain the dishes and the process that goes behind them but it has been difficult.
While the restaurant manager does his best to explain when he can, Watanabe is trying to learn as half of his customers are Singaporean. At the restaurant, the Japanese tend to order a la carte items, while local diners take up the pricier omakase menus.Being able to speak English was one of the reasons that convinced Ginza Yoshino Sushi to come to Singapore, according to Endo. He had worked in Las Vegas before and holds a fair grasp of English, giving him an edge when communicating with local diners. It is a crucial market to reach out to, especially so in August when most Japanese expats go back home for the holidays and restaurants become quieter than usual, he notes.
Restaurants are also depending on a local and foreign-based service team as a conduit for explaining dishes or including translations in a menu full of Japanese text. Nagomi’s Satoru is more insistent on a menu with only Japanese text to keep things familiar for Japanese diners, though he reasons that he or his staff will take the effort to explain the menu to Singaporeans and other non-Japanese diners.
“Things definitely have changed in Singapore,” Arahari reflects. “Quality of Japanese restaurants here are much higher than 20 years before, and they offer more than just sushi.Singaporeans now are also more aware of what the true Japanese standard is.“Even if the rental here is high, this place is still special. I would not choose any other place other than Cuppage Plaza to open my restaurant.”