PL and I have a few fave restaurants.
Big Bern’s (formerly known as BJ American Diner & Grill) at Balestier is a fave cos of the Frozen Margaritas, the weekend brunch, and the Black Angus Steaks.
We go to Ayam Penyet Ria for the Ayam Penyet and the extra spicy sambal. We used to go quite regularly before we got married, cos there was a branch at Bedok Point which was in her neighbourhood. We’d end up there on Sunday evenings, and every other week we would eat there. Later, she discovered Soto Ayam which became her favourite order there. After we got married (and she moved in), we didn’t have the opportunity like we used to. (We ate at Big Bern’s more often.)
Brauhaus at United Square is more my fave than hers. I go there for the pork knuckles, and for a wide range of beers. She might take a cider. And well, yeah. She likes the pork knuckle too. But there is only so many times a year I will allow myself pork knuckles, so we don’t go there often.
Nanbantei at Far East Plaza is another favourite and a special place. This restaurant for “Southern Barbarians” (That’s what Nan Ban Tei means) is a Japanese restaurant whose specialty is Kushiyaki – grilled food on a stick/skewer. Asparagus wrapped in bacon (Asparagus-maki) is one of the specialty. Their appeal is simple. Wrap everything in bacon (or pork belly slices) and grill them. Instant hit! I also like their yaki-onigiri, which in line with their kushiyaki theme, is also on a stick/skewer. Charred on the outside, it is like claypot rice but without the claypot.
But for very very very special occasions, my new favourite place is Akanoya.
We brought my brother, his wife/my sister-in-law, their daughter/my god-daughter, and my mom to celebrate my s-i-l’s birthday there recently. My s-i-l said it best: “This feels so authentic! Like we are in Japan!”
Akanoya is a noisy place. A happy, noisy, place.
But first I need to explain what a robatayaki is.
The robatayaki is based on the tradition (?) or custom (?) or myth (?) of the fisherman, coming back after a day’s fishing with literally the catch of the day. Pulling his boat up on the beach, he picks a spot to lay out his catch. Then he digs a fire pit behind the laid out catch, and starts a fire and sets up his grill. The villagers or customers come by for dinner. They point and pick out their selection of the fisherman’s catch and the fisherman-turned-cook/chef, grills the catch on the fire pit. When it is done, he plates it, and then because he is kneeling behind the fire pit, and in front of the fire pit is the laid out catch, and in front of the laid out catch is the customer/diner, quite a distance away, he puts the plated food on the flat of his oar, and extends the food to the diner.
So when you go to Akanoya, the first thing you will see is that there are 3 large tables with seats along three sides (about 20 seats per table along 3 sides). In the centre of these tables are the various “catch of the day” – Crab legs, oysters, scallops, prawns, fish, but also vegetables like potatoes, corn, garlic, asparagus, brinjal, peppers, and also non-seafood like beef, pork, and chicken.
Hidden behind the food is the grill or firepit (or BBQ grill). And behind that are the “chefs”. There are two at each table (so 6 altogether) and while they are on raised platform, they are kneeling throughout the night (yes, they are Japanese and they are used to kneeling for long periods of time, but you try kneeling for 6 hours at a stretch) as they cook your meals. The chefs at each table may help each other with the order, but generally they have their designated side to serve.
So you sit down at the table/counter and appraise the “Catch of the day”. There is no menu (except for the drinks menu). The waiter will take your order (they can speak English) as you point out your selection or requests. If you can’t see something you want, you can ask the waiter. If you were Japanese, or if this were in Japan, you would be shouting your order to the chef directly, but since you can’t speak Japanese, the waiter orders on your behalf. When he has your order, he will shout your order to the chef, who will shout back his acknowledgement (actually all the chefs will acknowledge which makes for a noisy, rowdy, but cheerful environment).
Most of the food is grilled, but in a nod to modernity (and balanced meals) some are steamed. Also there are meat and vegetables. I do not know if traditionally, the fisherman would grill/cook non-seafood or food they did not catch, but at Akanoya, there is a range of seafood, meat, and vegetables.
Before you order anything, the staff will put some appetisers before you. The Otoshi is whatever special appetisers the kitchen has prepared and it is often a pleasant surprise to see what the kitchen has wrought. That evening it was potato wedges in a sweet sauce. Just 3 wedges to whet your appetite.
But my real appetiser is Kawa Hagi. At Nanbantei it was translated as “File fish”. Maybe it was a typo and they meant “Filet fish”. I can’t be sure, but I have had it at Akanoya, so I asked for it by name (“Kawa Hagi”). It is a dried, flat fish, a little like dried cuttlefish, which is grilled, and cut into strips, and served with mayonnaise. I thought it was crisper the other times we had it. It was more chewy this time. But my guests liked it.
We had mixed mushrooms – Enoki, Shiitake, and Maitake. They were sliced, mixed, and wrapped in three tinfoil bags with some water, salt, and butter, then tossed onto the grill. I liked the enoki and the shiitake. Not so hot for the maitake. I believe they sometimes have an “emperor” mushroom which was really good. I don’t know the name. I like that. But they don’t seem to have it often.
Butabara – I believe it is grilled pork shoulders (shoulder butt?) on skewers. And then yaki-onigiri (grilled rice balls). The ones here are small triangles brushed or infused with some sauce. My brother likes it so he gets a second helping. He also asked for brinjal (“Nasu”) and onions. I pointed at the small onions in front of me and the waiter told me that they had big sweet ones, so I ordered that.
I dunno how they prepare the small ones, but the large onions (“Amatama Negi”) are peeled, sliced into quarters, skewered, probably sprinkled with salt, and then grilled.
The result is a sweet, juicy, lightly charred and slightly smokey onion. It was prepared simply, but it tasted AWESOME! OK, probably not AWESOME, but it was pretty darn good!
We had potatoes (“Jyaga Imo” – steamed, peeled, grilled, buttered and salted), again awesomely good. And sweet potatoes (“Satsumaimo”). The sweet potatoes were good, but I have to say the potatoes (with BUTTER!) stole the show.
Tontoro Kushi is, I believe, pork belly skewers. It was charred, smokey, juicy, sometimes crispy, and full of flavour. But the reason I keep going back to Akanoya is the Omi Gyu – I don’t know if it is Wa Gyu beef, but it is the most tender, the most juicy, and the best beef I have eaten. Better than specialty steakhouse’s steaks even.
For seafood, we had the crab legs (I think it’s called “Taraba”), and scallop (“Hotate”). My mom and my s-i-l LOVED the scallop. The juice was so sweet, my mom and PL slurped it up after eating the scallop. My s-i-l was distracted for a while and the waiter cleared her scallop shell (with still a few teaspoons of juice/soup in it!) before she noticed and could protest.
I think my mom liked the place. She wanted to bring friends. I told her to expect to pay about $150 to $200 per person, depending on what is ordered.
I don’t usually order fish at Akanoya cos they tend to be expensive. The first time I ordered one, it came up to about $75 for the fish, which while good, did not impress. It was after all fish. But then again, maybe I should give it another try. Maybe I had a sub-standard fish that first time I tried. My reluctance is because for the price of a fish I could have two Omi Gyu. Which I REALLY love. 🙂
The Hotate was good this time round, but the last time we ordered it, the juice/soup was a little bitter. So results can vary. I do not know if it is the food, or the skill of the chef. If you think about it, the chef have to know how to grill beef, pork, fish, vegetables, seafood, and they work alone, in full view of the customers, and while kneeling. That said, most of the food they grill or prepare is pretty darn good.
The other custom at Akanoya (and other robatayaki?) is the practice of thanking the patrons. At about 8:30, I heard one of the staff call out for the “ceremony”. I leaned to my s-i-l and told her “Happy Birthday. This is for you.”
The the head chef called out the signal, the staff raised their hands to shoulder height and encouraged the patrons to do the same, and with verbal cues, the staff began the clapping ceremony. The patrons gamely followed (because it is only clapping and we are social animals after all). Clapping to some rhythm, punctuated with cheers or shouts, the staff was thanking the patrons for their custom.
My s-i-l asked me what it was about. I told her the whole restaurant was wishing her Happy Birthday Japanese style.
She let me believe that she believed it for a while. 🙂
I called for the bill, and the staff provided dessert – honeydew melon and some sweet ball (“Kudamono” or fruit). They presented me with the bill, it was as I expected, and I handed over my credit card. My mom asked why I didn’t check the bill item by item. I told her I trusted them, but the real reason is, as long as the bill was within my expectations (between $150 – $200 per person), I would not want to quibble.
And we had a good time. And as always, I left the place feeling very happy. Because I had a chance to share this unique place with my family.
But if you are still reading, you are probably interested in how much would it all cost. So here are the details.
It was about $155 per person for the 6 of us. Including tax 7% and service charge 10%.
The most expensive individual item was the Taraba (crab legs) at $75 per order (I ordered 2 for the 6 of us to share)
The most expensive group order was the Omi Gyu at $40 per order for 6 orders.
Yaki-Onigiri was the cheapest item at $4 each.
Pork (Butabara & Tontoro Kushi) was $8 each.
The pork skewers were cheaper than the Amatama Negi (Onion) which were $10 each. Same with the Brinjal.
Potatoes, and Sweet Potatoes, $12 per order.
The Hotate (scallops) were $30 each. I should have ordered another one to replace the “lost juice/soup”, but my s-i-l said she was full. I think.
Kirin Beer was $9, and Fuji ice water was $6. Drink beer, not water. Hot tea was free (they didn’t charge for it). Drink tea. It’s free.
Note also that they will serve you otoshi and kudamono automatically because that is the custom. $4 and $8 each, respectively.