Pumpkin under Snow. If there ever was a dish that evoked the feel of a Chinese painting, this might be it. The ethereal egg white is so light it floats like clouds above the lake of pumpkin puree. The sweetness of the pumpkin is juxtaposed with the savoury highlights of an exceptional broth. I was immediately piqued and had to ask, "What is in that stock?"
It seemed the judges at the inaugural Washoku World Challenge in Tokyo had asked the same question. This is the acclaimed dish that won Chef Santaro Li top honours at the competition.
With over 40 years of experience, Chef Li or Li-san deserves his repute as a ryori-jin or masterchef, someone who has perfected his skills in all aspects of Japanese cooking (sushi, grilling, boiling, stewing, etc). Li-san who came to Singapore from Guangzhou many years ago, is now one of Singapore's forefathers of Japanese cuisine.
He trained with Japan's first Iron Chef Michiba Rokusaburo, worked in Ritz-Carlton Hong Kong, as well as Fort Canning Country Club and Nogawa locally. Many of us remember his own Santaro restaurant, where he served many luminaries and dignitaries.
While he is classically trained, he remains very open to using non-traditional ingredients like foie gras. Li-san can come up with numerous creations on the spot, focusing on the harmony of flavours.
Trio of Appetiser (S$18)
From left to right: Shirako (fish milt); Century egg tofu; and Sujiko (salmon roe, salted and marinated while still in the sac)
The appetisers may change according to season. I also realised this one is a whole platter of reproductive items - sperm and eggs. Funny.
Sashimi platter (S$60 includes toro, but this one comprises baigai or sea snail, scallop, hamachi, tai, and salmon belly)
The sashimi is pleasantly fresh, succulent and sweet. This is one of the highlights here. We were very tickled by the sushi chefs painstakingly moulding a wasabi snowman.
Takenoko (Winter Bamboo Shoot) S$12
The bamboo shoot has been boiled and poached in its skin along with rice husks for six hours in 90-98 deg C water. The result? There's no more musky bamboo smell! It's then grilled with white miso paste. Clean-tasting and delicious.
Sea Bream with Foie Gras (S$25)
This is one of Li-san's more artful creations.
The pink pickled giant radish unfolds to reveal the sea bream rolled around the foie gras like a maki. The taste combination is amazing. Even my friend who does not like foie gras loved this.
Sushi (S$60 including toro)
Foie gras makes another appearance here, laid atop the shrimp and given an aburi treatment. Pop the whole thing in your mouth while it's warm, and enjoy the "oh my god" moment. I also love the maki with aji, wasabi, pickles and truffle oil - ridiculously delicious. Oh, how I wanted more.
Ice cream (S$6 per scoop)
The quintessential flavours of goma (black sesame) and yuzu make the perfect cap to a lovely meal. The natural flavours get to shine through because they are not too sweet.
Hinoki has an 18-seater sushi counter where you can watch the chefs in action.
But the best thing is to see Li-san himself coming around to serve you and chat with you. You can read about his fascinating life story (and see more delicious photos) in other blogs; I won't duplicate it here.
SANTARO @ HINOKI
22 Cross Street
#01-50/53 China Square Central
Tel: +65 6536-7746
Opening Hours: 11:30am to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm