Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Zento Contemporary Japanese Cuisine

Tuna Pizza
Much has been said about Zento, the contemporary Japanese restaurant helmed by Chef Gunawan Wibisono, who trained for a year under Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto. Many rave about Zento's reinvigorating take on Japanese food, using unusual ingredients and cooking techniques.

The Tuna Pizza (S$22), for example, uses a crisp tortilla as a base. It's topped with spicy tuna (made spicy by a mayo-based sauce), cilantro, tomatoes and sweetish hiyashi wakame (cold seaweed). As a snack, it's light and tasty. If you like skinny pizzas, this might appeal to you too.

Rock Shrimp Tempura, served with spicy kochujan aioli
Rock Shrimp Tempura (S$15), served with spicy kochujan aioli. Some Asians may find the spicy sauce too familiar, but I totally loved this Nobu-inspired dish. The rock shrimp are small but sweet like lobsters. They're imported from Japan, if I remember correctly.

Carpaccio of Hokkaido Scallop - topped with ginger, garlic, yuzu sauce, mitsuba leaf, and doused with hot grapeseed oil
Carpaccio of Hokkaido Scallop (S$25) - topped with ginger, garlic, yuzu sauce, mitsuba leaf, and doused liberally with hot grapeseed oil. The thinly sliced scallops are effectively half-cooked using this method. The savoury and gently tangy sauces bring out the sweetness of the scallops.

Toppings Sushi, not on the menu
Toppings Sushi, not on the menu, is about S$30. This is one of those "hidden" chef specials you can ask for. Zento is experimenting with various premium toppings. Here, we have (front to back, in the order that they are to be eaten) grilled foie gras, aburi salmon belly with tomato, and wagyu beef. The salmon belly is my favourite - so creamy and rich, it will bring you to nirvana (at least for a few moments).

Soy Paper Handrolls - Cunchy Spicy Tuna with Avocado
Soy Paper Handrolls - Crunchy Spicy Tuna with Avocado (S$12 each). Soy paper is something we have just never seen in Singapore. It's soft yet strong, chewy yet quickly solvent. The taste calls to mind "yuba" or sheets of beancurd skim (well it's soy, after all). The crunchy bits you see are specially prepared fried tempura batter. They provide most of the structure in these rolls.

The Happiness Platter - five sushi rolls
Voila! This is what Zento is most famous for. Creatively delicious sushi rolls, five of them on one plate. We immediately dubbed this the "happiness platter"! (Note: they don't normally serve sushi rolls this way, this is just a spur of the moment decision to group all the rolls together).

Right in the middle is the Volcano futomaki (S$25). Shrimp tempura, smoked salmon, avocado, crabstick and masago in one deep-fried fat roll drizzled with mayo. Sounds sinful? Mmmh.

Flanking the Volcano roll is the Dragon Roll (S$22) - crunchy spicy tuna, eel, avocado and tobiko. Yet another luxurious roll, given its rich ingredients.

Riceless Maki - Mango Sashimi with three kinds of fish
On the other end of the spectrum, a very healthy Mango Sashimi Riceless Maki (S$25, quarter portion shown). Three kinds of fish get into bed with mango and avocado, and the ensemble is wrapped with rice paper. Like a Vietnamese roll. The fish is really fresh, and the roll looks so bright and colourful, but it is the most bland of all presented. Well, at least it's low-carb.

Monkey Roll (left) and Dragon Roll (right)
Close-ups of the Monkey Roll (left) and Dragon Roll (right). The Monkey Roll (S$25) is made of a spicy shrimp tempura topped with smoked salmon and avocado.

Yes, you are seeing a lot of common ingredients. That's something to take note of when choosing your rolls so you don't end up with items that taste too similar. There are other rolls with more unusual ingredients like asparagus, romaine heart, Alaskan crab, cream cheese, and plum paste. The Kanpachi Sotomaki even features jalapeno (listed as green chili in the menu).

The wasabi for the rolls is not the freshly grated type (you get that for sashimi and sushi). Dyana the Managing Director (and the chef's wife) explains that it's because the rolls use stronger-tasting ingredients, so wasabi paste will be more perceptible.

Best of the lot - Wagyu Beef sushi roll, topped with Gruyere cheese
And what's the best roll of the lot? Personally for me, it was the Wagyu Beef sushi roll (S$30, half portion shown) - shrimp tempura topped with a slice of grilled wagyu beef and Gruyere cheese. One of my top favourites here, along with the rock shrimp tempura and salmon belly topping sushi.

See the yellow pickled ginger? It's made inhouse. They brew their own soy sauce too.

Roasted Marinated Duck Breast, Zento's Style, served with foie gras and baby bokchoy and garlic rice
Roasted Marinated Duck Breast, Zento's Style (S$48), served with foie gras and baby bokchoy and garlic rice. I'm not a fan of duck, but this was tender and well-marinated.

Chilean Seabass, miso marinated and served with sauteed mushrooms and mashed green peas
Chilean Seabass, miso marinated and served with sauteed mushrooms and mashed green peas (S$45). The fish is beautifully buttery, with just a hint of miso.

Chocolate Lava Cake - freshly baked, and accompanied by vanilla ice cream and fruit
As you can see from the blurry photo, we took really hurried shots for the Chocolate Lava Cake (S$16). We wanted to eat it while it was still hot. Wow, this was good. The melted chocolate centre oozed out as it should. I would eat this again.

Tri-color Fuzzes Bomb
OK. I'm a kid. I love ice cream. I love deep-fried stuff. So deep-fried ice cream could not go wrong with me. Tri-color Fuzzes Bomb (S$14). I detected a vanilla ginger sauce too, drizzled over the fried batter - a nice touch.

Decor is modern, casual and chic. Look up onto the sloping roof to see art!
Zento is clearly not "just another Japanese restaurant". Even its decor is trendy modern chic. It's a good place to consider if you're jaded by traditional Japanese food, or if you like the American interpretation of sushi with liberal use of sauces and some deep-frying.

Dyana admits customers feel prices are a little on the high side, which I find to be true as well. But she explains Zento places great emphasis on fresh, quality ingredients and good produce doesn't come cheap. For example, the fish used in the sushi rolls are of the same top quality fish used for sashimi. It's not the unpresentable odds and ends that some chefs chop up and offload inside the rolls.

The only "traditional" bit is the sushi counter.
I really like the name "Zento" - it corresponds with the Chinese words "qian tu" meaning one's future. I sure hope Zento's future will be as bright and colourful as its creations.

They now have a 9-course Family Lunch (S$150++) and 12-course Family Dinner ($220++). Ladies Night is Tuesdays, where you get a 5-course menu with glass of champagne. Set lunches are also available ranging from S$18-55. They do delivery too! But then again food like sashimi and sushi is best eaten fresly prepared, or not at all.

Read about Chef Gunawan's interesting climb to success in Jaime Ee's Business Times article. For more blogger photos and reviews, check out ieatishootipost's review and Ladyironchef's review. Thanks to Dyana for hosting us (HungryCow and Aromacookery were there too).

Blk 18b Dempsey Road
Singapore 249677
Tel: 6474 0378

Open daily
Lunch 12.00 pm - 3.00 pm

Sunday - Thursday 6.00 pm - 10.00 pm
Friday - Saturday 6.00 pm - 11.00 pm


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. both you and julia blogged about this at the same time, with the same picture at the top hehe. i love the picture of the marinated duck breast, it looks so...artistic! of coz, all your other pics are so well taken too ;)

  3. The food looks absolutely delicious and the detail that goes into each dish is just amazing!

  4. We're so envious! All the food look so delicious! Must go there some time in the future to try it out! Especially the eel and avocado roll!

  5. haha all your photos look great! I went during dinner time, then that day was my first time trying out my flash, so most of my photos were bad. lol! yeah pricey but good stuff

  6. Evan: wah you're up early! Thanks, Zento's food presentation is very good, so that's why photos look nice.

    Katie: yes, it's a visual feast!

    SistaFood: haha, you seem to be unagi fans!

    LIC: Hey your photos were very good too. They looked very natural, despite the evening light!

  7. This place looks very expensive for food that looks somewhat uninspired, and not much different from what you can get at a typical Japanese restaurant or hotel buffet. Can't understand how this restaurant will survive with such high prices...$50 for just an entree and $30 for just one sushi roll? I'll be surprised this restaurant will still be in business 12 months from today.

  8. how much is the "happiness platter"?

  9. Anon: yeah, their pricing is a major issue. I've mentioned it above. The food certainly is better quality than buffet fodder and family restaurant fare. But pricing can really deter customers, especially in such a competitive dining scene.

    SF: ah sorry, I should have been clearer. The "happiness platter" is just a name we bloggers gave the plate when it showed up. They don't normally serve rolls this way, it was a spur of the moment decision to present all five rolls together. Certainly looks grand!

    I also realise I forgot to include the individual prices of some of the rolls. I'll edit now and put them in.

  10. Thank you for Catherine who takes a good picture and post our restaurant.
    I understand that pricing is a bit on the high side, but we are clearly not regular sushi place. We are more focus on our quality.

    If you guys would like an update regarding our promotion, you can go to our website at and also become our fans in face book under zento contemporary.

    You can also still enjoy the I eat Degustation menu, 10 course for $48/person, Minimum of 4 person.

    Thank you and hope to see you all.


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