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Why This Japanese Chef And Saké Sommelier Decided To Move His Business To Singapore

Chef Tomo Watanabe serves Kappo-style cuisine in his new restaurant in Cuppage Plaza, with a smooth, signless exterior that is conspicuously not interested in attracting passing trade.

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    SLIDESHOW: Tomo Watanabe helms Kappo Shunsui, a Kappo-style Japanese restaurant in Cuppage Plaza.

    When the opportunity to open a restaurant in Singapore came up, Tomo Watanabe jumped at the chance.

    Previously helming a restaurant in the posh Minami Azabu district of Tokyo, the trained architect turned chef relocated to the small city-state with his collection of ceramic saké cups in tow.

    He supposedly spent close to eight years and a fortune to amass one-of-a-kind creations, some sparkling like jewellery. They now line the kitchen cabinets of his new restaurant: Kappo Shunsui located in Singapore’s Cuppage Plaza.

    With just 19 seats, the hole-in-the-wall purveys an elite dining experience where everything, including the menu written daily in Japanese calligraphy by Watanabe himself, is thoughtfully packaged.

    Oddly, the restaurant can only be accessed via a biometric scanner, where all patrons will need their fingerprints registered for entry.

    “There are quite a few restaurants in Tokyo where walk-ins are not common-practice,” Watanabe explains. “It’s similar to a private dining concept, and you can only enter the restaurant if you know someone who has access.”

    We found that simply ringing the doorbell has the same result.

    To truly experience Watanabe’s amiability, sit at one of the 11 counter seats, where he will prep and serve his special eight- or ten-course omakase dinners. Evenings can begin with appetisers like snow crab and sea urchin with a bonito-flavoured rice vinegar dressing; and fish cake with clams in fragrant dashi. Dishes featuring produce from Oita, a coastal prefecture on Japan’s Kyushu Island, are top-notch, which may include the red snapper claypot rice and Watanabe’s finely steamed chawanmushi with Oita eggs, sea urchin and truffle caviar from Italy.

    Asked why he made the decision to uproot and leave his home country, where produce is easier to acquire, Watanabe answers: “I [wanted] to present my style of Kappo cuisine out of Japan.”

    Kappo is known to be super-casual, settling with the humble art of cutting and cooking. A variety of dishes— sliced raw, grilled, steamed, braised and deep fried — are prepared in close proximity to patrons, making it easier too for lively conversations between countertops and dining tables.

    He adds: “In my previous visits to Singapore, I observed that there hadn’t been a lot of knowledge about saké here. People tend to know only about the premium or well-known brands. I want to introduce more sake to people in Singapore.”

    A qualified kikisake-shi (saké sommelier), Watanabe places as much attention on his selection of sakés as he does his food. A testament to his passion for sake is a handmade copper pot, which he uses to heat up his sakés to the right drinking temperature. For the restaurant, he has curated a list of close to 100 labels of sakés, which are available in pairing-menus and even by the glass or by the bottle. There are also some rare bottles of sake from his private collection not listed on the menu which saké connoisseurs can ask him about.

    “Sharaku and Hiroki, both of which are from Fukushima, are my favourite brands of sakés. Hiroki was one of the earliest famed, sake breweries in Japan. They are known for their well-balanced saké: sweet, dry and fruity all at the same time. Sharaku on the other hand is a younger brewery, but it adopts and aims for the same style of saké that Hiroki produces,” Watanabe says.

    “I believe there will be increased awareness for saké and in the next five years,” he reiterates. “It will gain the reputation that wines have and command the same level of appreciation.” And in that small restaurant in Singapore, it might just be ground zero for the nation’s growing appetite for high-quality saké paired with good food.