Orchard Central: Japanese Food Trail

Not the first time I'm expounding its merits but Orchard Central is a treasure trove of brilliant activities, cool stores peddling niche goods and food meccas worth boasting about. When it comes to dining in OC, we're completely spoilt for choice, whether it be fusion-Thai at Som Tam or rambunctious casual izakaya style dining at Sumiya; there's loads of ways to fill the stomach. I didn't want to get all excited but the prospects of embarking on a purely Japanese centric food trail around Orchard Central was enough for me to let our a rip-roar cheer. Delving into the heights of Orchard central and sifting through the various Japanese offerings from shabu shabu to home styled grilled items and finally ramen, we bring you the best of OC. Think of this as your definitive check list for your next visit. I assure you, my recommendations are true.

Such is the density of Japanese restaurants on the 8th floor of OC that, of an evening, the various smells adrift from boiling stock pots, grilled pork bellies and the different cook stations on the buffet line can be intoxicating. For shabu shabu, head on over to Shabu Sai, a casual Japanese sukiyai/shabu shabu establishment that does good food and remarkably good value (especially considering you can eat to your hearts content and that sauce counter tho.). 

Prices start at an affable $16.99 for the normal buffet - comprising of unlimited pork, beef, chicken and sushi whilst the more luxe option for wagyu beef will set you back at $36.99. Think of it as an investment, those paper thin slices of wagyu  - one of the most popular items in common consensus around the table. What sets Shabu Sai apart from its competition is the varied amount of stock base choices (at least 7!) with a rotating monthly special, which we were fortunate to be able to sample. The Springtime Herbal Soup exudes oriental vibes with a strong foundation stemming from 7 types of herbs used in the brewing process, although not as medicinal as your usual Herbal chicken dish, the broth does pack quite a healthy punch, perfect for tackling the sniffles. 

After sampling the sukiyaki, tonkotso, yuzu collagen and herbal soup bases, the former came out tops with a flagrantly sweet and salty base that jacked up the less lavish meat choices such as the pork and chicken. If you're a sauce kind of person, you'll be elated at the sight of the sauce station - just as I was when I derived with a soup bowl's worth of garlicky confetti of chives, coriander, goma sauce with earthy pops of red miso. 

Definitely a place worth going when the agenda is to feed a bunch of bottomless pits with chicken legs. Sigh, the world is never fair..

Moving on next door, stands Ootoya, a humble Japanese eatery serving up dishes, like I would expect a matronly Japanese mum to churn out, presented with little quirkiness, more suited for an occasional personal indulgence than for sharing. 

Whilst the restaurant presents a well conscripted selection of greens and salads - a novel and very delicious choice given its successful relationship with Panasonic Factory Solutions Asia Pacific indoor vegetable farm; I can't help but exchange stolen glances at the grilled meats menu. The Beef and Belly Shio Kou for one, the perfect kind of indulgence with meltingly moist interior. A tinge of citrus salts employed on its seared crust helping to elevate the humble dish to greater heights. 

Also on the agenda, Fresh fish imported directly from Tsukiji Japan is served here too. We had the Simmered Flounder Fish or makogerai ($26/set) served alongside rice, miso soup and oshinko (pickled vegetables) - can't say I'm a big fan as the gelatinous quality of the fish skin added to the revolting fishiness of the product; the only consolation being the pool of dark sauces gathered at the bottom, piquant and sweet enough to lift the irksome flavors. My advice would be to make a beeline for the grilled fish should you not have a penchant for the fishy stuff. The kitchen nails the next dish, Toshikoshi soba, homemade traditional noodles freshly made under our scrutiny. Dunk it into the appetising wasabi flecked bonito-flavored dip to enhance the nutty notes of the Hokkaido grains.

A trip to Ootoya isn't complete without the Matcha Parfait to conclude the night. Those warabi mochi, gooey inner and intense grassy combo that will have you hankering for your next fix.

Last stop's a charm and we arrive at unassuming little shop, one floor down to get a taste of this fiery flavored ramen joint before the door slides open to ravished diners at dinner service. 

Working through the endless deluge of sides that greeted our dining table, I must admit to being most impressed by the Fried Pork Karaage with wasabi mayo tartar sauce ($7) and the Smoked Chashu ($7); the latter had us reaching out for our thumbs-up emoji. Stay with me, pork charshu marinated in secret sauce and smoked with cherry chips; the final product is one that will have you lusting for a quick pint of ice cold beer.

The ramen slips into the over-salty spectrum, the Chashu Men thick with a formidable barricade of garlic oil. To those who don't fancy a flavour assualt, turn to the Spicy Tomato Miso Ramen instead. Fans of Spicy Miso Ramen but not fond of the overwhelming saltiness, then you should get the Spicy Tomato Miso Ramen ($16++_ - the sweetness and slight tinginess from the tomatoes diluting the intense broth. The best of the lot had to be the Dragon Ramen ($15++) - Nantsuttei's basic ramen topped with ground meat mixture, freckled with red peppers for that additional hit of spice.

Despite the evident overuse of seasoning in the dishes at Nantsuttei, we'll let it slide, because we can't help but feel that such therapy is needed on some days. Besides, independent, unpretentious joints are a dying breed, so we should support them.

Major thanks to the various establishments and Orchard Central for hosting us on this food trail!

Shabu Sai
181 Orchard Road
#08-09/11 Orchard Central

181 Orchard Road
#08-12 Orchard Central

Nantsuttei Ramen
181 Orchard Road
#07-23/13 Orchard Central

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