Tempura Kohaku opened in Singapore a few months ago, and pictures of tantalising batter-coated tempura started appearing across social media. It looked like the tempura we had had in a little place we stumbled upon in Osaka, quite possibly the best we have ever eaten. As such, Tempura Kohaku had to be visited when we visited Singapore.
Finding it proved to be a bit of a challenge though. We knew it was in Suntec City. Suntec City, however, has four towers. Tempura Kohaku’s Facebook page actually has the incorrect shop address. What we discovered, after wandering around a lot, is this. It’s in the North Tower. It’s on the third floor, part of a group of eateries collectively called Eat At Seven. (Also, if you try to look it up in the store directory, you won’t find it under “Tempura Kohaku”, but under “Eat At Seven: Tempura Kohaku”.) There isn’t a straightforward way up by escalator. If you take the lift up, you’ll be spit out onto an outdoor terrace area where there are other restaurants. Walking through, you will come to an entrance to Eat At Seven. This takes you back indoors, and you’ll wind past other restaurants in a similar setup to what we found at the Ramen Street in the Kyoto train station. Finally, at the other end, if you don’t get sidetracked by what the other Japanese restaurants are offering, you’ll come to Tempura Kohaku. And continue walking to the end of the line.
Despite it being a weekday lunchtime, there was still a rather substantial queue. It went past the span of the restaurant beside it, and we felt a little bad that there were only a few people in that one, while line of waiting customers snaked past it, obscuring its entrance.. A downside to note is that the glass roof overhead provides scant shade from the midday sun, so you get somewhat roasted while you wait. And it was a long wait. It took us an hour to get to the front of the line. It is perplexing that it is such a popular lunchtime destination, because if you came here during your work lunch break, you would spend the entire time just waiting in line..
During the time we were in line, we had ample time to read through the menu and decide between the few options on offer. They specialise and do just the one dish, and that is Tendon, or Tempura Donburi, tempura on rice. Essentially, you can choose omnivore or vegetarian contents for your tempura, and either original or spicy flavour. And you can choose to either have just the bowl of Tendon, or have a set, where it is accompanied by a bowl of udon, and a side of pickles. Having decided what we wanted to eat about five minutes into standing in the queue, we ordered soon after being seated. We were told that there would be a 20 minute wait for food. Once again, certainly not a quick lunch break meal.
The decor was simple and quite classic for a Japanese eatery, with wooden furniture and grey stone tiled floors. Besides the standard height tables and chairs, there were a few counter seats as well, from which you could watch the action in the kitchen. The tables were quite close together, and you could easily hear surrounding conversations. There was a constant rumble from extraction fans, which worked well enough to keep the place from smelling like fried food. There was instrumental music playing over the speakers (sounded like the shamisen) with a quick and sometimes noisy beat. It wasn’t overly loud, but it wasn’t a tranquil place of calm either.
We ordered the green tea, which comes with free refills. Befitting of the weather, it was served cold and iced rather than hot. It had a kelpy green colour, but not a very strong green tea flavour. The staff were proactive in refilling our glasses though, and unlike in other places where you struggle to get your promised free flow refills, this was not the case here.
We both ordered the Kohaku Tendon, with vegetables, chicken, and prawns and other seafood. When it arrived at the table, it bore a reasonable resemblance to the menu pictures. The ingredients stood up proudly in the bowl on top of the bed of rice, with the bowl lid providing a supporting backdrop, like Venus in the clamshell.
We separated the tempura, placing it on the upturned lid, so that steam from the rice wouldn’t make the tempura soggy. The way the tempura is served here is different from that in many other places, in which you receive the fried ingredients, which you then dip into a soupy broth-like sauce, which of course soon makes the batter soggy and soft, defeating much of the purpose of having crunchy fried anything in the first place. The sauce in this case is less watery, thick and almost molasses-like in texture so it sticks, and is drizzed over the tempura before it is served to you, making it flavourful, but retaining the crunchiness. We had the original rather than the spicy version. The sauce was a good blend of saltiness and sweetness. The tempura batter was thin enough to be light, but thick enough to give a crunchy texture. There were, as promised, vegetables, chicken, and prawns (two). The “other seafood” turned out to be a crabstick, but it actually wasn’t bad. The pumpkin tempura retained a firm, but not too firm texture, and some sweetness rather than being bland. One too commonly encounters underripe pumpkin being used for tempura, and those hard, flavourless slabs are not pleasant to eat. There was baby corn tempura, which was a novel tempura ingredient, but again, they had the right starting material, so it worked well. The tempura long beans were not fibrous or stringy, and each bite separated quite cleanly. The tempura mushroom was firm, but juicy in the middle. There was a good-sized piece of tempura chicken in each bowl, and it wasn’t overcooked at all, with the chicken breast meat remaining tender. The prawns were also cooked just right, so they still had their slightly crunchy texture, besides what the batter provided. The crabstick while, well, crabstick, was an interesting contrast in textures, crisp batter on the outside surrounding the soft, slightly springy middle.
The rice, forming the base for it all, was slightly sticky, with individual grains discernible. There were posters up at the front of the restaurant (as well as at some of the other neighbouring restaurants at Eat At Seven) telling patrons that the rice is imported from Hokkaido, and why the Nanatsuboshi rice used is good. While I didn’t have the mobile internet to do a Google translate of all the details on the poster, this link will explain a bit about the different varieties of Japanese rice, and the characteristics of each. The little things make all the difference when you are striving for excellence. We thought that there could have been more sauce on the rice, and found out only too late that there were actually little bottles with extra sauce you could add to your dish (there weren’t any at our table).
Our gold standard for tempura is still that little place we serendipitously found in Osaka, where they actually fried the items twice. The first was the batter layer, then they would dip it all in sauce, then they would fry it again, so that the ingredients had plenty of the tasty sauce on them, and retained maximal crunch. They also drizzled some sauce directly onto the rice before arranging the tempura on it, so there was lots of flavour there too.
Tempura Kohaku does a pretty good job though, and is better than most others we have encountered. Whether it is worth one and a half hours of waiting is not entirely clear, but it is certainly still popular, so if you are going to go, bring something to occupy yourself with, and possibly a hat. As mentioned, the waitstaff were attentive, and our glasses were never empty.
Price point: Tendon only $14 to $15. Tendon set $18.50 to $19.50. Bottomless green tea $2. (add a further 17% to all prices for service charge and GST though.)
Value: Money-wise not bad. Time-wise..less clear.