Personal chef Kaz at Waku Ghin. Photo: Emma Macdonald
Tetsuya's in Sydney is the sort of restaurant where you expect to strike out - never with the food, but usually with a last-minute plea for a table. My record over many years is two from 10, and that's a better record than many I know. So it was with some trepidation that I fronted the concierge at the Marina Bay Sands hotel in Singapore last month to request a booking at Waku Ghin, Wakuda Tetsuya's first offshore flagship.
With Waku Ghin offering just 25 seats for each of two evening sittings in what is surely one of the most irregular new restaurant settings in the world, I had very little faith. But this time we succeeded; even in this booming city, cost might still be a factor.
Opened in 2010, Waku Ghin is fast climbing the international restaurant rankings, landing in 39th spot on this year's World's Top 50 list.
The abalone at Waku Ghin. Photo: Emma Macdonald
It is located atop a gleaming luxury-end shopping mall which connects to the MBS - a hotel both extraordinary in its size (more than 2000 rooms) and design (three curved pillars with a massive surfboard-like platform on top which sports an infinity pool with a drop of 60 storeys).
It's disconcerting to walk through the mall to get to the restaurant - even stranger still when you find it hanging oddly above an open pit of gamblers at the hotel's casino. But Tetsuya is not the only one to take up a space at the Marina Bay Sands; seven high-end establishments form a sort of celebrity chef row, including offerings from Guy Savoy and Wolfgang Puck.
Once past the heavy glass doors, the casino noise, lights and smells are blocked and it feels you have entered a large and luxe apartment.
The chocolate dessert at Waku Ghin. Photo: Emma Macdonald
A long corridor leads to a handful of small dining bars, each curved around a perfect gleaming steel cooking surface.
Diners sit high on their chairs, resting on the bar. We were placed next to a British couple working in Singapore and celebrating a birthday.
Small talk ensued as we looked through the 55-page wine list and had a quiet giggle about the 1990 Romanee Conti at a mere $45,000. For us, Pol Roger at $160 seemed a better bet, or to have the restaurant pair wines with dishes as the other couple did.
A private dining room at Waku Ghin, Tetsuya's luxe venture in Singapore.
Our personal chef, Kaz, came through a doorway from the main kitchen carrying a large box of seafood - so fresh that the Tasmanian abalone was trying to sucker its way over the edge of the box and the Canadian lobster would have been in hot pursuit were it not tightly bound.
Kaz is a young Japanese chef, who joined the Tetsuya's team in Sydney and is now one of 18 chefs at Waku Ghin. Some might be fazed when the job description broadens from cooking world-class food in a kitchen, to cooking world-class food directly in front of the diners while engaging them in thoughtful conversation roaming myriad food-related topics. Kaz handled it with the utmost grace and one can only imagine Tetsuya chooses the chefs for this role very carefully.
The first dish is a flan with Queensland spanner crab. It's warm, silky and packs a punch in a tiny porcelain cup.
Wagyu at Waku Ghin. Photo: Macdonald
As I check out the Cristofle cutlery and the immaculate linen napery, the four of us try to get over the awkwardness of being in a small room together. The arrangement is new to all of us, but it works.
Next is the sea urchin with marinated Botan shrimp and oscietra caviar. Just as Tetsuya's ocean trout confit is lauded in Australia, this beautiful creation seems to be earning similar adulation at Waku Ghin. On a bed of ice, with a mother of pearl spoon for the caviar, the spiky shell holds an arrestingly bright orange custard of urchin and egg, with delicate raw slivers of prawn on top.
I thought my sea urchin eating days were over - my first taste was last year at Sydney's Marque and I vowed it would be the last. I take a tentative taste and am immediately surprised. It is both lavish and subtle, the texture silky and rich, the flavour salty-sweet. I suppose you could compare it to the best oyster you could ever find. Clean, creamy, ephemeral. I am then and there a convert, scraping the bottom of the shell for every last bit.
Waku Ghin's sea urchin with raw shrimp and caviar. Photo: Leisa Tyler
Later in the meal, when the conversation has warmed to an open exchange of all things food, Kaz explains that the sea urchin are sourced from Hokkaido, and the summer season is peak consumption time. Apparently they are gently washed and replaced in their shell to remove bitterness.
Grilled anago eel with foie gras and confit of zucchini is next and, as requested, mine comes sans foie gras. It is a small dish, the eel rich, oily, smoky and delicious.
Kaz re-emerges and gets down to business with the Tasmanian abalone. It is fascinating to have the chef in front of you and he is so relaxed and engaged about sharing the cooking process that I wonder why I, too, don't whip up mollusc with fregola and tomato for a quick supper. With a sizzle, the meat hits the hotplate and the food is plated up. This turns out to be my favourite dish.
A garlic cream emulsion lies beneath a tomato and basil broth, which turns the dish distinctly Italian. The pasta swirls under a large chunk of charred abalone. It is so simple, yet so perfect.
Braised Canadian lobster with a tarragon and shell-fish liquor is next. It is faultless, rich and dramatic - the tarragon not overpowering the sweet lobster flesh.
As my companions diverge into a quail course, my pescatarian prefererences are catered for with slow-cooked John Dory with roasted eggplant. The fish is melting, with perfectly cooked eggplant - firm, smoky and unctuous.
The Japanese Ohmi waygu roll from the Shiga prefecture elicits an excited chatter all about me as Kaz gears up for his biggest performance. The meat looks very thin. Sure it has the most marbling I've ever seen, but I wonder how it could not be chewy. Simultaneously my fillet of ayu with daikon and fennel is prepared.
The beef, cooked in moments, is served with wasabi and citrus soy. The wasabi is fresh - having taken three years to grow. Kaz grates it to a paste on a shark-skin board. Zing!
No one really speaks. The three others eventually declare it is the best beef they have eaten. From all indications, it does melt in the mouth.
With the heavy dishes over, we are served a vessel of somen noodles in a cold broth of myoga ginger and junsai leaves. It is a surprisingly refreshing way to end the meal but I am not sure our British friends are so enamoured.
Finally, Tetsuya's favourite gyokuro, or emperor's tea, is served. Considered the finest green tea in the world, it packs an extraordinary hit, of … grass. Our Western palates are just not up for it and the four of us laugh as we leave most of it in our beautiful bespoke pottery tea cups and head out into a communal dining room for dessert. Tetsuya would no doubt be horrified.
With views across the water and a light show before us, we sit in leather-bound chairs at round tables. A Chinese princeling conducting what must have been a very important business dinner orders bottle after bottle with his entourage at an adjoining table.
We are content with a glass each of 2007 Muscat de Beaumes de Venise Domain de Durban - delicious with the Ghin cheesecake - a round dome of airy light and citrus-infused cheesecake with a ruffle of silver leaf.
A dark chocolate counterpart is offered if we have room, and amazingly, we do. A ridiculously perfect platter of petit fours finishes us up.
By the time we stumble out we are heady with indulgence and the thrill of having experienced something extraordinary. But then, so is the bill, at $400 a head before wine.
Still, we agree, it was worth it. For the experience, for the interface with Kaz, who happily takes us on a tour of the $2 million kitchen, for the access to one of the world's best wine lists and a tour of the cellar as well, and for the quality and execution of the food.
I can't imagine Waku Ghin will stay at 39th place for long.
Emma Macdonald is Canberra Times parliamentary bureau chief. She travelled to Singapore and ate at Waku Ghin at her own expense.