Cover Chef Shigeru Koizumi

At his popular restaurant, chef Shigeru Koizumi is intent on taking the Japanese dining experience into the future

One degree. That’s all it takes to make a difference in a dish. At least that’s how the chef-owner of Esora, Shigeru Koizumi, expresses his acute attention to detail in the cuisine he serves. In the short year since it opened in a restored shophouse along Mohamed Sultan Road, the uniquely contemporary Japanese restaurant has attracted a slew of regulars, plenty of rave reviews and speculation about it sliding into starred territory.

At its heart, Esora is a kappo restaurant, a word-of-mouth spot that traditionally presents a general overview of Japanese cuisine, with dishes that are grilled, fried, simmered, steamed and assembled—think marinated seafood and cold dishes. Suffice it to say that Esora is so much more. Here, Koizumi has set out to parse his taste memories of growing up in the mountainside town of Nasu (in Japan’s Tochigi prefecture) into exquisite dishes that nudge at the edges of Japanese culinary confines.

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One of his foremost concerns at the outset was the fact that his restaurant doesn’t serve sushi, which Singaporeans adore (and happily fork out for). “People here always look for sushi,” he says, sipping water from a beautifully cut glass in his brushed timber-appointed restaurant. “I felt this was going to be my biggest challenge because I worried that if there was no sushi, people wouldn’t splurge on a meal.”

Storytelling, then, became Esora’s greatest asset, with every dish harbouring an imprint of his childhood. Memories of picnicking in the mountains, munching on steamed chestnuts that his father prepared, are parlayed into dishes such as an airy chestnut soufflé or steamed chestnut paste with white truffle ice cream. Assorted sashimi is served as an alluring assemblage of dishes set on rocks and garnished with leaves and flowers, in a nod to time spent playing along the rocky riverbanks lined with cherry blossom, ginkgo and maple trees.

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Cultural Confluence

Telling his personal story through the finest seasonal fare makes for a relatively unique dining experience, but in order to truly elevate his cuisine and captivate Singapore’s well-travelled gourmands, Koizumi knew he had to introduce a different dimension.

“Every Japanese chef does the same thing,” he explains. “Someone needs to do something different to take the cuisine into the future. So, I want to express that with new presentations and ways to create a new Japanese cuisine.”

To educate himself in the wider culture of culinary creativity, Koizumi spent a year working in the kitchen of modern French restaurant Odette, the reigning top-rated restaurant on the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. There, he watched and learned about French techniques and modern presentations from chef-owner Julien Royer and his team, ultimately pouring those lessons into Esora’s creations.

Naturally, elements of modern French cuisine such as purées and espumas have found their way into Koizumi’s food with a distinctively fine Japanese balance. Among his signatures is monaka (Japanese wafer shells) filled with a silky nugget of Maison Mitteault foie gras torchon, roasted nuts, kaffir lime zest and seasonal fruit (this autumn, it’s Japanese persimmon).

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“I ate a lot of monaka as a child and I wanted to bring a savoury element to it,” he says of his much-Instagrammed starter. “The flavour of foie gras reminds me of the flavour of Japanese sweet bean, which is what monaka is traditionally filled with.”

In his latest Pear Candy pre-dessert, a pear fashioned from candy glass harbours French Comice pear sorbet, cubed Japanese nashi and vanilla milk foam. In this dish alone is a confluence of Koizumi’s experiences from his childhood and his time spent in Odette’s kitchen.

Not that most diners would notice if it weren’t pointed out to them, Koizumi’s genius lies in his quiet execution of exactly what he sets out to do: create a new style of Japanese cuisine. The artfully subtle injection of French modernity has been so expressly delicate that the food remains intrinsically Japanese, yet is brought into the now. More importantly, through enchantingly austere presentations and flavours that unravel in hushed whispers on the palate, Koizumi’s creations connect with diners in intimate, alluring ways. This connection through his culinary storytelling is exactly what compels diners to return time and again, proving the adage that food, in any language, spells universal kinship.

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