Before my recent flight abroad, my friends and I were looking around for a dinner place to get-together and enjoy a few drinks or two. One of the main considerations for me was that it had to be something that I could not immediately get while in the UK. While there was the option of good ol’ hawker fare (something that I am now starting to miss), we quickly decided on visiting En Sakaba at JEM – mainly for its then opening promotion of 30% off all regular-priced sake bottles.
En Sakaba is not your traditional Japanese Izakaya, though it does establish itself as a hybrid with a casual bistro bar setting. The extensive selection of sake, alongside a smattering of beers, cocktails and wines, will please any table looking for a drink; and the food is at best discerned as Japanese influenced tapas. Signatures which are highly worth the recommendation are items such as the Grilled Hotate on half-shell, which can come topped with options such as Uni sauce, Foie Gras, Zuwai Kani Miso or Mentaiko Cheese. Other delights such as the Kurobuta Niku No Hoho Yaki and the Zuwai Kani Miso Kourayaki were also favourites around the table. But if something more filling is needed, a must order is the Foie Gras Yakiniku Onsen Tamago Don. For its price, good use of Japanese rice, decent-enough portion and use of gorgeously cooked beef, I do think it is a winner to go alongside a pint of ice-cold beer. And the best part, it was amazing to see how reasonably priced most of the tapas items were.
The drink menu at En Sakaba has a strong emphasis on sake, with over 30 types in its various grades on offer. These are best enjoyed on its own or paired with the exotic range of dishes found on the menu. For those who like something easier to start with, the restaurant does offer a selection of sake cocktails.
My primary drink for the night was the Matsuno Midori Junmai Daiginjo ($125++). Descriptively portrated as having a”brilliant nose filled with hints of ripe peach, sweet rice, and a touch of mushrooms cooked in butter”, one would be hard-pressed not to think of this as a very delicious sake. Originating from Kyoto, this sake has an SMV of +5, a very middling sake that is a touch dry and yet not too distant from a more rounded sweetness in its aftertaste. And if you need some tips or directions of which sake to order to enjoy with the meal, Jacq, the restaurant manager, is of excellent help.
Choose your own sake cup to enjoy the drinks with!
I started off the meal with a portion of Beef Truffle Carpaccio ($13++). Thinly sliced sirloin beef with truffle citrus sauce is as imaginatively tasty as it could be. Though the truffle aromatics were fleeting at best, it is the pairing of tender beef with the zesty, tangy dressing that made this a winner for me.
However, for those seeking a ‘healthier’ option, there is always the Kaisen Salad ($13++) with wasabi vinaigrette to go for. The variety of greens were simple, and the chunks of sashimi decently fresh. What was unique for me was not the use of wasabi vinaigrette but the pieces of wakame scattered throughout which simply added a touch more texture to the dish.
One dish that is may not be commonly ordered is the Mentaiko Tako Wasabi ($5++). Perhaps it’s the thought of tucking in to chopped pieces of slimy, crunchy squid marinated in a mix of fermented cod roe and spicy fermented horseradish that would turn people away. But it does carry a rich, umami-intense and slightly salty flavour that goes exceptionally well with alcohol. One more reason to drink!
The Kurobuta Niku No Hoho Yaki ($10++) is a must order for its serving of delectable cha-shu pork slices. Wonderfully grilled black pork cheek with the occasional slivers of melt-in-your-mouth fat, one would wonder how a single plate is enough for a table of three. I also loved the sprinkle of sesame seeds on the top as it added both to presentation points as well as lending a depth of earthy savouriness to the overall dish. Just note that this is one dish best enjoyed quickly as you might not always get slices of pork with that sublime fat I mentioned earlier.
One unique specialty at En Sakaba is the Jikasei Ankimo Tofu ($10++). Though homemade monkfish liver tofu may not sound especially appealing, I must say that it was quite neutral at first with the weight in flavour tilted towards the caviar, uni and ikura topping. The umami richness of the dish only strikes after the more impressionable toppings disappear. A must order the next time I’m back!
Another highlight for the night was the Zuwai Kani Miso Kourayaki ($13++). This dish comes complete with crab meat, crab roe and gut grilled in its shell, and later topped with a quail yolk, spring onions, and ikura. A unique dish, and something not immediately found in any Japanese izakaya. Mix up the ingredients just before serve, and what you have is an umami-rich, moreish delight that sounds perfect with gohan. Still, excellent with alcohol!
It is hard to disagree that the Jumbo Hotate Yaki ($8++) is a dish easily loved. The sheer thought of having a whole scallop wonderfully grilled in its shell simply reminds me of the time I had something very similar when I was in Kushiro last year. At that time it was served with butter and corn, robatayaki style. Here at En Sakaba, I was able to somewhat relish the moment, albeit with different toppings to jazz up the scallop if desired. Have it topped with foie gras for an additional $5, or if you are a mentaiko cheese lover, $3. If sea urchin is desired, it goes for an additional $5, and if you are a fan of the zuwai kani and kani miso, another $5. While this means that the eventual price of a single scallop is not in its single digits, I reckon that it is a dish still well worth the price.
Jumbo Hotate Yaki with Mentaiko Cheese
Gyu Yasai Kushi Yaki ($8++)
The Foie Gras Yakiniku Onsen Tamago Don ($22++) was perhaps the show stealer for the entire meal. Lightly seared beef tataki is served atop a bed of fluffy, seasoned Japanese rice, together with a sizeable portion of grilled foie gras glazed with a sweet savoury teriyaki sauce and then finally touched up with a runny poached egg right in the middle. The onsen tamago was yearning to be broken, allowing the delectable center to run over each, already flavourful grain. Main gripe? It can be a slightly small portion for the price requested.
The En Kaisen Chirashi Don ($28++) is the izakaya’s way of piling some mouthwatering seafood together all atop a bed of hearty, well-seasoned Japanese rice (labelled as En’s pink sushi rice). With 15 kinds of sashimi items piled around the bowl, there is little doubt that the chirashi don will look exceptionally good. The items are decently fresh, with my favourite being the anago (saltwater eel) and the aka-ebi (whiskered shrimp) and the pieces of ikura (salmon roe) sprinkled all over. Simply delightful!
My second bottle for the night
In all, I do find En Sakaba a worthy place for a revisit. It does get crowded at times, with the al-fresco dining option at JEM not exactly providing a cozy, private environment. Also, the shop’s bustling surrounding ambiance does persuade one to leave after a respectable amount of time dining. Further, with it located in the heartlands, the restaurant does seem a lot more positioned to families seeking a good meal, with the occasional sake. If, however, you are seeking something a little more cozy with a certain flair for that after work dinner date, check out Le Binchotan!
Still, this casual Japanese restaurant does have it draws – from the unique and peculiar assortment of reasonably-priced and flavourful Japanese tapas, to the assortment and quality of sake that goes beyond what one would normally get in a Japanese restaurant found in the shopping centre. En Sakaba is an interesting concept that brings a mix of Japanese culinary concepts to the heartlands. It is, therefore, hard not to imagine it as an izakaya – where the ojisan or obasan would whip up something traditional, familiar and yet different. Pair that with good sake or beer, and what you have is an exciting night’s out. I will be back, after my trip. Till then.
50 Jurong Gateway Road
Reservations: 6634 1018