Three years ago, I made a radical vow to abstain from beef for one year. It was my attempt at a more environmentally conscious diet. My abstinence was broken in three moments of weakness, but in those moments leading up from bovine deprivation, the beef was a joy to the tastebuds. Transcendental experiences from simple pleasures like that, I thought, are not often easily attainable without a period of ascetism beforehand. But that was not until I tried the wagyu beef at Renga-Ya Japanese BBQ and Steak Restaurant.
Imagine yourself after a long day at work, hankering after some good beef. You’re texting your fiancée and she suggests that Japanese BBQ place at Chijmes called Renga-Ya. It’s only a short walk from City Hall, she says, near both our workplaces. Perfect for an after-hours date.
The restaurant boldly showcases the raw, well-marbled cuts of wagyu beef in a counter at the entrance, giving you an idea of what to expect. Further into the restaurant, the warmly lit booths invite you to sit down and ease your weary body. As you browse the menu, you learn that the restaurant is Japanese for ‘brick house’, a homely setting which the restaurant certainly took pains to recreate. As the waiter takes your order, your companion grins eagerly in anticipation.
The first appetiser comes: the Japanese Beef Tataki ($14.90), which resembles beef carpaccio to those with more Italian tastes. You originally hesitated on ordering this, afraid you might suffer from beef overload since beef will be on the main course, but your girlfriend, intimately knowing the full depth of your appetite for all things cow, insists that you get it. And you don’t regret it at all: the beef tataki is naturally sweet, with extra zest from myoga ginger. The taste is both familiarly beefy and unexpectedly refreshing. Eating each slice with a piece of the fried garlic provided at the side adds a welcome crunch to the soft marinated slices of raw Hokkaido beef. The tataki was served on a stone plate, kept cold to keep their contents chilled longer; a small attention to detail which you nevertheless appreciate.
You felt a bit guilty eating so much beef for dinner, so you decided to add the Ika Yuzu Jelly Watercress Salad ($12.90) before the main course. Your only experience with watercress is with your grandma’s homemade watercress soups; usually bitter, it’s not the easiest soup to drink. In this salad, however, the water cress’s bitterness is subdued, and balanced out by the sweet and sour citrus taste of yuzu jelly added on top. Thinly sliced squid also supplements the salad with a firm meaty texture. Before you know it, there is no more salad left in the bowl.
After a few impatient minutes, the waiter comes by to light up the stove installed in your table. That’s when you know the Renga-Ya BBQ Platter ($89 for 300g) is coming! The meat platter is shortly served after, neatly arranged on top of leeks and shiitake mushrooms. The marbling streaking through the meat almost compels you to eat the meat raw. But you know that the grill was lit for a reason, and that’s because the exquisite taste of the beef is unlocked with a bit of heat. The waiter proceeds to describe the provenance of the cuts. One side of the plate consists of half-wagyu from Kagoshima, while the other side has the wagyu cuts from Hokkaido. The two types of beef are cut in different shapes and are thus easily distinguishable. The Kagoshima and Hokkaido beef have three piles each, representing different cuts of the cow with subtle variations of texture and taste.
Another plate of melon slices and lettuce is also served alongside. You ask the waiter what this is for, and she tells you that it’s to eat with the beef; one may consider wrapping a piece of beef in the lettuce and dabbing some sauce before taking a bite of the whole thing.
You pick up the tongs provided and begin searing your meats. The grill produces a tantalizing sizzle as the thinly sliced meat lands on top of the metal. In a few seconds, you flip it over; the underside has already been browned and is almost ready to eat. You soon learn after a bit of trial and error that you prefer to eat the Hokkaido beef lightly seared at about a medium rare doneness, while the Kagoshima should be almost well-done and freshly consumed when hot and very slightly charred. The fiancée completely disagrees with you. But the beauty of the BBQ is that both of you can choose how you want the meat to be done according to your differing subjective tastes. You both still agree that this is some of the best barbecued beef you have ever tasted at a restaurant in Singapore.
Four dips are provided with the BBQ platter: ponzu with radish, yakiniku, sesame oil, and spicy, providing a different flavour to add to the beef each time. If you cannot live without spice, extra chili can be provided with the chili dip upon request. Your companion discovers the rock salt already provided on the table and tells you to try it. You put a small pinch on the beef you’re eating and your eyes widen: this is no ordinary salt! It goes so phenomenally well with the beef; you wouldn’t have complained if this was all you had to eat the beef with. But when it comes to condiments, Renga-Ya provides you with an embarrassment of riches.
Between trying out different ways of grilling the beef, eating it plain, with one dip, with two or more dips, and making lettuce wraps, you start to realise that you aren’t just having some of the best beef you’ve ever tasted in your life; you’re also having fun. The sheer number of ways one can decide to embellish the beef before it goes in your mouth provides an enjoyable interaction with the food that is not normally possible at a refined dining establishment.
All good things must come to an end; soon, all the beef is gone. However, the waiter mentions that Renga-Ya also has a pretty decent seafood platter that is for the barbecue as well, with options such as Whole Squid ($12.90) and Oysters ($12.90). You decide to go with the latter as both you and your fiancée are getting full.
The oysters, fresh from Hokkaido, are served in a bowl with some garlic, a bit of chili, oil, and broth. Once the broth begins to boil, the oyster is ready for your consumption. Nicely warm and marinated, it remains soft and goes down smoothly.
You end your meal with Renga-Ya’s unique dessert: Strawberry Snow ($10). With a name evocative of a beautiful Hokkaido winter, this dessert is a sweet end to the deluge of beef that you have just had the pleasure of eating. The undeniably authentic strawberry flavour comes from the seasonal strawberries imported from Hokkaido. In fact, nearly everything in this dessert is from Hokkaido; from the ice-cream made in a shop that does not sell it commercially, to the fresh milk that is poured over the entire dessert.
You leave Renga-Ya with your beef craving quenched for the time being. The beef at Renga-Ya was good; too good. So good that you can’t see yourself stomaching the ground beef patties that you used to enjoy in a McDonald’s cheeseburger. When will be the next time you feel like eating beef again? you wonder. Possibly for a long time, maybe even a few months. But you know that when that beef craving comes again, you’ll be dreaming of the Kagoshima and Hokkaido wagyu beef, sizzling on the hot grill, that you had on that one Wednesday night.
Thank you Renga-Ya Japanese BBQ and Steak Restaurant for the invitation.
Renga-Ya Japanese BBQ and Steak Restaurant
30 Victoria Street #01-11/12 Chijmes
Lunch: 12 to 2.30pm (Last order 2pm)
Mon – Sat: 6 to 11pm (Last order 10.30pm)
Sun: 5 to 10pm (Last order 9.30pm)