Opened just two months apart, modern Japanese restaurants Wakuda and Nobu have been receiving plenty of attention from food critics and gourmands alike. It’s only natural that the pair are frequently compared, given the fame and international acclaim of their Japanese founders who have amassed numerous accolades over the years.
Both located in five-star hotels boasting modern Japanese interiors and serving a mix of ala carte izakaya-style plates with option for an omakase meal, just how do they stack up against one another? Here’s a quick run-down of what we think.
The sassy younger sister of two-Michelin starred Waku Ghin, Wakuda is a place you’ll want to make repeat visits with your very fashionable friends. Not just for its clubby vibe and photogenic interiors — inspired by old and new Japan designed by the award-winning Rockwell Group — but the heady selection of cocktails and sakes, and beautifully-presented sharing plates that feature fresh and rare produce from around the world.
There’s no best table in the house because wherever you sit, there’s an impressive view of something — the painfully gorgeous bar, the main dining hall that looks up to original artwork by Japanese artist Jun Inoue, the open kitchen where chefs are in full display, or the marble sushi counter set against a backdrop of a pretty-in-pink Japanese maple tree.
The brainchild of Japan-born Australian chef Tetsuya Wakuda — who owns Waku Ghin and Tetsuya in Sydney — together with restaurateur John Kunkel of 50 Eggs, Wakuda serves up a progressive à la carte menu of izakaya-style dishes marrying French technique with the Japanese philosophy quality and seasonality. Forward-thinking yet approachable, you can expect everything from sashimi to sushi, tempura, yakimono, rice bowls, cold soba and desserts.
Although 63-year-old Wakuda isn’t the one manning the kitchen, he’s assembled an A-list pulled from Waku Ghin such as alumni executive chef Sufian Zain and chef de cuisine Suzuki Masaya. They promise us edginess and modernity in the overall dining experience with bold concepts and plenty of envelope-pushing.
To start, we recommend the Big Eye Tuna ($32 for 4 pieces) featuring zuke-marinated tuna loin served on a crisp, buttered wasabi mayonnaise toast, with pickled wasabi stem and smoky avruga caviar (smoked herring), laid on a bed of deliciously crunchy sea grapes. For uni lovers, the Yuba ($38) is an elegant appetiser served in a tall martini glass filled with creamy beancurd skin from Kyoto topped with sweet Hokkaido sea urchin, mountain caviar, dashi gelee and myoga.
Some Wakuda specialties include the Carabineros Prawn ($43), sweet roasted carabinero served with powerfully-umami miso tarragon risotto; perfectly folded Cold Soba ($48) from Nagoya tossed with tender botan shrimp in aromatic truffle sauce topped with a luxurious serving of Oscietra caviar and mushrooms; and the pièce de resistance — Charcoal Grilled Kagoshima Wagyu ($108) featuring melt-in-your-mouth charcoal grilled wagyu served with smoked eggplant and grilled seasonal vegetables.
Wakuda offers plenty for the sweet-toothed, but one that stood out for us was the simplicity of Japanese Musk Melon from Shizuoka ($28), the birthplace of chef Wakuda. It’s served with refreshing Cointreau granita and a quenelle of fromage blanc sorbet, finished with a delicate candy tuile.
If you’re just here for drinks, the Japanese-style handcrafted cocktails (from $23) do not disappoint. Do try the twist on the classic Tom Collins called “Stone, Water, Plants” — a fresh and green concoction of Roku Gin, cucumber shiso, green tea and cucumber tonic. For a more playful nectarious blend, the Lady from Shizuoka charms with its rousing mix of Roku Gin, strawberry sake and sakura liqueur. If you prefer vodka-based libations, the Yuzu Garden is a harmonious blend of Haku Vodka with aromatic St. Germain and citrusy yuzu. Wakuda also has a collection of close to 100 different sake labels, including the Isojiman, Junmai Ginjo W for Wakuda, specially brewed for Wakuda in Shizuoka, Japan.
In a nutshell, dining at Wakuda forms a very well-rounded experience where food, décor, drinks and ambience come together in perfect synergy to create a night to remember. Chef Wakuda really nailed this concept quite beautifully while still keeping his finger on the pulse of gastronomic trends. We’re already thinking of when to make our next reservation here.
For more lifestyle, arts and fashion trends, click here for Options Section
A name that has become a part of popular culture, Nobu is founded by veteran restaurateur-chef Nobu Matsuhisa, actor Robert De Niro and American producer Meir Teper. Their deep pockets have contributed to the quick expansion of close to 50 outlets worldwide, not to mention over a dozen Nobu hotels, specialising in new-style Japanese cuisine and exuberant upscale dining.
Since the opening of its flagship outlet in Tribeca, New York in 1994, Nobu’s special brand of traditional Japanese cooking with Peruvian flavours coupled with genial omotenashi (Japanese hospitality) has been a draw for an elite crowd of C-suites, socialites and celebrities alike. Its Los Angeles and New York branches are frequented by stars like Natalie Portman, Snoop Dogg, Paris Hilton, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, George Clooney and the Kardashians.
How the cuisine became a marriage of East and West was spawned from Matsuhisa’s days running his own sushi bar in Peru following his formative years at Matsuei, a respected sushi bar in Tokyo. As a classically trained sushi chef, he was challenged by the new Latin American culture and regional ingredients, which kindled his inventive style, known today as the "Nobu style".
Now after almost three decades, 73-year-old Matshuhisa has finally decided to grace Singapore with an outlet at Four Seasons Hotel Singapore, in partnership with HPL Properties which owns the five-star hotel. Located on the third floor, Nobu replaces what used to be two tennis courts with a private bar and expansive dining room with private enclaves — designed by Nobu’s appointed architect — set in light wood interiors framed by intricate Japanese wallpaper and accented by ambient lighting.
Not only is this branch the first in the world to showcase a designer outdoor Japanese zen garden, Nobu Singapore also is the first to offer an omakase menu (from $135) served in a private dining space near the kitchen. There is also a lively sushi bar for those that want to get closer to some kitchen action, a sake room and two private teppanyaki rooms.
Don’t come here expecting a peaceful meal with soft romantic music and genteel servers. The bustling space which seats over 100 people can turn into a noisy mess hall of loud chatter from inebriated diners, buzz from the open kitchen, plus dancy house music from the surround sound of audio speakers. And then there’s the resounding “irasshaimase!” constantly yelled by the servers whenever a new diner steps into the dining room. The culmination of it all feels like being in a Hard Rock Cafe, but this high-octane vibe is what Nobu is known for and what its diverse demographic of regulars come to expect.
Nobu Singapore is helmed by protégés of Matsuhisa’s, executive chef Hideki Maeda from Nobu London, and executive sushi chef Takahiro Tim Otomo from Nobu Hotel Caesars Palace. Handling service operations and front of house is general manager Gopi Kanala of Nobu Kuala Lumpur. They are supported by about 70 front-of-house and back-end kitchen crew, which is more than double than most other restaurants. The service and quality of food, I assure you, is at its pinnacle.
The extensive ala carte menu offers many Nobu-Style classics like the Black Cod Miso ($68) and Yellowtail Jalapeño ($39) and Nobu Crispy Rice ($36), all executed with finesse, highlighting "natural and clean" Japanese flavours. And every kind of sushi I tried (from $8 and up a piece) was magical, featuring large cuts of creamy sashimi draped over deliciously vinegary shari cooked slightly al dente for a nice bite.
The salads are a surprising draw, possibly due to the lovely east-meets-west blend of flavours in the seasonings with a little spicy Latin American kick. However, a few dishes left me wondering: why the high price tag, for such standard izakaya fare like the Rock Shrimp Tempura with Creamy Spicy Sauce ($54), King Crab Tempura Amazu Ponzu ($70) and flambéed Beef Toban Yaki ($56).
For the sweet toothed, there’s plenty to indulge in such as the generously-sized Homemade Mochi ($18 for 3) available in different flavours and stuffed with something deliciously surprising. Although everyone raves about the Nobu Cheesecake ($21), I found that it paled in comparison to similar versions I’ve tried elsewhere. What I couldn’t get enough of was the addictive Whisky Cappuccino Coffee Crème Brulée ($18) — creamy, crunchy and foamy thanks to a tiramisu-inspired mix of coffee crème brulée, coffee crumble, vanilla ice cream and whisky foam.
Beverage-wise, I was impressed by the originality of its craft cocktails like the refreshing Nobu Soju Dragon ($27) made with soju, dragonfruit, St.German, monkfruit and Lemon; or aromatic Matsuhisa Martini ($35) — De Niro’s favourite — done with Belvedere vodka, Hokusetsu Junmai Sake, ginger and Japanese cucumber. You can also expect interesting wine vintages as well as various sakes created exclusively for Nobu.
From start to end, the food at Nobu Singapore is a delight for the senses, chock full of contrasting yet clean flavours, but those that fell short for me had nothing to do with taste, but their datedness in terms of presentation and unimaginative use of cutlery.
Although Matsuhisa prides himself in being the pioneer of modern Japanese cuisine, many that have come after him have created better renditions of his classics. We think for a sophisticated market like Singapore, with numerous Japanese restaurants many of which are Michelin-starred, Matsuhisa would have to pull up his socks and wow us with a reinvention. Still, we’re happy to place our reservations for the two-month waitlist to sample its Singapore exclusives which we hear are coming soon.