Indonesian chef Gunawan Wibisono, a former protégé of American Iron Chef Morimoto Masaharu, has attempted to create another one of those ‘modern Japanese’ restaurants with never-seen-before dishes at Dempsey Hill’s Zento. His creative efforts have not, unlike many rival eateries, been put completely to shame.
Any waiter who starts off your meal with a free cup of sake is okay in my books. This turned out to be a smart move on his part, as my good first impressions gradually decreased throughout the night. First off, when ordering the carpaccio topped with ginger garlic yozu sauce, he enquired whether we would like that served with yellowtail or Wagyu beef – conveniently failing to mention that the Wagyu choice would double the price listed on the menu. It was a good thing that the razor-thin slices of meat, drizzled with hot grapeseed oil used to sear the top, turned out to be a favourite dish of both myself and my companion; it helped, too, that we were not aware of the add-on at the time.
In addition, all the waiters had a habit of hovering like vultures, and while my dining partner was lucky to be facing the wall, I was eating nervously, feeling that the second I put down my chopsticks, my dish would be scooped up before I could savour the last remaining bites. Having said that, we appreciated the over-attentiveness when, upon arriving on a rainy afternoon for our second visit, an umbrella-equipped waiter ran outside to the taxi to provide cover for the walk to the restaurant. Service aside, let’s get back to the food. The innovative Wagyu Beef Roll is stuffed with shrimp tempura and topped with thin slices of gruyèredrizzled beef, and I’m delighted to say that it was not just the cheese but the entire roll which melted in my mouth. With sushi, it’s never bad to go the old-school route (read: 40 years after the inception of the California roll, this seems like a fair classification) to see how some of the more ‘traditional’ rolls compare. This proved to be a wise decision when it came to the Volcano Roll, whose copious lashings of spicy mayo were perfectly cut with sweet eel sauce.
During our second visit, we decided to go with a standard lunch sushi set ($35) – this one being served straight up, no frills attached. With no sauces or surprise ingredients left to mask the quality of the fish, our eight-nigiri, five-sushi selection did not match up to the high standard set by the more imaginative rolls. Standing on its own, the rice lacked that sticky sweetness needed when creating a bed for the fish. The thick cuts of average fish were also not helping matters. It seems as though it’s best for chef Wibisono to keep thinking outside the box, since the final result is much more enjoyable to unpack.
It’s probably best to skip on dessert; the undistinguished green-tea crème brûlée presented a curdled centre and the chocolate lava cake – while delicious – was not anything new. And it’s just as well: the bill adds up quickly without, and after discovering how our carpaccio had mischievously doubled in price, we were eager to head out of the door.
Costs: Lunch sets $18-$65; dinner sets $58-$120.
Blk 18B Dempsey Road
|Opening hours:||Mon-Fri 3-6pm; Sun-Sat noon-3pm; Sun-Thu 6-10pm; Fri & Sat 6-11pm.|