Grab the crab
by Robert Forrest
Two hundred and twenty seats, yet no spot to sit. Noting the high seat tally on the website I neglected to book a table, thus giving co-diner 50 minutes to express why perhaps I should have. It also meant she could have some wine and gather tips for later from the Olympic Judo on screen. On screen. I was surprised to see a television here: three restaurants in Singapore have joined forces and settled in Tokyo only to distract from their domestic fare with blinking fluorescence. I was very grateful.
Two untucked judogi (judo uniforms) and an ambulance later the Sauvignon Blanc ended—a Caliterra Reserva for ¥750 a piece. Not discreet, this one. Some wines softly slip onto the palate but the kiss from ours was too bold and hard and served only to sweat in the heat. A bottle of Pugligny Montrachet captains a short list of other wines for a reasonable ¥9,450, but feeling a wave of homogeneity we opted for Tiger beers as at last we moved inside.
Mud crabs. Singapore Seafood Republic’s raison d’etre. Piles of them guarded the entrance, huge and pumped, trying to rid themselves of their straitjackets with bursting fury in their eyes. It prompted more sympathy than salivation—so I rather wished I hadn’t pointed one out trying to escape over the top of his trough, which caused the poor chap to be collected for the next order. Cancers should show more camaraderie. Our table was situated in the main room, an atrium large enough for an English manor house that suited the quasi-colonial exterior. But no tapestries, tawny rugs, or dusty Labradors here, leaving the bright clatter of cutlery and the crack of claws to reverberate around the room as we turned to the first page of the menu. It opens onto crab, unsurprisingly, each option accompanied by the logo of the restaurant in Singapore from which it originates; our salt and pepper and Chilli crabs came from Palm Beach and Jumbo, respectively. But there was a false start before they arrived: Singapore Rojak.
Bibs donned and crab-forks clenched,
we each dived for a claw
the size of a child’s fist.
“It’s awful,” said I, “Wonderful,” the reply. I was right, of course, though had been warned of the ‘hundred year egg,’ which fermented the albumen to the color and translucency of aspic jelly and rendered the yellow black. But it was delicious compared to the rest. Inside the ¥940 dish were chunks of fruit and rolls of beignet, all slumped in a murky bath of shrimp miso sauce. I lunged towards the beignet, only to realize my mistake as I recoiled to the degree it had absorbed this fetid fluid: suddenly I wanted to copy my fellow Cancer to avoid finishing the rest. But food matters and it cannot be wasted, so in a lesson of biological porosity I soon identified which nugget had swallowed the least. My tip: mango.
I am sorry to start on a downer as what came next, more favorably, shows the potential of this restaurant: our salt and pepper crab, medium sized for ¥4,800. Bibs donned and crab-forks clenched, we each dived for a claw the size of a child’s fist. It was hot—a dip into the oolong tea finger bath cooled our digits before efforts continued. Each mouthful required one hand to play Rubik’s Cube to find the best place for the other to poke it, meaning moments of demented dentistry as our mental scraped the shell. With the crab’s thick gloves already cracked, puffs of white meat leapt out like tufts of wool. So light, yet not as fishy as I had expected. What did surprise, though, was the depth to which the seasoning had permeated the shell. Quartered before cooking, it meant the pepper could add it’s sharp heat to each mouthful, spiced by the salt. This was something we both agreed on: it was wonderful.
Legs still hanging from my jaw, a side arrived from their Wok menu—stir-fried pork in honey soy sauce. This was served with steamed buns that I must confer as essential to eating here—especially if you have an imminent Chilli crab. Smaller size this time and not as good. It had been the recommendation of the restaurant and seemed popular with the Japanese due to the sweetness of the sauce, but on purely practical terms it should have come with a high chair and plastic spoons. Fortunately, we already wore the bibs. Fingers pushed crumbling crustacean through chilli sauce onto forks, and soon our baths were opaque. The sauce was fine if overly gen-erous: from the menu we expected lashes of flames packed into the shell; the reality was a burst dam flecked with egg and red Chilli that we plunged with those fantastic buns. But between each gulp of seafood I returned to the land-lubbed wok to pluck honeyed clots of that sweet brown sauce washing the pork. Addictive.
Another side arrived: braised lettuce. Reading that again I guess I should not have been surprised by how watery it was, so let me move on to mention the noodles fried in broth. Woven by Rumplestiltskin, the yellow locks plaited an ocean into each curl and we began to understand the wait for this restaurant in a country used to thick soba and udon. Co-diner could not finish so I gladly aided this dish’s demise before finding a final reason to render myself replete: the dessert menu. You will not be surprised to find Singapore Sling suspending ice-cream, so I was delighted to see an alternative. Assam tea and walnut creme brulee. Despite the momentum the bill was gathering, I could not resist and soon received a shallow dish of the afore-mentioned. A thin tea-tinged tongue of sugar licked up from the cream, cracking like crab under my spoon to reveal a whipped cloud of tannic yolks. Familiar now with smooth textures flaked with sweet shell, it completed an excellent meal in an open-to-all setting. Singapore Seafood Republic makes Shinagawa worth visiting, but if all those commuters discover something this good so close, it would be London 2012 before you get a table. So book ahead and shell out.
Best table: So many to choose from, but try and have one against the wall in the main room or on the Oother terrace at the back. Prices: Our meal for two nudged ¥20,000, and a small crab costs ¥4,200 rising to ¥8,950 for Yokozuna. Location: Opposite Shinagawa station Takanawa Exit, under the Hotel Pacific. Contact: See www.wonderland.to/pc/english/ssr.html for more information or call 03-5449-8080 for reservations.