Skewers are usually just part of the offerings at many Japanese restaurants. But sticks of chargrilled or deep-fried meat and vegetables have become the star in a fresh crop of restaurants here.
Over the past nine months, no fewer than six skewer eateries have opened. They include Chikin, a yakitori and cocktail bar in Bukit Pasoh Road that opened last Friday; and Provisions, a claypot rice-cum-skewers restaurant-bar in Dempsey Road that opened earlier this month.
Come Aug 1, renowned kushikatsu restaurant Rokukakutei from Osaka will open its first overseas outpost in Odeon Towers in North Bridge Road.
One of the early birds is The Skewer Bar in 489 Geylang Road which opened in February last year. Co-owner Tan Jun Ann, 34, says business has increased by up to 20 per cent over the past year, with about 500 skewers sold daily. "The popularity of skewers is an extension of eating satay for supper," he says.
With Chikin, opened by Coterie Dining Concepts, chief executive officer Tay Eu-Yen, 38, hopes to bring yakitori out of a "traditionally smoky and woody izakaya setting" by covering her bar with Japanese pop art.
"Yakitori offers variety in a meal and are fun to eat," she says. "They are flexible as they can be a light bar bite or a heavier meal option."
At Provisions, South-east Asian ingredients are used in its meat skewers, claypot rice and cocktails. Co-owner Justin Foo, 27, says having a skewer-centric menu makes more business sense in a tough economic climate.
He and co-owner K.C. Rahmat, 34, pumped in "less than $90,000" for their maiden business venture. He says: "A skewer eatery requires less manpower. Only two staff members are required to run the kitchen, unlike in a full-scale restaurant."
Diners are lapping up the skewers. Human resource manager Mona Wee, in her 50s, likes barbecue grills. She says: "Skewers showcase a lot of creativity on a stick. It can be quite addictive and I can have 50 skewers with a group of friends."
PAPA'S SKEWER BAR
Where: The Woodgrove, Woodgrove Eating Place, 30 Woodlands Avenue 1; open: 4pm to 3am daily
Info: Call 9847-4988 or go to www.facebook.com/papaskewerbar
With Korean barbecue grill and Thai mookata restaurants mushrooming across the island, how does a barbecue stall in a coffee shop in Woodlands stand out from the competition?
The nine-month-old Papa's Skewer Bar does so by having close to 40 varieties of meat, vegetable and seafood on sticks.
Diners here grill the food themselves on gas-powered hot plates, so serving food on skewers is more practical.
Owner Louis Tan, 51, says: "It is troublesome to use a pair of tongs to flip the ingredients constantly to check if they are cooked."
Mr Tan, who runs the Woodgrove Food Place coffee shop, was inspired by skewers used in home barbecues. He prepares about 500 skewers each day.
Best-selling items include lemongrass chicken thigh, ham-wrapped cream cheese and bacon-wrapped pineapples. He uses marinades made with ingredients such as rosemary and fish sauce. The menu changes monthly.
Prices range from $1.20 for a shiitake mushroom skewer to $3.80 for a 25cm-long smoked chicken cheese sausage. There is a minimum order of 15 sticks.
Where: 6 Bukit Pasoh Road; open: 5pm to 1am (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays
Info: Call 6221-3670 or go to www.chikinbar.com
A quirky window display of monochromatic Japanese cartoon plushies such as Hello Kitty and Doraemon catches the eye at Chikin, a hip yakitori and cocktail bar that opened two days ago.
Ms Tay Eu-Yen, 38, chief executive officer of Coterie Dining Concepts, which runs Chikin, wants to provide a more "fun and trendy hangout" to enjoy yakitori instead of the traditional smoky and rustic izakaya.
The 3,000 sq ft space spans a three-storey conservation shophouse that is decked out in zany wall-to- ceiling pop art murals that are sprinkled with Japanese icons such as geishas. The bar is lit in neon lights, which immerse revellers in a slice of Tokyo's raucous nightlife.
Chikin means chicken in colloquial Japanese. The tongue-in-cheek name alludes to the fact that different parts of the bird are used in 13 types of yakitori ($3 to $4.50 a stick), including uncommon ones such as saezuri (windpipe) and kubikawa (neck skin).
Most skewers are seasoned with either salt or Sichuan peppercorns and other spices and grilled over binchotan charcoal. There is also a kushiyaki section that includes brussels sprouts wrapped in bacon ($4), and foie gras ($8).
More substantial offerings include unagi garlic fried rice ($12) and roasted cauliflower with melted cheese ($9).
The drinks menu features about 20 Japanese- inspired cocktails ($19 each) crafted by executive bartender Sam Wong, 32.
Most of his concoctions are cocktails that have been infused for up to four days. Favourites include the fruity Sake Sangria and Dozo Mango, made with sake and gin that are infused with mango and pineapple.
Where: 55 Tras Street; open: 6pm to midnight (Mondays to Thursdays), 6pm to 2am (Fridays & Saturdays), closed on Sundays
Info: Call 8748-4585 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/birderssg
Yakitori, or grilled skewered chicken, is typically flavoured with salt or tare (a Japanese soya-based basting sauce). But at this two-month-old modern-chic yakitori bar, each of the more than 20 skewers is creatively personalised with toppings and sauces. The skewers mostly comprise common cuts of chicken.
The Sasami (chicken tenderloin, $4.50) is topped with ume and ohba genovese, a pesto made from shiso leaves; and the Tail ($4) is drenched in an umami-rich garlic shoyu sauce.
Vegetable skewers are also given the creative treatment. The Nagaimo Mentai ($8) has mountain yam laced with cod roe mayonnaise and umami corn ($6) that is topped with a gochujang-based sauce and seaweed.
The skewers are the brainchild of chef Makoto Deguchi, who worked at one-Michelin-starred French restaurant Sola in Paris. Most skewers in the 55-seat restaurant are grilled over binchotan charcoal upon order.
Owner and television actor Adam Chen, 41, says: "Yakitori may look restrictive, but we play around with seasonings and toppings to come up with exciting flavours."
He adds that the popularity of skewers is a result of diners getting more familiar with the izakaya (Japanese gastro-pub) concept. It pairs small bites with tipples and more substantial dishes are available if one still feels hungry. Heavier dishes on the menu include oyako don (chicken thigh and egg rice, $10). Wash the food down with a choice of about eight types of One Cup Sake that come in 180ml cups ($15 to $20 each).
Where: 4 Haji Lane; open: 11.30am to 3pm, 5.30 to 10.30pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), 11.30am to 3pm (Sundays), closed on Mondays
Info: Call 6291-3323 or go to www.facebook.com/pankosg
Unlike other new skewer eateries that specialise in grills, this week-old restaurant-bar zeroes in on kushikatsu or deep-fried skewers.
On the menu are more than 50 types of vegetable, meat and seafood skewers. Popular items include wagyu beef with oroshi ponzu ichimi ($6) and Japanese oysters ($8).
The boundaries of kushikatsu are stretched in the Special section, with skewers such as bacon-wrapped mochi and mentai mayonnaise ($5) and Hokkaido scallop with sea urchin ($8).
These new creations are the brainchild of executive chef Asai Masashi, who is from Osaka, where kushikatsu originated.
Panko is part of hospitality group Unlisted Collection, which runs restaurants such as Audace in Dickson Road and yakitori bar Bincho in Tiong Bahru that is also helmed by chef Masashi.
For kushikatsu, the food is coated in an egg batter and panko, fine Japanese breadcrumbs that absorb less oil when deep-fried. The golden-brown skewers are strained and dry-steamed to ensure they remain hot and crisp.
The chef says he picked up the skill of cooking kushikatsu from a "popular chef of a now-defunct restaurant in Osaka".
Most of the dinner crowd in the 70-seat restaurant pair the skewers with tipples such as Japanese craft beers on tap and sake.
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CHAR STICKS AND GRILL
Where: 2 Lorong 29 Geylang; open: 3 to 11pm (Sundays to Thursdays), 3pm to 12.30am (Fridays and Saturdays)
Info: Call 8188-2902 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/charsticks
Besides digging into dim sum and frog leg porridge, night owls in popular supper hangout Geylang can also check out the latest supper nosh - meat on sticks.
One of the first skewer eateries in the area is The Skewer Bar in 489 Geylang Road, which opened in February last year. One street down, another skewer eatery, Char Sticks & Grill, opened last November.
This no-frills 40-seat kushiyaki (grilled meat and vegetables) stall offers 60 types of skewers. Hot sellers include bacon-wrapped prawns, pork and chicken balls, teriyaki pork ribs and fruit and vegetables such as pineapple and corn. The skewers are basted with a housemade tare sauce as they are grilled over charcoal. About 400 skewers are sold daily.
Owner Mark Lim, 37, learnt to make kushiyaki from working in restaurants when he was on a three- month-long working holiday in Japan three years ago.
On the appeal of skewers, he says: "Diners can socialise over skewers better as they can control the pace of eating and quantity to order."
At $1 to $2.80 a stick, the skewers here are half the price of those in restaurants.
The former Western food chef says: "By operating in a coffee shop, I save on rental and can sell at a lower price."
Besides skewers, there are more than 10 grilled seafood dishes such as cheese scallops ($7.90 for two pieces), Canadian rock oysters ($10.90) and fish from Japan such as shishamo ($1.50) and samran ($4.90).
Where: 7 Dempsey Road; open: 4pm to 1am (Tuesdays to Thursdays), 4pm to 2am (Fridays and Saturdays), 10.30am to 3pm (Sundays), closed on Mondays
Info: Call 6250-7090 or go to www.facebook.com/pg/provisions.asia
Despite having worked in Western restaurants for five years, chef Justin Foo went back to his Asian roots with his maiden business venture, Provisions. It is a 69-seat skewers and claypot rice cocktail bar that opened earlier this month.
The 27-year-old, who was the head chef at Senso Ristorante and Bar in Club Street, recalls that he was cooking Asian dishes such as bulgogi and tom yum soup on his days off. He says: "I love the alchemy of flavours from the spices and herbs used in Asian cuisine."
This tantalising melange of South-east Asian flavours permeates the skewers menu. On offer are 12 cuts of chicken, pork, beef and seafood grilled over binchotan charcoal. Popular picks include chunky chicken thigh ($5), which is perfumed with turmeric, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves; the beautifully lacquered char siew-style pork belly ($7) and Sichuan peppercorn- seasoned octopus ($10) drizzled with black garlic sauce.
Chef Foo also offers five variations of claypot rice cooked with five types of grains, including barley and terigu (wheat grains). These Asian-inspired claypots include oyster omelette rice ($18) and oolong tea- infused shiitake mushroom rice ($9).
The South-east Asian theme also extends to the cocktail menu, crafted by co-owner K.C. Rahmat, 34.
He concocts bespoke cocktails ($18) centred on infused liqueur such as grapefruit tequila and banana whisky. Other cocktails include Bantai Bundung ($14), which features rose syrup.
This story was originally published in The Straits Times.