Of Meat and Drink
Chef Rio Neo and Sake Sommelier Keiji Heng discuss the complementary roles they play, from the second floor shophouse of sake gastrobar Kabuke, to the basement unit of beef rice bowl purveyor Tokidon.
Text by Charlene Chan
Photographs courtesy of Kabuki and Tokidon
Surrounded by skyscrapers in the core of Singapore’s Central Business District, one would hardly expect Hong Leong Building to offer much more than its existing stable of stuffy conglomerates and foreign embassies. In the last few months, however, its basement—previously home to a food court—has been taken over by a series of new concepts, including specialty desserts and cuisines. One such establishment is Tokidon, its signature beef rice bowls a hearty contrast to the harsh efficiency of business upstairs.
Stepping off the escalator, one is first introduced to Tokidon by way of the neon lights that decorate its storefront. The easy, energetic vibe continues inside, where an 80’s retro-future aesthetic will soon be complemented by collaborations with local creatives, including T-shirts designed by Mojoko and keychains by FLABSLAB. This is tempered by touches that hint at an uncompromising attitude towards beef: a Wagyu display presents the day’s available cuts to the hungry customer, while notes explain the precise preparation methods that make each rice bowl.
Helmed by the team at sake gastrobar Kabuke, Tokidon brings the expertise of both Chef Rio Neo and Sake Sommelier Keiji Heng to their latest outpost. Rio ensures that their Wagyu don maintain gourmet standards; Keiji has introduced a line-up of four sakes to the menu, selecting profiles that pair best with beef rice bowls. They shed light on both concepts, as well as the various elements that come together for a great dining experience.
Sommelier Keiji Heng
Please tell us what you do, and how you got your respective starts in the business.
Keiji (K): I take care of the sake menu at Kabuke, which includes menu development and sourcing for new and interesting sake. My other title is professional drinker (laughs). It’s my dream job.
Previously, I did not like sake at all. Then I joined a Japanese company, and somehow ended up managing the sake bar. In Japanese culture, you have to drink if your bosses ask you to. The very first time my boss gave me sake, he went, “Here, cheers.” And I thought, “Shit.” (laughs). But after I drank it, I decided it was actually not bad. After that, I started trying more. Each sake is unique; they can be produced in the same neighbourhood, yet taste so different.
Rio (R): I’m the head chef at Kabuke and Tokidon. My parents had an economic bee hoon stall [when I was younger]. I started helping them out when I was in primary school, doing basic things like scooping out rice and washing vegetables. As I got older, I was able to fry eggs and cook deep-fried dishes, using humble ingredients like garlic and ginger to add fragrance. That’s something I like most; infusing flavours without over-complicating a dish. I try to make [my dishes] simple, yet sophisticated.
My time with my parents at the hawker centre provided the foundation for my cooking. This is something I carried with me as I went on to work with Fat Cow and Kinki Restaurant + Bar, before heading up the kitchen at Kabuke.
Chef Rio Neo
Rio, can you explain the basics of cooking and enjoying Wagyu, and the different cuts available?
R: Wagyu has a higher fat content than regular beef, so it’s best to cook it in its own fat, rather than add oil or butter. As Wagyu is highly marbled, we cook it at a higher temperature so that heat penetrates its marbling seams to release more flavours. Seasoning it with sea salt before searing will give you a nice caramelised crust, while resting it after cooking (instead of slicing the meat straightaway) ensures that all its juices are locked in!
Like all other beef, Wagyu has its primary and secondary cuts, the former being more premium. Primary cuts include the ribeye, striploin and tenderloin. For our rice bowls at Tokidon and Kabuke, I prefer the primary striploin cut as it is a balance of both the fattier ribeye and the leaner tenderloin. For our butcher’s selection at Kabuke, I go for secondary Japanese Wagyu cuts like the flank, flap, ribeye cap and chuck, which are less well known but really flavourful.
So what are some key considerations you have when putting together a rice bowl?
R: Key factors I look out for when assembling a rice bowl are: good quality rice, well-prepared beef, sweet and savoury sauces, crunchy and visually pleasing garnishes, and it must smell good!
Keiji, can you elaborate on the basics of sake appreciation? What do factors like dryness, lightness and acidity mean?
K: Dryness and sweetness lie on a scale of sorts, in a balance. The drier a sake is, the less sweetness you will taste. But because sake is made from rice, there will be a hint of sweetness even if it’s super dry. With acidity, I think the equivalent in wine is what they call siap siap (Hokkien for astringent). (laughs) It’s got to do with tannin activity. Sakes with higher acidity tend to be fuller-bodied, while lower acidity translates into a lighter-bodied sake.
Is there a reason why some bars serve sake warm?
K: There are some sakes that are much better warm. They were created such that their best flavour profiles emerge at higher temperatures, whereas lower temperatures tend to inhibit these profiles. A lot of times, the best temperature [to enjoy sake] is slightly below room temperature—that’s when you taste the full range of flavours. Some sakes open up and develop more flavours at around 40 degrees; some are best around 50 degrees, others at 60.
There are cheap sakes that tend to go sour at higher temperatures. There is a perception that hot sake is bad sake, but the Japanese market has evolved and the quality of sake is a lot better. There are actually a lot of enthusiasts for warm sake. I personally quite like it—you have to experiment.
How do you work together when planning for a new menu?
R: Usually, we have a new sake or dish we want to push for. We’ll try the sake, and I’ll think of something that can match it. Sometimes, I’ll tell Keiji when I think of a new dish. I’ll prepare it for him to try, and he’ll pair it. It works both ways.
K: We consult each other. I’ll ask Rio what’s in season, what he plans to use and the kinds of flavour profiles [he is introducing]. I’ll also see if there’s a special sake coming up during the season, or interesting sakes I haven’t brought onto the menu yet. Seasonality is a main factor. Accessibility too; it has to be approachable for people who are new to sake, not something so complex that’s only for experienced drinkers.
Rio, seasonality is a factor in your cooking at Kabuke too—can you explain the concept of washoku?
R: Washoku translates literally as “food of Japan”. There are many aspects to it: using quality, seasonal ingredients, demonstrating good cooking techniques, presentation, and [achieving balance across] the five tastes—sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness and umami. I was introduced to washoku after National Service, when I was looking for a job in a professional kitchen. It was by chance that the first restaurant I worked in was a Japanese restaurant. From there, I grew to like Japanese cooking and food.
[When creating a new dish], I think about the ingredients that are in season, and what the supply of that ingredient is like—some ingredients may be in season for only one month. Once I settle on something, I make it the focus of the dish, then I add in my take on the flavouring and presentation.
Where do you get new ideas for your dishes?
R: I have to read a lot. I watch a lot of TV—documentaries, food channels and travel shows that present cuisine from different countries. And I try to put them together to see what works, or what is not suitable. There are no limitations.
Is there a sake or dish you want to introduce, but haven’t been able to?
R: For me, the difficulty is that if you want to get really good ingredients, you have to order them in from Japan. For a small place, we can’t really afford to bring in a large quantity of fresh items—one of the difficulties we have is storage. Something I haven’t introduced yet, and is hard to do, is a kaiseki style of dining. It’s a bit more traditional, and uses more seasonal items. It’s not just one dish, but a different type of cooking. And also spicy food. Spicy food doesn’t go well with sake, but I really love spicy food.
K: Sake is quite delicate, so they don’t really go with spice. Japanese spices are a lot lighter, and can go with fuller-bodied sake. But Southeast Asian spices are way too spicy, and they kind of spoil your taste buds. We’ve had to explain this to quite a few customers who told us that our food is not spicy enough.
I love spicy food too. There’s actually a brewer from Tochigi prefecture in the north of Japan; when he came to Singapore we ate the usual chilli crab and he realised that sake doesn’t pair with a lot of local food. So he went and created this full-bodied sake by playing around with factors like the type of rice used and the duration the mash ferments. In fact, brewers realise this and are trying to internationalise sake, to pair it with a variety of palates.