It is a rather nondescript restaurant front— respectably restrained brown framing against a whitewashed shophouse building. Three simple stylised letters tell you where you are: iKO.
Revamped after its initial launch in April 2021, iKO is the place to go for traditional and authentic Japanese cuisine. But it’s almost like two souls live in a single iKO body. One is traditional and restrained; the other, brash and irreverent.
You can recognise that from the décor. Suspended from the ceiling near the entrance are massive works of modern anime art, provocative and edgy. Walk further in and the walls are adorned with art in the classic Japanese style that feature no less than the imperturbable crane. The piped music segues from ‘90s American pop in the afternoon to the latest Japanese R&B as the sun sets.
It’s an interesting concept that intrigued me. I was still appreciating the interplay between the Industrial-style exposed piping and the Zen-like peace of the elegant crane when the snacks arrived.
What I tried
We tucked into the Charred Edamame (S$12) first. The soybean pods come coated in wasabi dust and wasabi roe on a bed of oyster leaves. It was a nice welcome, evenly balanced in its flavours.
The Tempura Jalapeno (S$9) was distinctly more fiery. Served with kombu cream cheese and sour cream powder, just one of the two massive jalapeno pods was enough to set my dainty tongue on fire.
iKO served us two dishes from their Raw menu. Both the Salmon (S$19) and the Scallop (S$18) were exquisite.
The first is smoked salmon accompanied by kiwi ravigote sauce, dill oil, and chive creme fraiche (soured cream), and the second was scallops topped with gin-infused watermelon and lemongrass. I am not a big drinker but the tiny drams of gin with each mouthful were pure heaven paired with the scallops.
So much fun and we hadn’t even reached the Starter menu. That barrier was breached in the form of A4 Wagyu “Sukiyaki” (S$26) with shiitake mushrooms, leek, scallion, egg yolk, and perilla (beefsteak plant), followed by the iKO Roll (S$24) that is served with foie gras, winter black truffle, maitake mushrooms, and figs.
The A4 Wagyu was… A4 Wagyu. Tender and stringy just as I like it, the meat was very well complemented by the hearty broth. Each slice of the iKO roll was to die for, especially after we had Chef Peter garnish the dish with black winter truffle right at our table.
iKO calls the rice section of its menu ‘Not Your Ordinary Rice Bowl’, and with good cause. The choices range from Classic (S$15) of natto (fermented soybean), nagaimo (Japanese yam), okra, cured egg yolk, and seaweed rice to Luxury (S$42) of otoro and maguro tuna, salmon, ikura (cured salmon roe), tobiko (flying fish roe), snow crab, uni (Japanese sea urchin), and seaweed rice.
We tried the Luxury plate and I must say that the presentation was a work of art. A perfectly-formed oh-so-symmetrical yellow chrysanthemum flower perched on side of the rice mountain. Bright orange ikura and yellow tobiko roe peppered the dish in blooms of colour.
My profound disappointment is that the taste just could not live up to the magical aesthetics. While it boasts a titillating mouthfeel, there was simply too much going on. That’s a personal opinion and I appreciate that some savour a multiplicity of flavours in a single dish; for them, this is perfect.
Our foray then took us into the Sumibi-Yaki part of the menu. The phrase refers to dishes grilled over a charcoal fire and our two selections were Smoked Tuna (S$26) and Kurobuta Bone In Pork Loin (S$32).
Similar to an aglio olio, the tuna comes with firefly squid, ikura, tobiko, and bottarga over bucatini pasta. It had less kick than I expected but the squid was the weak link— I prefer mine crispy and well-done but here, it was soft and chewy.
By contrast, the pork was outstanding. The dish is a vertically-oriented serving of kale, mizuna (Japanese mustard greens), spring onions, chives, garlic shoots, and black garlic. Nothing can prepare you for the 5 spice demi-glace that accompanies it. Somehow, the sauce extracts every bit of flavour from all the other ingredients, resulting in a wonderful culinary experience that lingers in your pleasant memories long after.
For dessert, we tried the Matchamisu (S$13), a matcha-flavoured tiramisu, ladyfinger biscuits, and coconut drenched in Baileys and topped with colourful sesame seeds.
The matcha-ness was just right for me, not heavy-handed like I’ve had to endure elsewhere. Perhaps the biscuit could be a fraction softer to match the texture of the rest of the sweet treat.
iKO was surprisingly good. Surprisingly because I could have mistaken it for a beauty salon from the outside.
Step inside, though, and there’s no doubt about the authenticity of the restaurant. Have a dish and there’s no doubt about the talent in the kitchen. Consulting Chef Dylan Ong and Chef Peter are creating masterpieces of Japanese cuisine that don’t just please the palate but also serenade the eyes.
The word ‘iko’ translates to ‘let’s go’ and I can say with certainty that I will be iko-ing to iKO again soon.
Expected damage: S$30 – S$60 per pax
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Price: $ $
Our Rating: 3 / 5
65 Neil Road, Singapore 088897
65 Neil Road, Singapore 088897