Saturday, December 26, 2015

Koh Grill & Sushi Bar: Home of the Shiok! Maki. Nuff said.

Within the usually quiet Wisma Mall, is a restaurant that has maintained popularity for quite a while now, boasting fans who readily swear on the goodness of a particular dish that their menu alone offers. Tucked along the side of the food court, Koh Grill used to be a hidden gem with few in the know, serving up a variety of good, though not great, sushi and more famously their Makis, which are among the best you can get at the price point (more on that later). They also offer a variety of cooked food and skewered barbecued meats (yakiniku) which for the most part is decent enough. 

Almost always a crowd during dining hours so be there early
By this point of the review, some fans of the eatery may be wondering why I’m even bothering to type out a review of the place lasting more than two sentences-is it not good enough to warrant a must-try on the get go? Indeed, taking only their unique Makis into account (again, more on those later), Koh Grill easily earns two thumbs way up and an instant must-try stamp. With that said however, their other dishes are at best, above average and at worst, mediocre. No, this is not a post written to hipster bash the eatery. In fact, I was quite hesitant in starting to pen the piece. However I have been visiting the place quite often in recent times and I do believe that a bit of honest tough love is in order every once in a while.

Quality and Taste: 

Let us begin with Sushi. 

No doubt fresh enough, but is that really all there is to good sushi?
Generally speaking, the made to order sushi they serve up are decent enough, using fish which are adequately fresh, especially the ones on their daily catch menu (which you can find pinned on a board to the far right of the sitting counter area). Sadly, that pretty much sums up all the praise I can give pertaining to their traditional sushi. Again, I cannot fault the freshness of the fish they use at this price point but sushi is not just fish on rice, and like any good dish it is a combination of different factors, like temperature, ingredients, freshness, seasoning, preparation and so on, the mastery of each of which within a dish warrants the title of genuine gourmet. 

I’m quite sure no one is expecting Michelin stars at this price point but, more often than not, their sushi are quite sloppily made: uneven cuts lead to quite extremely varied thickness of the fish topping the rice, resulting in inconsistent experiences on each visit; rice not properly kneaded or seasoned with vinegar leading to brittle pieces that fall apart when picked up; rather petty use of non-rice components which would be fine if not for the slight premium they charge compared to other places. 

Roes Woes: Very little roe were given for $4.50 a piece
One of the most miserably sized kanpyo fillings i have met
The fact is that they simply do not match up to competitors in their price range for traditional sushi, with places like itacho, Genki and Ikekimaru offering pieces which are more balanced, consistent and equally fresh and often at slightly lower prices per piece. Ultimately though, Koh Grill still blows away the competition of overly commercialized, budget sushi places which I won’t be naming here. Seriously though, those things exist solely to further damage the dwindling supply of good, grown fish. Pay a few cents more and get real food instead of that weird tasting stuff that will probably give you maggots in your brains! I exaggerate… But back to the point: Koh Grills traditional sushi like the Nigiri and Gunkan are above average for sure but definitely not the steals that their reputation might suggest.

Next, the cooked stuff. They’re satisfactory for the most part. Among those I have tried are the Salmon Miso Soup and Yaki Udon, both of which have a reasonable asking price of about ten dollars. The former is a hearty soup chock-full of lettuce and salmon. The soup uses dark miso which makes it a little heavier, meaning that it can serve just as well as a start to your meal or as the main course itself. It is served piping hot and each sip feels very comforting. As for the latter, I have a friend who raves quite fervently about the great taste of the dish. Now, I’m not sure if his sentiment is one held by all who have tried the dish but I personally wouldn’t call it incredible. Indeed, the Yaki Udon is a messy goodness with its flavour primarily carried by soy sauce which, I’m happy to say, has a good balance. This is complimented by bits of egg, leek, carrot and some chicken then topped with bonito flakes. It tastes rather sticky and chewy with the combination of the Udon noodles, runny egg and sauce deciding such a texture. It’s quite nice and those who have not tried it might want to do so. However, a rather meager portion and overly simple taste which it carries-basically tastes like mere soy sauce with little sophistication-does not warrant it an INCREDIBLE, it does however score a strong seven points or so on the scale. 

A hearty broth with fish and veggies
it's like fried rice but with Udon instead
As for the actual Grill’s part of Koh Grill, the last time I ate was too long ago and I cannot exactly remember its taste. I can say however that the Kushiyaki did not strike the best balance between price, taste and portion.

Finally we move to the best that Koh Grill has to offer - their amazing Makis. Singlish is quite the versatile language, and I say this because there is no faster or better way to describe the Makis than the word: "Rojak". They are not sushi, not the purist kind at least; instead, they are a delightfully unorthodox mix of traditional sushi ingredients and some unexpected ones with a Singaporean twist. The most famous is the shiok maki (1st generation) which I must say is rather appropriately named. It features a tempura prawn rolled into the centre of the sushi which is then topped with salmon (or shake), flying fish roe (Tobiko) and lots of sauce-the key component of which is egg mayonnaise. The entire thing is then broiled, courtesy of a blow torch, which gives the already flavourful package even more flavours. Suffice to say, the first time one of these would be abominations enter your mouth an explosion of flavours and taste will be felt. Sweetness, saltiness and umami surge your palates on full assault. The dish is not at all delicate and it has no sophistication either, but the combination simply works, perhaps so due to the abundance of sauce which bring a bit of harmony to the otherwise overly-broad mix of sensations provided by each ingredient since it helps to adjust the overall taste of the dish to something more consistent. 

The star of the show. Everyone wants a piece of him...
All superstars need their closeups. Just look at him ooze glamour from every pore
Whatever the case, the Shiok Maki is a great eat and the same can be said about much of their other makis like the Pitan Maki which bravely throws century eggs on top of sushi, a combination that might make sushi shokunin cry blasphemy but makes my tummy extremely happy. My personal favourite is the Crappy Maki which combines swordfish and soft shell crab. It’s a good dish for those who like their food chewy and tougher to the bite. For those who haven’t tried, swordfish is quite unique: it's tougher to the bite but once through gives way easily. It's also slightly sweet and not too fishy. Some might like this combination and some might not. Try it for yourself and decide. The general idea is that all their Makis rely on a daring combination of ingredients which somehow find balance to provide a burst of flavours in each bite without becoming a disgusting mess of things-basically Rojak, as I have said earlier. There are quite a few more pieces on their menu but having put down the mainstays, I won’t be elaborating here.  Just know that if you’re new to the place, go for the Shiok Maki first. You can’t really go wrong with that.

Crappy Maki-soft shell crab within, swordfish atop. My personal favorite
Century egg sushi...sounds so wrong but tastes so right

Before I forget, the ambience is not that great. The lighting is alright and the service too, but what you get are really tight walking and seating spaces with tables cramped closely to each other. These are small flaws given the food there but ambience is nonetheless an important factor. Do note that it is not a great place for long chats though given the long queues and rather limited seats. You could choose to stay and have a long chat over the meal but anyone with a decent sense of consideration will soon feel like a douche-bag after seeing the queue.

Now comes the difficult part. If you consider only the Makis in general, I think Koh Grill easily scores and 8 and up in quality and taste but then of course there are the other, more disappointing dishes; and I believe that if restaurants cannot vouch for the quality of an item, they should not put it on the menu. With that said, they are not really that bad either; they simply pale in comparison to the Makis. I hope you’re getting my dilemma and hesitance by now. And if you do, please forgive me for doing the ratings a little different this time. Here goes…I'm going to give two ratings, one for the desire to be strict in me and the other for the pure awesomeness of the makis...

Quality & Taste(75%)
Prevalent freshness in most dishes are upset by a lack of effort in preparation. Nonetheless relatively good eats
Value (15%)
Pricing is generally acceptable for given portions. A few hits (Yaki Udon, Makis) and a few misses (traditional Sushi)
Ambience & others (10%)
Nothing to write home about. Tight spaces and noisy but gets the job done
A decent contender in the Japanese food scene But look below...

Quality & Taste(75%)
Uniqueness in innovation combined with incredible explosions of flavour make their makis one hell of a treat
Value (15%)
The average price of 20 or so dollars is quite a bargain for all the different fish you are getting per Maki, not to mention the good portion. 
Ambience & others (10%)
Ambience does not change just because we are singling the Makis out
A really strong contender in the contemporary sushi scene

Koh Grill is a worthy restaurant which any sushi lover who does not consider oneself a strict purist should try. Again, I must emphasize that the stars here are their Makis and the Shiok Maki is the Madonna of the lot. Everything else here is quite average and some above so. You may want to try some of the other stuff, who knows you might like them, but start exploring more and I assure you that there are many places which give you more bang for the buck when it comes to traditional sushi, yakitori and so on. On the whole though I'd still recommend the place to any food lover. 

PS: After much discussion in a high key private meeting, Mark and I unanimously voted in agreement that actually, purist sushi lovers should just get their snobbish heads out of their asses and give the Makis a try anyways, because it really is quite freaking good. And let's face it, a true purist sushi eater in Singapore would probably have starved to death by now. 

Address: 435 Orchard Road, #04-21 Wisma Atria Shopping Centre, Singapore 238877 (inside the food court)
Hours: 11:30am to 10:30pm

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