Singapore fling

In Japanese, the name Hitomi means something like “pupil of the eye” or, more colloquially, apple of the eye. It is supposed to suggest a homey, comfortable favorite of sorts. In restaurant language, “Hitomi” might be your neighborhood bistro, a simple place where you can go with your diary, write love letters or draw flowers on nice paper.

The Hitomi that comes to mind from such a description is the Hitomi of light-rail fame. Visible only to state workers in the 12th and R corridor or to light-rail riders gazing out the window, Hitomi Espresso Cafe & Dining inhabits a little building tucked behind the light-rail tracks. Being so close to the tracks, it has always struck me as the Little Hitomi That Could.

The Little Hitomi That Could is both old and new. In its former life, it was owned by an older Japanese couple. Three years ago, Douglas Lim, a Singaporean turned San Franciscan, bought it and added his own touch. The newer Hitomi is a Singaporean’s take on simple California Asian dining, which, in part, continues the popular bias for sushi-roll creations but also adds the pan-Asiatic quality of Singapore itself. Such menu items as the Thai soup and tofu cubes and the kimchi fried rice stand out, as do the ubiquitous tapioca pearl drinks—all the rage with the young Asian kids only a few years ago.

Hitomi is a pleasing experience before you ever take a bite of the food. The diorama art on the walls contains cool plastic flowers and rice representing soil. The beer comes in frosted glasses. The hot sake comes in hot vases. Fresh-faced Asian waiters and waitresses wait on you with absolute friendliness.

Wanting to have something traditional, something unorthodox and something recommended, we ordered a sushi and sashimi combination plate, the X.O. maki roll (consisting of jalapeño, spicy fish roe and assorted raw fish) and the Unaten roll (with avocado, fried shrimp and barbecued eel).

The sushi and sashimi combination plate was highly attractive. The sashimi came in a rose-petal design. Both the tuna and salmon were pleasing, with the salmon beating out the tuna hands down. There’s something so great about the feeling of raw salmon in your mouth. It’s the fat that coats your mouth and makes the flavor cling, even after you’ve swallowed that sucker. The only drawback of the sashimi was that the fish could have been a tad colder.

The nigiri sushi and roll items were less impressive than the sashimi. Their dominant characteristics were rice and, in the case of the rolls, a particularly assertive seaweed reminiscent of the kind Koreans use to make kimpap. The same seaweed flavor stood out in the Unaten, the best of Hitomi’s cooked specialties. Very ripe avocado, blended with a modicum of eel, wrapped itself around seaweed rice and a delectable bite of fried shrimp. The batter had tiny jagged edges, with a heavenly crunch. The shrimp was plump and flavorful. Toasted sesame seeds sprinkled on top added character and flavor to the dish.

Each plate came with a decorative zigzag of sauce—roasted red pepper, teriyaki and something resembling a tangy buttermilk glaze—further adding a delicate charm to the eating experience.

As expected, the jalapeño, roe and tuna/salmon roll was somewhat of a failure. The delicate roe were lost amid the large and crunchy jalapeño chunks, which still had too much of a bite. A blanched version with more of the zigzag cream might have worked better.

The true aberration of the meal, however, was not the jalapeño. It was one of the tapioca pearl drinks. A Hong Kong milk tea came with an oversized straw, at least half an inch in diameter, perfect for sucking out giant balls of tapioca. At first, the drink was so sweet, I nearly gagged. But upon the third, fourth and fifth sip, I started to get it. And then I got it. The giant ball of tapioca. It entered my mouth like a perfect orb of snot. Horrified, I chewed. Fairly flavorless after so much sugar. But, hmm, not a bad texture. Chewy, for sure. I began slurping the drink in anticipation of the next and the next, fascinated with the tapioca ball’s gluey, chewy texture.

So, there you have it. Hitomi grows on you, like tapioca snot. It’s not the bomb. But there’s charm, not unlike a 12-year-old, who might be the apple of your eye. Hitomi, you understand diaries, love letters and the charm of a secret place tucked behind the light-rail tracks. Hitomi, I knew you could.