Singaporean chef-owner Javier Low struck out on his own a year ago to start IL DEN, a Japanese-Italian omakase hole-in-a-wall. With his move to new digs next month, he is setting his sights on greater things.

27-year-old chef Javier Low entered the established fold of Iggy’s restaurant when he was just 16 years old. Moving from an internship to a fulltime role after his National Service, he learnt his craft over the next five to six years under various chefs. Leaving as chef de partie, he ventured to Kyoto, doing a stage in Japanese-Italian restaurant Cenci and other restaurants. Stints at Japanese restaurants such as Kappo Shunsui followed upon his return home. By then, the doubts he was having about the opportunities he could find if he continued along the same path came to a head. He decided to start IL DEN at Orchard Plaza, a one-man kitchen serving Japanese-Italian omakase meals. For him, it was a make or break decision. With his move to bigger premises at Bugis Cube next month, one might say he’s leaning on the side of making it.

Javier Low, chef-owner of IL DEN

Javier Low, chef-owner of IL DEN

What gave you the confidence to start IL DEN?
As I was running the kitchen at Iggy’s for a few years, I never worried about handling the culinary parts of the job. It was also a confidence booster that the Japanese restaurants I worked for in Japan and Singapore really liked my work. But the business aspect was a very scary thing for me. That’s why I started small, did zero renovation and didn’t employ any staff. My startup cost was about $20,000. I thought if I lost it, I could still go back to a regular job and pay it off.

What’s the biggest thing you’ve learnt over the past year?
Definitely how to run the business. The first six months were so uncertain. I started at 8am and ended at 3am. I’m lucky that through word of mouth, diners started coming in. Looking back, it would have been better if I had financial backing when I started rather than going it all alone. But thankfully, we’ve been growing slowly. Each time we make some money, we buy some new equipment. And now I have two staff—both new graduates from local culinary institutes. That’s why we’re moving out. The space here is too small for us to operate properly.

Uni somen - Javier Low, chef-owner, IL DEN

Uni somen

Why do you say Japanese-Italian cuisine defies a fixed definition?
There is really no fixed recipe for Japanese-Italian. When you do a concept like that, a lot of effort and thought has to go into making a cohesive dish. It’s not just Italian techniques married with some Japanese ingredients. For instance, what chef Yohhei Sasaki does at il Cielo, Hilton Hotel is a good example of Japanese-Italian cuisine. The uni pasta he makes using ramen noodles, and the mean seafood abalone broth he does, for instance, really have the Japanese-Italian touch.

For myself, I imbibe the Japanese-Italian style by making pasta using different types of dashi (stock) so that the base is very light yet flavourful. I also make dishes such as abalone risotto, where I cook the risotto in an Italian style with Japanese rice; use three types of dashi—katsuo (dried bonito flakes), asari (clam) and awabi (abalone)—to finish the risotto; and prepare the abalone in a very kaiseki way, by steaming it with aged soya sauce, sake and kombu.

Two months ago, I visited various Tokyo-Italian restaurants when I was in Tokyo and was impressed by many of the chefs’ creativity. I hope to invite some of them over when we’ve settled into our new location. I’m also looking into bringing chef Masahiro Isono back to Singapore for a collaboration. He was the last Japanese-Italian-influenced chef I worked for at Iggy’s who’s now based in Yamagata.

Abalone risotto - Javier Low, chef-owner of IL DEN

Abalone risotto

And you say a food exploration of China is on your bucket list?

Yes my dream is to tour different provinces in China, and get to know the ingredients and produce that they have there. For instance if you think about Iberico ham, parts of China produce cured hams too, for instance in Zhejiang province where they have Jin Hua ham. Or if you think about bamboo shoots from Japan—often they get it from China as well. I actually think Chinese cooking has a deep influence on Japanese techniques, for instance, in the making of soups, noodles, soya sauce, etc. I am interested to find the connections between them. And for practical reasons, if I can get to know producers from different regions well, perhaps I can skip the middleman. Everyone’s obsessed about Toyosu market, the new Tsukiji, but for the longterm future, we can explore finding good ingredients that are more cost-effective.

Your dishes change frequently, being an omakase-style restaurant. But which have been some signature dishes?
The uni somen. At Iggy’s, there is a signature dish known as the somen caviar where the sauce is done with cream, kombu and caviar. When people started coming in and knew I was from Iggy’s, they asked if I could do something like that. That’s how I set about making the uni somen. In my version, we use uni, and the uni sauce is made with uni, wasabi, wasabi leaves and octopus. Another dish that has proved very popular is our sawara or Spanish mackerel. We smoke it with hay, finish it off with our aged soya sauce and brown butter, and serve it with local spinach espuma and gobo chips.

IL DEN's sawara dish - Javier Low, chef-owner, Il Den

IL DEN’s sawara dish

What’s your favourite ingredient to work with?
I’d say it’s shirako, the cod fish sperm. At my previous restaurant, we did dishes such as shirako pasta. In Singapore, some diners are turned off as soon as they hear what it is, but this ingredient has a very strong but light and creamy flavour profile. We did a charred shirako with risotto cake and dashi emulsion topped with shiso flowers when it was in season at the end of the year.

What can diners expect at your new place?
It’d still be the same dinner omakase format (from $120 for six courses). The size of the restaurant is about 500sqft, which is roughly 2.5 times what we have now. It’d have eight counter seats and a small six-seater private room. We’d be looking to build on the current menu, perhaps do more donabe (clay pot) dishes and fresh pastas, and play with different cuts of meat. I am also thinking about making Japanese-style fish balls, perhaps filled with crab and vegetables inside and simply steamed. The beauty of omakase is if I have a regular who comes in three times a week, I can make a different meal for him each time.

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