The meandering rows of torii gates at the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto straddle a network of trails that lead into the forest of the sacred Mount Inari where smaller shrines and mounds for worship are stationed. The iconic vermilion gates that guard the entrance to Shinto shrines are ubiquitous in the country and have become an emblematic symbol of Japanese religion, acting as portals from the mundane to the sacred. Never would we have thought we would see those iconic gates — or more accurately, a shrunken replica of those gates — in Singapore, let alone in the middle of Marina Bay Sands’ luxury retail complex. It frames a 20m passageway into restaurant and nightlife company Tao Group’s latest Japanese restaurant, Koma. Talk about a grand entrance.
But the surprises did not end there. Inside, all eyes were drawn to the dining area’s anchoring centrepiece: a massive 2.5m bell situated above a traditional Japanese foot bridge and a reflecting pool. The soaring seven-metre-high ceilings feature decorative acoustic panels in the shape of lily pads designed to mimic the surface of a pond, and branching out from a corner are wooden grid suspensions in the same shade as the torii replicas outside. Glass owls sit like gargoyles on the suspensions, ushering wisdom, luck and good fortune into the 230-seat restaurant, bar and lounge. Designed by award-winning interdisciplinary architecture and design firm Rockwell Group, Koma truly looks one of a kind. We proceeded to the mezzanine floor and settled into a semi-private dining room with Tao Group managing partner Jared Boles and Koma executive chef Kunihiro Moroi.
Adept in several styles of Japanese cuisine, including sushi, sashimi, robatayaki and tempura, Moroi created adventurous dishes inspired by his travels across Southeast Asia. Koma’s menu is a collaborative effort that combines Tao Group’s bold and exuberant essence and Moroi’s 30 years’ experience as a chef. Standouts include the burst-in-your-mouth Salmon Pillow, a crisp puff pastry shell filled with smoked avocado topped with salmon sashimi and burnt jalapeño peppers and the decadent Surf & Turf, which comprises wagyu beef, Hokkaido uni (sea urchin), caviar and truffle. “The smoked avocado filling was Tao Group’s idea,” said Moroi. “When ideas mix, you achieve something totally different.”
Southeast Asians have always had an appetite for Japanese fare, but what would make them pick Koma from the crowd?
Boles summarised its strength in three points. “For one, it’s the cuisine. Chef Kunihiro is tremendously unique. Our tagline is ‘The many faces of Japanese cuisine’. It allows us to incorporate techniques and ingredients from other cultures worldwide and make them our own. For example, our lobster salad uses Japanese seafood such as lobster, scallop and uni, but it also incorporates coconut and lemongrass, which are Thai elements. This allows us to create unique dishes you cannot get anywhere else. I think our cocktail programme is also something to look forward to.”
Koma boasts a bar and lounge that serves an extensive selection of more than 30 types of sake sourced from all over Japan. Upon ordering, guests are also able to choose their own ochoko (sake cups). “And finally, of course, the environment,” said Boles. “What’s special about Koma is that you can have an intimate dinner tucked away in a booth to the side. We have a capacity of 230 but you can still have an private experience in that environment.
“My personal mentor, Rich Wolf, one of the founders of the Tao Group, is a meticulous person. His attention to detail and design is unparalleled. I’m very thankful that I’ve been able to work so closely with him for 20 years because he has taught me so much about being detail-oriented and making sure that every aspect of somebody’s experience is controlled, unique and special, because those are the things people remember.”
Koma is just one of Tao Group’s latest string of concepts in Marina Bay Sands. The company develops, owns and operates many of the world’s most recognised restaurant and entertainment venues, including in New York City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Chicago, Sydney and, most recently, Singapore. In a span of two years, the group successfully launched four venues in Marina Bay Sands, raking in tremendous numbers that exceeded expectations. Each of these venues is festooned with detailed decorations, from velvet walls and plush banquettes to glowing glass pendants and gilded metal accents. Each space evokes lavish opulence, but in a distinctive way.
Tao Group started out with Lavo last year, an Italian-American restaurant and rooftop bar that sits on top of Marina Bay Sand’s cantilevered sky garden. It offers a 180° view of Singapore’s skyline and directly faces the sunset. It flaunts a luxurious indoor and outdoor lounge and is the perfect pre-party spot. Here, we thoroughly enjoyed the Lavo Mule, a delicious Belvedere, lime and ginger cocktail.
Tao Group’s carnivalesque nightclub, Marquee, opened in April this year, just five days before the unveiling of Jewel Changi Airport. What used to be an amphitheatre was transformed to host the biggest nightclub in Singapore, boasting the world’s largest indoor 10K resolution LED screen, an eight-armed Ferris wheel, a three-storey spiralling slide and four bars named after the four cities in which the nightclubs are based — New York, Las Vegas, Sydney and Singapore.
And just a month later, Avenue was launched. The intimate and sophisticated speakeasy is a swanky hideout for a place to have relaxed drinks or as a respite from the rousing atmosphere at Marquee. Peppered with a variety of fun activities, Avenue is decked with a bowling alley, karaoke room, pool table and an arcade. Two months later, Koma opened at the dining and entertainment complex.
“I think Koma completes the whole package,” said Boles. “The Tao Group explores opportunity to build hubs. And what that means is to have multiple venues. If you build a restaurant next to a nightclub, they work symbiotically, they help each other.”
Singapore is where connoisseurs, tastemakers, executives and gourmands meet. It was the first Asian country to host the World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards ceremony and Marina Bay Sands’ iconic towers have made multiple appearances in big Hollywood movies. Hordes of tourists visit the hotel daily, not to mention the droves of Instagrammers trying to squeeze in a picture at its 57th floor infinity pool. When it comes to an establishment within a hotel or resort, Boles said the support of locals is the true test of success. “The goal is to cater for people who live here seven days a week, rather than somebody who is here two days a year.
“Singapore is multicultural. I think what’s unique about Singaporeans is their desire for something new, interesting, fun and delicious. And if we’re able to hit the mark with our four venues, then we’ve done something special.”
When asked about the group’s secret to success, Boles settled for a personal answer. “If you constantly tinker away, you can create an experience that is as new and fresh as it was when it came out 20 years ago. And I think that’s our real philosophy, to strive to be better every day at what we do.”
He drew similarities with the country’s growth. “I think that’s why Singapore is expanding so rapidly. Its growth and international clientele is unmatched, really. We sit in one of the most premier hotels in the world and we couldn’t ask for a better partner. The partnership we have with Marina Bay Sands is one of the best you could ask for.”
Earlier this year, Israeli-Canadian Moshe Safdie, the architect behind the trinity towers, revealed plans to establish a fourth stand-alone tower on Marina Bay. Alongside the tower, the studio will design a new destination district with a state-of-the-art 15,000-seat music arena, which will be characterised by curvaceous silver and glass façades. The new tower will host 1,000 hotel suites as well as its own sky roof equipped with a swimming pool and restaurant. Though the expected date of completion is undisclosed, the fact that Singapore is continuously trying to top itself is symbolic of its pursuit for excellence. Tao Group’s partnership with Marina Bay Sands is merely the start of what is to come. We guess there will not be an ease in traffic across the Causeway anytime soon.
This article first appeared on Sept 23, 2019 in The Edge Malaysia.