Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Esquina (Singapore)

August 2012

16 Jiak Chuan Road, Singapore
Tel: +65 6222 1616

What a treat! Two meals at Jason Atherton restaurants in a space of a week! After our enjoyable lunch at Pollen a few days ago, we decided to try to get a table for lunch at Esquina. This restaurant is probably the first of the recent wave of modern tapas bars sprouting up all over Singapore. One could credit Esquina for starting the trend of Spanish cuisine in the past year, except that in our view, for Esquina, 'tapas bar' is probably more a description of its concept rather than its food, as the fare they serve may be more accurately termed as high-end gastro-pub food mixed with some familiar Spanish favourites.

Esquina is located at the corner of a quiet side-alley off the bustling Keong Siak Road, a former red-light district in Chinatown now rehabilitated into a hodge podge of dining and drinking establishments. It doesn't take reservations, which is a standout trait for a popular upmarket eatery in Singapore (and not necessary one which is positively viewed by the dining public). The few times we tried to go there for dinner, by 6pm there was already a crowd waiting, and any later and we would have had to stand outside to wait 2 hours while the diners in the restaurant finished their meal and the tables could be turned over. The high tables outside were more easy to secure, but the action was always inside and on a warm night it wasn't the most pleasant experience to be outdoors.

It was with this in mind that we decided to try for lunch instead. This time we were there by 11.30am (even though the restaurant opened at noon), and managed to secure a seat at the bar counter when they opened their doors. They had quite an extensive menu of food from which we tried to pick out as much as possible.

Barbecue roasted corn: The ultimate bar snack, the roasted corn looked like and had the crunchiness of a peanut. A healthier alternative to nuts?

Potato fries with rosemary garlic, salt and chorizo ketchup: The fries were quite good but in hindsight, with such other good food to be had here, it seemed a waste of our stomach space to have fries here.

Spanish breakfast - slow-cooked egg, bravas sauce, potato and crispy iberico: Excellent dish, but very similar to what we had at Pollen a week ago.

Smoked haddock, spring onion and manchego omelette: One of our favourites that day, this was a creamy baked fish and egg omelette which was silky smooth and delicious.

Ham croquetas: Nicely deep-fried, it oozed hot mashed potato and ham bits when bitten into.

Roast pork belly, crispy skin, chorizo octopus bolognaise: Another dish which quite resembled the main course we had at Pollen. The pork belly was equally good and the crispy skin equally superfluous.

Salt and pepper squid, black ink aioli: This was supposed to be a signature dish here, but although quite tasty, this wasn't as special as we had expected it to be. After all, it was just deep fried squid with salt and pepper.

Gambas with chili garlic and potato dumpling: This was a good dish, and in particular, the gnocchi was a nice touch. The sauce was seafood-based yet had an Asian tanginess to it.

Marinated beetroot salad, honeycomb burrata, pinenut crumble: It was apt that this 'salad' dish came at the end, just before dessert. It was also one of our favourites of the meal. The cheese was so creamy and the beetroot so sweet that it tasted more like an exquisite dessert than a salad to be had at the beginning of the meal.

Seville orange and rosemary ice cream, burnt meringue, citrus curd, marmalade toast: A tangy dessert which was a very good epilogue to a rather filling and very enjoyable lunch. The meringue mounds here reminded us of the dessert we had at Pollen, except that this one here was done right (baked fully so that it was crispy).

Final Thoughts: This tapas bar doesn't take reservations which continues to be highly annoying (when we came for dinner twice, each times we had to wait (standing outside) almost an hour and in both cases we settled for an outdoor table which wasn't half as enjoyable). However, it should not detract from the fact that the food was highly accomplished this time we were here (although when we first came here when it just opened, the food wasn't yet at this level). This time the service was prompt and the food came out in a timely fashion. We'd love to have a proper dinner here but are not prepared to take the risk of not being able to secure a seat for the evening (and don't fancy standing around for an hour waiting for one).

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Pollen (Singapore)

August 2012

Flower Dome, Gardens by the Bay, 18 Marina Gardens Drive, #01-09, Singapore
Tel: +65 6604 9988

It was National Day in Singapore and we were excited having secured reservations at one of Singapore's newest and most-talked about fine dining restaurants, Pollen. This is the new member of the growing food empire of chef Jason Atherton, a Gordon Ramsay alumni (having run Maze in London previously) and owner-chef of the highly acclaimed one Michelin star Pollen Street Social in London.

Located in Singapore's newest tourist attraction, Gardens at the Bay, it is housed in the Flower Dome, a large greenhouse which is temperature-controlled showcases the plants and flowers of various regions in the world. Quite apt then that the restaurant's name references flora.

Entrance to the Flower Dome costs $20 per person so it was a nice bonus to discover that we didn't have to pay to visit the Flower Dome if we dined at Pollen (it has a separate restaurant entrance to the Flower Dome so there is no need to go through the turnstiles).

The restaurant itself is split over 2 levels, a formal dining room on the ground floor, which is landscaped with plants and gave us the experience of dining in a garden (albeit an indoor airconditioned one) and the bar area on the second floor which has direct access to the Flower Dome.

We decided to pick the lunch set menu which was a three course meal and had some quite interesting looking dishes. Lunch was accompanied by a glass of prosecco. Service was very warm and professional, and we were waited upon attentively. 

Slow-cooked egg, chorizos, patatas bravas: The first dish was a delightful Spanish-inspired dish of cripsy bacon bits and ham, roasted potato chunks and runny egg. When mixed together it was delicious. It was the perfect late morning/early afternoon dish.

Petuna ocean trout, beer-pickled onions, oyster mayonnaise, smoked aubergine: The other starter we picked was the very tender and juicy trout (which somewhat resembled salmon). It looked and tasted like it was cooked sous vide then smoked, such was the appearance of being raw yet not tasting as such.The oyster mayonnaise didn't really taste like oyster that much but the oyster leaf was always a welcome addition (tastes so much like oyster it's amazing. It could be a vegetarian's oyster substitute).

Roasted red snapper, minestrone, coco bean, baby courgette: Our main course was the roaster red snapper which was also very good. The minestrone was made with a seafood bisque which brought richness of flavour to the dish.

Roasted pork belly, broad beans, slow-cooked squid, chorizo: The other main course was the pork belly. Mine was cooked to perfection, and wasn't too fatty. Unfortunately, my wife's serving of pork belly was predominantly fat and didn't have much of the meat. But to the credit of the waiter, he was quick to bring the dish back and have it replaced when we pointed it out. We liked the beans in particular as they added an additional flavour and texture to the pork belly and its sauce, which was excellent by the way. The crispy thing on the top (whatever it was) ended up being more decorative than anything else as we didn't like it very much (a bit to greasy and didn't have much taste).

Coconut mousse, rhubarb broth, goat cheese ice cream: Desserts were a delight here. The goat ice cream was an interesting one, which on its own would be quite repulsive, but in this case, went very well with the sweet and sour broth, strawberries and pink meringue.

Crispy and burnt lemon meringue with cucumber sorbet: Similarly, the cucumber sorbet was weird on its own, but when eaten with the sweet meringue, totally balanced out and transformed the dessert. One issue we had with this dish was that the meringue was not sufficiently baked and was still very soft (had the consistency of melted marshmallows). We were not sure if this was deliberate but we would have preferred it to be more crisp.

Final Thoughts: A stunning location, great service and very good food. We felt that it was a very welcome addition to the Singapore fine dining scene. We look forward to eating here again, this time for dinner, to see if a full evening meal here will live up to the restaurant's potential.

Monday, August 6, 2012

FoodBar DaDa: revisited (Singapore - Closed)

July 2012

#01-12 60 Robertson Quay, Singapore
Tel: +65 6735 7738

Update: Foodbar Dada closed permanently in late 2013 when its lease expired.

Though it has only been months since this new Spanish tapas bar opened in Singapore with little fanfare, we have always found it packed every time we come here (we must've been here five or six times already, at different times of the evening, on weekdays and weekends, and it was always fully booked). And now that it is part of the Prive Group of restaurants, it seems like all is going well for this 'hole in a wall' establishment. Having had its teething problems earlier on, we came back one Saturday evening hoping for as good a time as our earlier meals here (see earlier review: Foodbar Dada).

For starters, the restaurant was much more professional in taking reservations (we were even given a reservation code). It seemed that reservations were now centralised under the Prive Group which meant no more lost reservations (as was our experience here in the earlier days). However, recently we have been annoyed by their failure to hold seats which we specifically requested for when we made the reservations. This happened a couple of times and was disappointing as we had made those reservations and seat requests at least a week in advance. Nonetheless, when we finally got our seats and settled in, the dining experience got progressively better.

Since our previous post, the menu had been greatly expanded and included a good selection of desserts. They kept some of the favourites (like the mini squid, the beef and the paella) but some of the others like the Spanish omelette were unfortunately omitted.

A trip to Dada is not complete without having their bespoke cocktails. The 2 mixologists, Din and Eugene, took turns to create tasty cocktails which matched quite closely to what we had asked for. That  said, some patience was needed as each cocktail was individually made, so it took a while before it arrived, depending on how many orders the mixologists had to get through.

We started with some grilled peppers on toast which were tasty.

Watermelon gazpacho with charcoal olive oil ice cream: A very refreshing cold soup served in a cocktail glass which was an appropriate amuse bouche.

Grilled avocado salad with almond vinaigrette: This was ok only. We were not big fans of having salad at a tapas bar.

Cod puffs: These were amazing. They were melt-in-your-mouth good and the cod fish was tender and juicy. In my haste to eat them, I scalded my tongue as the cod inside was very hot.

Black Mediterranean rice: Still a classic, still the best we've had in Singapore. The portions this time were reduced from before (price was adjusted as well), which was sensible as it could be quite filling.

Dada croquettes: Came close to the cod puffs as the best new dish we've tasted. They were very nicely breaded without being too oily. Perfect tapas bar food as you can just pick them up with your fingers and eat them standing up with your drink in the other hand.

Grilled octopus a la gallega: This was a nice change from our usual favourite, the mini squid, and was as good. Very simply marinated, what made it special was the smoky taste brought about by the Josper oven.

Josper beef: Another stalwart of the original menu, this had also been scaled down and the quality of beef used improved. We really enjoyed this (and ordered a second portion).

Grilled seabass "a la donostiarra": A good alternative for the non-red-meat eaters, this was also very simply but well cooked.

Yoghurt mousse with mango, lime and basil chutney: Despite the top billing of the soufflé (which we had the last time and enjoyed), we tried something different this time. This turned out to be a very good dessert, especially after a heavy meal of food and alcohol.

It was appropriate for us to end a very good meal with another cocktail each (a vodka sour and orange peel rum on the rocks).

Final Thoughts: Our recent meals here have seen the development of the bar/restaurant from a slightly awkward startup with teething problems into a slicker operation, although at times during peak hours service gets shaky and the food may take a while (there's only one Josper oven so they have physical limitations on how many different tapas they can prepare at any one time). The food here continues to be great and the vibe highly enjoyable. We feel that it has found a winning formula of cooking very simple food in a very uncomplicated and authentic manner which is accessible to all. 

Update: We were here again in early September and there have been recent changes. The menu was upgraded from the usual ratty piece of paper (which in itself had its charms), the old mixologist left and has been replaced by a new one and the food selection was more extensive (we liked the addition of the Josper suckling pig). We'll eat anything Chef Manel puts in front of us so our regard for the food here remains high, although this time we no longer had any issues with reservations and service.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Robuchon au Dome: revisited (Macau)

July 2012

43rd Floor, Grand Lisboa, Avenida de Lisboa, Macau
Tel: +853 8803 7878

When we heard that our erstwhile favourite French restaurant in Asia, Robuchon a Galera, had moved from the rather old Hotel Lisboa to the more luxurious Grand Lisboa next door, we were curious to try it again and found the excuse to make a special trip to Macau during our recent trip to Hong Kong. In the Michelin Guide, 'three stars' means 'worth making a special journey', and this is what we did. Despite typhoon warnings and torrential rain, we got soaked to the skin and endured choppy seas to get to Macau by ferry from Hong Kong, for the sole reason of eating at Robuchon's acclaimed temple of food.

It seemed that the restaurant spared no expense in doing itself up, as if to make up for the rather old and dated decor of its previous restaurant. Up the lift to the top floor, we were ushered through a corridor of wine bottles showcasing one of the largest wine lists we've seen in Asia (it was the size of a telephone book, as we remembered it, although now it's hard to tell as we were only given an iPad to choose our wines from). The dining room which we were welcomed into was spacious and the tables were well lit but widely spread and discreet.

Being on the top floor of arguably the most gaudy hotel building in the Asia, the restaurant was encased by a large glass dome which should have given diners a nice view of Macau below. However, it was raining heavily that night and the city view was mostly obscured. On the walls were renaissance-period european paintings as well as some chinese art, and there were plenty of crystal and gold fixtures. It was as if it was designed by someone for whom taste wasn't a consideration but spending as much money as possible was. It wasn't to our liking but it must be catering to a certain other type of clientele.

The restaurant had a pianist  (playing on a gold-gilded piano) and a singer, and they would perform popular English and Chinese favourites. When they finished the songs, some guests would clap. We found this bizarre. It felt like we were dining in a hotel lobby lounge (maybe that's what it has become).

Similar to our experience at Otto e Mezzo the previous night, we were served our amuse bouche immediately after we had taken our seats, before we were given the menu and also before we got our breads, which we thought was odd. The cheese puff was quite nice but the very thin tuna sandwich was delicious.

Unlike what we have gotten used to in Robuchon, there was no bread trolley (and none of their famous brioches). Instead we were presented with a bread basket (the waiter didn't bother telling us what breads were in there). The cheese and walnut breads were favourites of ours and we ordered extra portions. The winelist was more expensive than we remembered it and we ordered a Gevrey Chambertin which was forgettable (forgot which vineyard or vintage it was).

Le Caviar - surprise of caviar in fine coral jelly with aniseed cream: A Robuchon classic and well loved and anticipated by us. Luxury in a tin.

Le Mais - chilled corn veloute with shaved foie gras, beef consomme jelly and fresh black truffle: We had corn (and popcorn) as dessert a few days ago and it was a similar taste again this time in the starter. The combination of the cold corn soup and foie gras was novel yet fascinating and we literally licked the plate clean.

L'Oeuf Organique - slow cooked organic farm egg with sauteed girolle and lettuce veloute under a fine crisp tuile: A very good dish with the warm egg yolk oozing out into the lettuce soup. The parmesan crisp and the mushrooms added the necessary flavour and body to the dish.

Le Homard - roasted lobster with Malabar black pepper, stewed herbs and baby spinach: Probably the best dish of the evening, the dark sauce in particular was heavenly, not to mention the generous chunks of lobster meat.

L'Agneau de Lait - milked lamb chop with baby pak choi, honey bean in own jus: The most ordinary dish of the dinner was my lamb chop which was cooked very nicely but was just too predictable.

Le Boeuf "Kagoshima" - grilled Kagoshima beef with slow-simmered shallot in red wine served with potatoes soufflĂ©s: I had deliberately avoided beef because of my allergies but as it turned out I regretted not making an exception this time.  My wife had the classic Robuchon Kagoshima beef which was as good as she had remembered it.

Instead of the usual mash potatoes, these came with potato puffs instead. We regretted the unavailability of their signature mash potatoes.

Strangely for a French restaurant, after our main courses, we weren't asked if we wanted cheese. In fact, the cheese trolley was tucked away somewhere behind in the restaurant and it wasn't until we specifically asked did they push it out (we noticed that none of the other guests were having any cheese either). And when we asked, they were unusually stingy with the cheese, giving us the option of choosing only 3 types of cheese. To be fair the cheese was good, in particular the epoisses.

Being in such an over-the-top restaurant and surrounded by rather grand people, we decided to push the boat out ourselves and ordered a bottle of 1996 Chateau D'Yquem. It was quite simply the most exquisite sweet wine money could buy, 'Nectar of the Gods' indeed.

La Peche - fresh peach and verbena ice cream refreshed with rose Champagne: A lovely refreshing dessert, the peach was sweet and the champagne added a luxurious touch.

La Symphonie des Douceurs - dessert trolley: No ordinary dessert trolley, each dessert on this trolley was made to a very high standard and could easily be a standalone dessert dish. We especially loved the rum baba and the millefueille.

The petit four was more of the same great sweets. And to top it off, we were given a whole lemon pound cake to take home (it was our breakfast for the next 3 days).

Final Thoughts: Food-wise this was as good as it gets. Typically Robuchon, it combined classical French cuisine with a modern and often Asian twist, making each course a delightful surprise. The new dining room was as opulent as can be imagined but sadly some of the soul which the old place had in abundance was lost. Service too was bizarre, which we really didn't expect from this grand dame of French dining in Asia. Though service was professional, the waiters were somewhat awkward; for example, individual waiters served our food to us separately at the same time, and both waiters would then explain the food to us respectively at the same time, which resulted in us not being able to hear either of them clearly. In all, it wasn't the slick and silky smooth service we had come to expect from a three Michelin star French restaurant. Also, there was no offer of an aperitif when we were seated or any time thereafter, which we also thought was unusual. The live music was also quite distracting. All detracted from an otherwise fantastic meal.