Wednesday, 15 August 2012

A Review of Catalunya, Singapore - Not the New El Bulli

I chose the title of this post not because Catalunya isn't good - it is, very much so.  But it is nothing like what you would have expected from maitre d' Pol Perello and executive chef Alain Devahive Tolosa, who both spent over a decade at El Bulli.  Catalunya serves, as Perello puts it, "the food of our grandmothers with new touches".   There was never any intention to serve anything remotely resembling the food at El Bulli.  This was a surprise given the media playing up the whole El Bulli angle and association, but then again, rockmelon caviar and parmesan air sell so many more papers and magazines than croquetas and patatas bravas.


Catalunya, photo courtesy of Alex Ang
There was a slight mix-up when we visited on 1 August, as I was visiting for the purposes of writing a review in a client publication (which the restaurant, or rather its PR agency, knew).  When we turned up, Perello,  a tall, dashing young man with a million-dollar smile, said he would be treating us to a series of tapas at the bar area.  At which point I pulled our PR chaperone over to the very sexy bar counter and asked in my friendliest possible manner how I could possibly write 2,500 words on tapas, and not even smoking, exploding tapas at that?  She dug around but all of the dinner tables had been booked for the evening.  In the spirit of fair play, I offered to leave and return at a later date, but she insisted in her friendliest possible manner that I stay.

The view is brilliant, especially when the hourly light show at Marina Bay Sands kicks off.  Floor-to-ceiling glass creates a very airy atmosphere, and because the glass dome in which Catalunya is housed is built outwards onto the bay, you are effectively surrounded by water, sloshing away just a few feet beneath eye level.  For me, it is perhaps the most breathtaking setting for a restaurant in Singapore.  

All photos in this post are courtesy of my friends, freelance food writer par excellence Evelyn Chen (who blogs at bibikgourmand.com) and her husband, photography enthusiast Alex Ang, and whose company I had the pleasure of on the evening.

The view from the cheap seats, sorry I mean the tapas bar
Tapas: Lobster Buns (below), croquetas with jamon ($12++, far bottom left) and bomboletas ($10++far bottom right)



A little Asian touch to start us off, just to show that they are not completely out of touch with what's going on outside the dome.  The texture was very bao-like, and the lobster filling was excellent.


It's stodge, but good hearty stodge, with a big dose of garlic flavour in the all i oli (which I incidentally adore).  But you see my point earlier about the media beat-up.  To give you an idea of the buzz around the opening of Catalunya, it got me excited, and I don't even read the local press!  Don't misunderstand, the food is all very pleasant, very competently executed and tasty, but Catalunya is probably going to get the most column inches per kilogram of breadcrumbs and potatoes in the history of Singaporean restaurant reportage.

"Mains": Lobster rice ($55++, pic left); Suckling Pig with Lemon Pith Emulsion ($18++ for tapas-sized portion, right)


Feeling sorry for me, they prepared a couple of main course dishes in smaller portions.

The rice was very well done, sweet from the seafood stock and a nice, firm bite, but the lobster was a little mushy and not very flavourful; I'm guessing they used a cheaper rock lobster.  Devahive strayed a little from the "grandmother food" theme here by incorporating a little humour and imagination with the emulsion, made from the white pith of the lemon which is normally discarded because it is too bitter.  Well here, the bitterness cleanses the palate fantastically well after the fatty pork and the lemon rind has an intriguing, mild perfume about it.  Genuinely enjoyable and thought-provoking.

Desserts: Cheese flan topped with "crumble" and mixed berry coulis ($12++, pic left); smoked milk ice-cream and torrija ($12++, right).


Cheese flan was very nice, surprisingly firm in texture.  The torrija, a brick of brioche soaked in cinnamon milk before being pan-fried, was delicious, exotic yet familiar at the same time.  Together with the suckling pig, close runners-up for my August 2012 Dish of the Month.  Desserts overall are great and show more consistency than mains at this early stage.

Palate Cleanser: Compressed Fruit Plate ($12++)



Fruit cooked sous vide (or "boiled in the bag" for those of you non-romantics) with fruit syrup, aromatics and herbs.  I liked this, but Evelyn was not particularly complimentary about it ("pedestrian" was her exact description).

Service

I have to put in a very good word for the service.  We were looked after by a very affectionate Spanish lady who looked after us like her own children; she was knowledgeable about the food, the cooking techniques and always keen to help out - it's a shame I failed to get her name.  But this is an uber-trendy place, the kind of low-lit, high-so enclave where swishness easily crosses the line into arrogant indifference, and it appears that it has been drilled into the crew to avoid that pitfall at all costs.

Conclusion

I hate judging restaurants early in their lifespans, and Catalunya is still very much a work-in-progress.  I know it's not an excuse if the restaurant expects its patrons to pay full price, but such is the development phase that it has not even settled on a dinner tasting menu, a huge omission given the nature of the local restaurant crowd.  I will be returning soon for a proper dinner and with any luck, such little quibbles would have been fixed by then.

In a way, Catalunya's modern Catalonian cooking fills the void left by Santi but leaves an even bigger void for those who were hoping for a restaurant wholly dedicated to "molecular gastronomy".  All attempts to fill that niche in Singapore to date have failed, notably Aurum's two incarnations back in 2007/8 (remember them?).  

But who would be better placed to do so than Devahive and Perello?  Well, Devahive is limiting his techo-gizmo flashiness at this stage so until he throws it all in and goes back to the food of his training (which may be never), enjoy it for what it is today - a place that serves good, solid Catalan classics with a modern twist.  More than a couple of dishes, including a lovely nutty ajo blanco (a cold almond-based soup) and sinfully garlicky deboned chicken wings al ajillo, show that he has the palate and technique to create really delicious food.

Disclaimer: this was obviously a comped media visit.


CATALUNYA SINGAPORE
The Fullerton Pavilion
82 Collyer Quay
Singapore 049327
Tel: +65 6534 0188
Email: info@catalunya.sg

2 comments:

  1. it's a not too bad experince if one hasn't been hanging around catalan kitchen or have the opportunity to savour the catalan cuisine regularly. The view is stunning though!!!

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  2. I only wished there were more food journalists like you out there. This was a perfectly judged article that called a spade a spade. I was shocked by the fawning piece in Lifestyle Asia. Clearly some of us need to get out a bit more to eat truly outstanding Spanish food.

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