Saturday, 24 November 2012

A Review of Le Saint Julien, Singapore - The Day The Music Died

This was perhaps my most disappointing and frustrating dining experience in recent memory.

It is ironic because I have always regarded Julien Bompard as some sort of culinary demi-god.  When I visited Singapore in 2005 to cover the World Gourmet Summit for a newspaper, three European restaurants dominated the local headlines and World Gourmet Summit awards with impunity.  Les Amis was one of them, then led by Alain Passard’s ex-sous chef Gunther Hubrechsen.  Saint Pierre was there, helmed by Emmanuel Stroobant, all cheekbones, peroxide and serious cooking talent.  Making up the list was Saint Julien (as it was then known), whose patron Bompard sharpened his teeth with the legendary Jacques Lameloise in Burgundy and Louis Outhier in the French Riviera.

Times have moved on, of course.  Les Amis is now a restaurant conglomerate with noodle bars and wine bars, pâtisseries and Parisian-inspired bistros.  Stroobant has taken on the necessary celebrity chef accoutrements, including TV shows, books, even a yoga studio.  Bompard expanded into an informal eatery and two speciality cheese shops, before folding it all back unto himself at his flagship, renamed Le Saint Julien.  On his website Bompard says that at every service, he will be cooking while his wife, maîtresse d’ Edith Lai-Bompard, runs the floor.  “With Michelin-starred chefs opening branches in Singapore”, Bompard proclaims momentously on his website, “I believe our own restaurants are ready to take on the Michelin rating as well.  We are ready to position ourselves amongst the big names”.

For some reason or other, I managed to not go to Le Saint Julien since moving to Singapore five years ago.  I certainly wasn't trying to avoid it; I had no reason to.  I had not read any bad reviews and I certainly don’t believe what I read on Singapore food blogs.  But when I read that it would close its doors in January 2013 after a decade serving Singapore’s burgeoning gourmet class, I jumped to make a booking.  There is no better way to force a man’s hand than to make him realise that he must act quickly or forever hold his peace.

When we open the door at the Fullerton Boathouse, we find ourselves in a kind of “purgatory”, a grey area between the concrete jungle and the dining room.  Silence.  There is no one there to greet us.  There is an untended podium and reservations computer, and a private room to one side which, with its door wide open and guests visible, is anything but private.  I virtually walk into the dining room before a waiter sees us and checks the roster for our reservation.


We are seated in a nice, quiet table in the corner of the restaurant.  The view is great, of the Esplanade and the junction between the Singapore and Kallang Rivers.  Below, hordes of tourists snap away at the various adjacent landmarks, but we are shut off from the hubbub in our comfortable dining room.

Bread is soon brought to the table, a choice between cranberry and whole wheat arranged in three rows in the basket.  Morsels of cranberry stick out of the rightmost row, but the two rows on the left are of very different colours so I ask the waiter (I later learn that he is a “manager”) if they are the same.  "No", he says.  I then ask him what the difference is.  “Like I said, both are whole wheat”.  So they are the same, then?  Under my damning cross-examination, he finally says yes.  The cranberry bread is decent, served with Échiré butter.

As this is my maiden visit, I decide to go a la carte.  I order the signature lobster bisque and ask our waitress what she would recommend for a main.  She says the lobster (S$78++, around US$75) is good.  I’m already having lobster for starters, so I ask about a meat option.  She immediately points to the wagyu striploin (S$120++, around US$115).  Now maybe these were the best options and if I had chosen them, this post would read rather differently.  But when waitstaff point me only to the most expensive items on the menu, alarm bells start going off in my head.

Entrée: Signature Lobster Bisque with Garlic Aïoli, Gruyère and Croutons (S$32++, around US$30.62)


Not bad.  The gruyere’s nutty sweetness balances out the savoury, creamy stock, while the prominent aroma of flambéed cognac adds complexity.  But it’s not the most lobster-tasting of bisques, and it’s hardly worthy of all the fuss.

Main Course (Take 1): Roast Cod Fish with Sea Urchin Crust and Yellow Wine Sauce with Avruga Caviar (S$60++, around US$57.40)


Sloppy, just take a look at the way the crust has been applied.  My first morsel of the fish has a rather odd texture.  I try cutting it down the middle and it won’t budge.  It strikes me that the fish was probably poorly defrosted, so I ask our waitress if the fish was frozen.  “No, sir”, she insists, “it is fresh”.  I beg to disagree, so she escalates the matter to the “manager”.  I explain to him that the fish has a very odd texture.  He takes one look at my fish and says “Oh, you are cutting it from the wrong angle”.  I glare at him.  “Please don’t patronise me.  I have already tried cutting it from the other side”.  He takes it away.  In a very computer game-like progression of increasingly tough “level bosses”, Lai-Bompard is up next, explaining in a rather sour tone that the fish was blast-frozen, as is all of their seafood, and that “we don’t have an aquarium”.

Ouch.  Alright then, I ask her whether she would care to recommend another main course.  “I don’t really want to recommend a main course because it may not suit your palate”.  I can hardly believe what I am hearing, but to move the conversation forward, I ask about the venison, it being Northern Hemisphere game season and all.  “Oh, it’s frozen, from New Zealand, we don’t have any live venison running around”.  Three innocent questions, three rude, defensive responses.  I should have just left at this point, but still wanting to give them the benefit of the doubt, I stupidly order the frozen venison from New Zealand.

Intermezzo: An Apology

A few minutes later, Lai-Bompard comes back to the table and says “We did an autopsy of the fish and it was undercooked.  Please accept my apology”.  I wonder if anyone thought about checking the fish before giving me all that attitude?   

Side Dish: Signature Mashed Potatoes with Échiré Butter (S$12++, around US$11.50)


This is excellent, smooth and creamy with that unmistakable lightly sour note from the cultured butter.  The colour is a beautiful light-gold.

Main Course (Take 2): Roasted Venison Loin with Winter Spiced Jus and Red Wine-Poached “Wine” (sic) (S$56++, around US$53.60)


The medium-rare venison looks rather anaemic, but I try it anyway.  It’s cold.  I touch it on its seared surface.  I don’t feel any warmth from it, so it’s clearly sub-temperature.  I call the “manager” over and tell him I think it’s too cold.  I’ve allowed this farce to go on for one more act that I should have, so I ask him to please just bring the bill for my soup and my guest’s lunch set menu.  But the upselling continues.  “But can I interest you in dessert?”  No, thanks.  “A coffee?”  No, thanks.  He whisks the dish away and it is only a matter of time before Lai-Bompard is once again upon us.  “I am sorry we could not please you today, so the meal is on the house”, she says in a tone that suggests that we are no longer welcome in the restaurant.  I try to calm her down and ask her if the kitchen tested the venison.  She simply replies “It wasn’t hot, it was warm.  But if you think that is cold, I have nothing further to say to you”.  Wow.  I do a fine line in semantics but I clearly don’t have anything on Lai-Bompard. 

I walk out, more in sorrow than in anger.  As we re-enter purgatory and head back into the light, I see Bompard at the reception, his back turned to us.  When I worked in restaurants, my mentors continuously reminded me that when a staff member, be you chef, waiter or otherwise, crosses paths with guests leaving the restaurant, you should always farewell them properly and/or thank them for their custom.

I think back to what just transpired.  What did I do that merited being cast out of the church like some leprous infidel?  Then it dawned on me: I made the fatal mistake of calling them out for serving uncooked fish, unaware that their everyday guests probably just lap it up like manna from the gastronomic divinity that I mistakenly believed Bompard to be.

Regardless, I wish the Bompards all the best in their future ventures.  I understand that through their work over the past decade, they have brought French cuisine in Singapore to a higher level.  I only wish I was able to taste it for myself today.

LE SAINT JULIEN RESTAURANT
3 Fullerton Road
Ground Floor, the Fullerton Boat House
Singapore 049215
Tel: +65 6534 5947

4 comments:

  1. So sad.... what a demise.

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  2. Food Friend, I agree that it is very sad.

    On a side note, I wrote to Lai-Bompard the same evening after our lunch, recounting the inappropriate remarks made by her and her staff, i.e. what I recorded in my post above. To date, I have not received a response.

    When you get to the point at which you are wholly indifferent as to how your customers feel, maybe it is time to close shop and take a break.

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  3. what a ... bad experience
    the last time i ate there last year for lunch
    as far as we knew, we're the only ones dining there - about 2 hrs lunch
    the food was average and nothing memorable
    they could be frustrated with their poor business

    with the recent singapore dining scenes and progress; it's only a matter of time that they will be out of business with the current food and service situation - good that they will move and hope can re-charge
    les amis' food is a bit better than bompard but the hospitality is always classy and top notch (still among Singapore's best)
    saint pierre? from 2 meals there ('07 and '11), the food has never impressed me

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  4. Bu Pun Su, you may very well be right. I don't know why they are closing and I certainly don't bear them any ill will. I just wish they had been able to put on a better show, especially given their reputation and positioning.

    For me, there is no contest between Bompard and Les Amis - Les Amis wins hands down. I must admit I haven't visited since Armin Leitgeb left, which means I am overdue for a return visit!

    Re Saint Pierre, you should have visited in 2009-10. Paul Froggatt, who now heads the two-starred Amber at HK's Landmark Mandarin Oriental, did some excellent work during his stint. I never tried Saint Pierre while Stroobant was still cooking, but in my opinion, Froggatt was easily the most talented and technical chef that Saint Pierre has had since 2007.

    ReplyDelete