Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Jonathan Kinsella's DB Bistro Moderne, Singapore 2013 - A Review

I try not to write about places multiple times.  It bores my regular readers (all three of you, thanks for your continuing attention!) to tears and there is enough in Singapore and the region to keep me occupied without repeat reports.

But every now and again, a fresh breeze sweeps through an old favourite such that it is no longer recognisable as the familiar friend of yesteryear.  Such a zephyr swept recently through db Bistro Moderne Singapore, largely unnoticed over the Christmas/New Year/Chinese New Year period, in the form of a new kitchen leadership team, Executive Chef Jonathan Kinsella and Executive Pastry Chef Benjamin Siwek.

The new cast at db Bistro Moderne (l to r): Kinsella, owner Daniel Boulud and Siwek
Now, my three regular readers will know that I was a big admirer of db's Emeritus Executive Chef Stephane Istel.  Istel's cooking was unrepentantly gutsy, hearty and tasty, and it speaks volumes that after some half-dozen visits there during his tenure, I still haven't tried the db Burger (you know, the one with the foie gras, truffles, etc.).  It was also a very personal cuisine, with his Alsatian heritage creeping onto the carte with tartes flambées, spaetzles and choucroutes.  The question was therefore not so much whether Kinsella could step into Istel's shoes, but rather maintain a similar standard while creating his own niche.

Kinsella is an interesting choice for the role, having previously been Executive Chef at New York's Épicerie Boulud, which is more of a gourmet market than a restaurant.  But he has had solid stints at name eateries such as Rick Tramonto's (now Michelin-starred) Tru and Bar Boulud, so I looked forward to seeing what powers he had at his disposal.

Disclaimer: This was a comped media visit.  But I have never let that interfere with my opinions before and there is no reason that is going to start now.

Before we proceed to dinner proper, a selection of appetisers at the bar.  First is a classic charcuterie platter with an absolutely killer foie gras terrine, one of the best I've had anywhere, although the duck prosciutto doesn't have the same oomph as before.  Alongside is a Seafood and Vegetable Aïoli (essentially poached seafood and crudit
és with the classic provençal garlic mayonnaise) and a mezze with hommos, felafel, sheep's milk ricotta and giant sails of crisp socca catching the wind on your tour of the southern Mediterranean.

The seafood and vegetable aïoli (picture courtesy of Marina Bay Sands)
Even this early on, I am getting the distinct feeling that the cooking is not as thematically focused as before.  Perhaps this is because db is currently running a promotion on Mondays featuring some of the Boulud empire's "greatest hits".  This is a great idea for guests, but that empire is very diverse and I have to say that the multinational melange of flavours jangled on my palate somewhat.

First Entrée: Jumbo White Asparagus with Mimosa Salad, Crème Fraîche and Asparagus Emulsion

A light way to start the meal, and I liked that the asparagus cooking liquid was used as the base for the emulsion, thereby reinforcing the asparagus' starring role in this presentation.  Coincidentally, the New York Times ran an article recently speculating on why Americans had not taken to white asparagus in the same way the Europeans had.  This is not an issue in Singapore where myriad European restaurants of all stripes (French, Italian, German, etc.) run white asparagus as a seasonal special every year. I'm glad that Kinsella had cottoned on to this.

Second Entrée: Seared Diver's Scallop, Bacon, Peas and Carrots 

One hefty, giant scallop, still translucent and tender on the inside and with a gorgeous, proper caramelisation on both faces.  That said, I found it overseasoned (shame given the quality of the scallop and how well it was cooked), and the inclusion of the bacon obviously didn't help on this front.  According to Kinsella, Americans love peas and carrots together and he wanted this dish to incorporate these tastes of his childhood.  The visuals of the peas, sitting pert and proud on a dollop of ses purée are pretty and provide a nice verdant freshness, but don't do much to offset the overwhelming saltiness.

Main Course: Herb Roasted Organic Spring Chicken Provençal with Petits Farcis

This dish, I think, represents the apostheosis of Kinsella's style.  I was dealt the dud hand of the breast, but much to my own surprise, I found the white meat succulent and, God forbid, interesting till the very end.   The light spice rub enhanced the flavour of the organic bird no end, while summery stuffed vegetables and roasted tomatoes tasted as much of Provence as they looked.  Very well done.

Dessert 1: Durian Royal Soufflé, Guava Ice Cream

Sweets are now the province of executive pastry chef Siwek, whom Kinsella described jokingly as having the "looks and physique of an underwear model" (he wasn't in the kitchen that evening, undoubtedly to the disappointment of those whose affections tend that way).  But back to the food, Siwek has been winning a ridiculous amount of media inches with locally-inspired classic desserts such as durian royale soufflé and jackfruit verrine, which he presents as his interpretations of the "king and queen of fruits".

I have never been convinced by the desserts at db Bistro.  I have also never been convinced by European chefs incorporating our tropical fruits into European-style desserts.  After tonight, I am still not convinced.  I understand why they do it: drawing on local influences and production seems to be the global food trend du jour, almost as it not doing it represented the most egregious kind of social irresponsibility / cultural insensitivity.  But those of us who enjoy durians and jackfruit do so because of, and not despite, their tremendously assertive character.  To reduce it to a subtle influence, such that it suits a European sensibility, kind of defeats the purpose for me.  That said, the technique is impeccable and the soufflé is as it should be: light as a cloud, hot and comforting and not overly sweet.

Pictures of the other desserts are below.

Dessert 2: Jackfruit Verrine

Dessert 3: DBGB's Signature Baked Alaska

Great blackcurrant flavour in the sorbet, and a beautiful presentation - the gloss and glimmer on the Italian meringue is simply outstanding.  If I wasn't such a sucker for soufflés, I would have declared this the dessert of the evening.

Dessert 4: Milk Chocolate Mousse Cake

OK, but I find it hard to get excited about milk chocolate these days, whether in desserts or eaten as is.


It is quite clear that Kinsella has his idea of what he wants db Bistro Moderne Singapore to be.  His is a more Mediterranean-orientated, lighter cuisine, perhaps better suited to our tropical climate.  And his talents are considerable: I can still recall the taste and texture of his luscious foie gras terrine (apparently using the same cure as at Épicerie Boulud); put me in the corner of the room with the terrine and a bottle of Daniel's house champagne and I will be a happy man.  And a roast chicken of that calibre is, like most "simple-sounding dishes", far more difficult to execute than most would have you believe.

But in its willingness to embrace the diversity of the Mediterranean, I felt that the flavours sometimes lacked focus and progression.  Perhaps this flaw was emphasised by a bad combination of dishes and flavours at the start.  And welcome as lighter fare is, I must admit that I missed the wanton "eat-me"-ness of Istel's cooking.  For me, a bistro, however modern or Americanised, should be inspired by the idea of French trencherman's fare, the Lyonnais, the Bourguignon, the Alsacien.  Or maybe I just need to get out more.

In summary, db Bistro Moderne Singapore as reinterpreted by Jonathan Kinsella serves good casual French fare.  That it's different is really beyond dispute; whether it's better is really a matter of personal taste.

The Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands
2 Bayfront Avenue
Singapore 018956

BYO Policy: BYO not allowed.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Tel:  +65 6688 8525

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