Sunday, 2 June 2013

A Casual Revolution? Reviews of Communal and Spathe Public House, Singapore

Despite having been in Singapore for almost six years, it still surprises me how dynamic and fickle dining trends and the dining public are in this Southeast Asian metropolis.  For the longest time, casual hawker food co-existed with some successful attempts at European dining.  With the opening of the casinos in 2010 (and their accompanying raft of Michelin-starred names, as well as the notable re-emergence of André Chiang), high-level dining in Singapore rapidly reached its heyday. 

Just as quickly, the focus switched back to casual dining, with tapas, bistro and US-inspired burger joints springing up like mushrooms.  I recently visited two such vanguards, Communal (in the CBD at North Bridge Road) and Spathe Public House in the River Valley enclave, to check out this new wave of Singapore dining.

Communal's Chicken Wings with Bourbon Sauce
And there appears to be a theme to this new emergence: revolution.  I set out below what this new revolution seems to entail:

 - First of all, you must be at least semi-grungy, or give off some sort of anti-establishment vibe (Communal bar pictured below left; Spathe below right).  So in a conscious rebellion against the self-conscious over-plushness of Robuchon, Savoy and crew, your new joint cannot have carpets, curtains or wallpaper as hard surfaces reflect noise all the better - no one said the revolution was going to be easy.

 - Secondly, because this is a proletarian revolution against the Man, you have to keep prices down.  Let’s say around $20 for a main course, and maybe around $7 for dessert?

 - Thirdly, a revolution needs figureheads, so you need a chef with pedigree to spearhead the putsch and reassure the masses.  Communal has American Ryan Jette, who worked at The French Laundry and was most recently, Executive Sous Chef at the exclusive Sentosa Resort and Spa.  Spathe has chef Claudio Sandri from Brasserie Wolf.

 - Fourthly, because our revolution is about sharing the pie with our brothers and sisters, we need to give off that pinko, semi-socialistic vibe.  And that's (probably) how Communal got its name despite not offering any communal dishes, and Spathe offers large and generously portioned dishes across its menu, along with its Mammoth Signatures, to be shared between 4-6 people.

The food?  Oh, sorry, yes.

Amuse-Bouche: Communal’s Corn Cake with Honey Butter

Warm, comforting cornbread with a dollop of butter creamed with honey, and roasted corn kernels add texture and complexity.  Raised as I was in the Eastern Hemisphere, the idea of corn as a staple food is still an exotic one and given form in this dish, very worthwhile.  But I must ask what kind of revolution is this, when people are still indulging their bourgeois greed with complimentary amuse bouches?

Entrees: Communal’s Crab Cake Salad (S$22+); Spathe’s Waffle with Egg and Bacon (S$16+)


Communal’s crab cake is generously crammed full of crab meat (and I didn’t have any shell in mine, much to their credit), but for me, the bitterness of the well-browned crust detracted somewhat from the sweetness of the crab and mayonnaise filling.  The Spathe waffle is excellent, crisp and light and far superior to stodgy versions about town such as Overeasy’s.  The egg is wholly unremarkable; is it really a betrayal of the working man’s movement to use a decent free-range egg?

Main Courses: Communal’s Lobster Mac and Cheese (S$22++) and Fried Chicken with Crushed Ratte Potatoes (S$18++); Spathe’s Mammoth Salad of Confit Octopus (S$38+)

The Lobster Mac and Cheese is quite good, but not the decadently rich, cakey gratin-like dish I was expecting and hoping for.  The chicken is cooked brilliantly; even the breast is moist and incredibly juicy.  Without hinting at any crass generalisations, I note this is the second time in barely a month that I have had exemplary chicken delivered by an American chef.  The batter (gorgeously crunchy and not very greasy) and the sauce, however, hit only dull, lower register notes.

Spathe’s salad is generous, with tender octopus morsels amid a bucketload of greens, with suprèmes of orange adding acidity and croutons adding crunch.  Decent, but it would not have been my first choice.

Sides: Spathe’s Garlic Fries

Madly addictive.  There is some brown fluff in the mix, which tastes to me like savoury, semi-caramelised crack.   If religion is the opiate of the masses, then let this be their stimulant.  And at $6 per serve, it is far, far better value than contemporaries such as PS Cafe’s $15 truffle (oil) fries.

Desserts: Communal’s Lemon Curd Tart and Monkey Bread (both $7)

I thought the lemon tart was excellent, lively and brightly acidic after a mostly underwhelming main course experience.  The monkey bread, however, one of Communal’s signature desserts, I found rather boring.  Again, the flavours of cinnamon, vanilla and caramel play almost exclusively on the lower register.  This is something perhaps more suited to a snack while watching the telly, rather than as a restaurant dessert trying to keep my attention.


Communal's Monkey Bread
On the plate, Spathe serves the more interesting and flavourful food, albeit nothing much on the dessert menu appealed to me.  There is also unrealised potential in Communal's dishes, notably the fried chicken, and I would return just for another slice of that lemon tart.  Service-wise, Communal wins hands down; while the Spathe servers were bright and chirpy, they were not exactly observant or clued-up.  Spathe also deserves some criticism for not setting out their 10% mandatory service charge on their menus.

Regardless of its cause, this casual revolution of affordable "Western" cooking, complementing as it does the increasing Westernisation of Singaporean youth and the continuing decline of local hawker food, represents a critical phase in the development of Singapore dining.  Only time will tell if this new wave is here to stay, or whether we merely end up going full-circle.

12 North Canal Road #01-01
Singapore 048825
Tel: +65 6221 7790 

8 Mohamed Sultan Road #01-01
Singapore 238958
BYO Policy: 1-for-1, otherwise $30++ per 750mL bottle.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Tel: +65 6735 1035

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