Thursday, 27 June 2013

A Review of Bar-Roque Grill, Singapore - Love on the Plate

I was very glad to recently re-acquaint myself with the cooking of Stéphane Istel, formerly Executive Chef at db Bistro Moderne, Singapore.  Together with ex-Sky on 57 GM Kori Millar, his partner in business and life, he has just (soft) opened what may well be one of Singapore's most ambitious restaurants projects this year, Bar-Roque Grill.

Bar-Roque Grill - Singapore, Singapore
Bar-Roque is ambitious not because it boasts a massive renovation budget, although looking at the amount of space it occupies, it couldn't have come cheap.  Nor does it aspire to a particularly haute brand of cuisine, although Istel's skills place him in the very top-tier of Singapore chefs.  I say it is ambitious because it is a very personal showcase of its owners' heritage and personality.  Airflown seafood and wines come from New Zealand (not one of Singapore's traditional sources for high-end fish), a tribute to Queenstown native Millar.  For Alsace-born Istel, Bar-Roque's signature tartes flambées roll out from a dedicated oven, complemented by a growing list of excellent Alsacien wines, including Hugel's Gentil and Gewurztraminer by the glass and carafe.  The clean, but rustic, aesthetic owes a lot to the unfailingly elegant Millar.  And while the open kitchen (exposed on three sides, mind you, not just one) caters to Istel's sense of showmanship, it also leaves him and his team nowhere to hide.

On to the food.  As Bar-Roque is still in soft opening mode, only a limited carte is offered.

Entrée: Classic Tarte Flambée ($12+ for small)

We couldn't not start with the Alsatian staple tarte flambée,  in this case, the classic bacon and onion.  A subtle fromage blanc / crème fraîche mix, slathered on the thin crispy pastry base much like tomato sugo on a pizza, helps the crisp pastry glide down effortlessly.  Neither is the bacon too salty, so the overall impression is one of lightness.  A good start, and even better washed down with a complimentary glass of 2011 Hugel Gentil (Bar-Roque cannot sell wine as it doesn't yet have its liquor license, which it will hopefully get before its official opening on 1 July 2013).

First Main Course: Clams with Garlic Pork Sausage, Wild Mushroom, White Wine and Garlic ($22+)

Istel apologises for using local clams (la la) in this dish as the NZ little necks listed on the menu didn't arrive with the seafood shipment.  But it's dishes like this which reminded me why I fell in love with Istel's cooking in the first place.  Sweet clams beautifully cooked (I adore the local la la anyway so I'm not particularly fussed about the missing NZ little necks), meaty, garlicky sausage and a thick white sauce that sings with the reduced essence of the clams.  I later learn that I'm the first person to ever order this dish, which is a dubious honour of sorts, I guess.

I am probably doing Bar-Roque a slight disservice by not talking more about its New Zealand seafood offering, which will be one of its key selling points.  Tonight, on soft opening  mode, the bounty includes Pacific oysters at $7+ per piece, and a gorgeous-looking snapper (market price) which Istel bakes simply in a salt crust.

Second Main Course: Roasted Free Range "French" Chicken, pommes purees, Mushrooms, Garlic Jus ($20+ for a half-chicken)

Sensational.  Istel tells me that he uses French-born, Malaysian raised organic, free-range chooks.  And yes, they do have the spades of chicken flavour you only get from a good free-range bird.  The mash is gorgeously buttery, while surprisingly zesty parsley cuts the richness with a nice crunch.  A downside is that the entire wing is missing, which I find odd considering the local penchant for wings.  The kitchen might want to consider reinstating it to the platter?

Someone somewhere will ask me whether I prefer this to Jonathan Kinsella's Provençal-inspired roast chicken at db Bistro.  Well, in both cases the cuisson is excellent, but the chicken here has a lot more natural flavour than the one at db.  In addition, roast chicken for me is comfort food.  There isn't much more comfort one needs in this world than a traditional mash, sauteed mushrooms (king oysters and buttons, amongst others) and garlic, so I'm going with Bar-Roque on this one.  

With this, we drink an excellent 2009 Roger Sabon Châteauneuf-du-Pape Reserve (brought in), which I find rather elegant and restrained for such a ripe year - herbs, red fruit with savoury, meaty hints.

First Dessert: Crème Brûlée with Madagascar Vanilla ($12+)

Only three desserts are available on the soft opening menu while Istel awaits the arrival of his pastry chef.  We therefore go back to basics with a crème brûlée, but it is a good one.  The crème itself is not very sweet and is rather paler than your average; the egg yolks and sugar are creamed for longer to achieve that whiter colour.  This also means it's a lot lighter and despite the size of the portion, it's not really a challenge for one diner to tackle.  Its fragrance belies the presence of the excellent Madagascar vanilla, its miniscule black seeds diffused throughout the crème.

Second Dessert: Chocolate Fondant with Vanilla Ice Cream and Salted Caramel ($12+)

A decent rendition of a classic.  The caramel adds a nice savoury touch (I often sprinkle sea salt on chocolate desserts), although the fondant itself was overcooked and therefore not as oozy as you would rightfully expect.   Perhaps using a deeper dish would help preserve a more liquid core?

House-Infused Rums: (l to r) Fresh Lychee and Ginger; Pineapple, Chilli and Star Anise; Pear, Grape and Star Anise

Caribbean rums are infused with various ingredients for a minimum of 5 weeks, and will soon feature on Bar-Roque's digestif trolley with a bunch of Japanese whiskeys and vintage single malts.  The lychee and ginger was mild, taking the alcoholic edge of the rum without adding too much by way of spice.  The pineapple was mind-blowing, with lots of ripe pineapple flavour and the slow, gentle burn of chilli on the back palate playfully replicating the alcohol burn.  Pear and grape was almost herbal in character and somehow felt more tannic than the others.  But they all slip down very, very easily.


I think Istel is one of nature's born cuisiniers.  When we met up at a recent Alsace Society event, he was visibly chomping at the bit to get back behind the stoves.  "It's driving me mad!" he announced in his typical understated way.  Seeing him behind his dream kitchen, he walks and works with a spring in his step.  There are few things more gratifying than seeing a talented artisan in his element, creating and expressing his passion.

The collection of house-cured pickles, lining one side of the open kitchen
There were a couple of service errors, such as an order of ravioles du Royan which never arrived.  But it would be harsh to criticise a service slip-up during soft opening so I won't.  And to be fair, the "waiter" who took my order was one S. Istel who, for all his undoubted virtues, probably doesn't have much front-of-house experience.

I normally avoid visiting/reviewing restaurants at such an early stage as you normally don't get the proper measure of what it is trying to achieve.  But Istel is already churning out excellent, flavourful cuisine at very reasonable prices, and I want to see how far he will test his talents once he settles in, and what the new pastry chef will add to the sweet repertoire.

Freshly shucked oysters, tartes flambées, roast chickens.  Bar-Roque's food is not particularly challenging or complex, nor will it trigger endless debate and analysis by food nerds.  It is more about good ingredients, simply prepared to bring out the flavour.  "People often forget to have fun when they go to a restaurant", Istel muses over a post-service rum.  "I want to have a restaurant where people really have a good time, you know, where they can feel the love on the plate".

Well, he does, and I did.  I reckon you will too.  Book now before it gets packed out.

The writer paid his bill in full.  Budget around $50 nett (US$36-40) for a three-course dinner with a side dish.

UPDATE (9 August 2013):  A return visit saw Istel still doing what he does best.  His Australian pork knuckle (S$59++) is a pork knuckle to put any German restaurant in Singapore to shame, a hugely generous chunk of meat bone-in with a gorgeously crisp skin and evenly cooked, moist and tasty meat throughout.  To finish, his "Mom's Apple Tart" is something special; apples are apples, but his pastry (or should that be his mom's?) is simply superlative.  Nutella and banana tarte flambée is an Alsatian twist on Parisian street food, but is no less delicious for that.

Bar-Roque is quickly forging a name for serving generous portions of rib-sticking yet good quality food at very reasonable prices.  Sadly, with so many restaurateurs' beady eyes on the bottom line, very few places in Singapore look to fill this niche.  Which is just as well because I can't think of anyone better to fill it than Istel.

165 Tanjong Pagar Rd, #01-01 Amara Hotel
Singapore 088539
Tel: +65 6444 9672
Reservations recommended.

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