Saturday, 17 August 2013

A Review of Pidgin Kitchen & Bar, Dempsey - A New Pamplemousse is Born!

I love Pamplemousse.  Correction, I loved Pamplemousse.  This unassuming eatery, featuring very well thought-through Franco-Asian "bistro" dishes from Adrian Ling, closed its shutters for the last time on 9 June 2013.  But with the class that marks much of what Ling and his wife / restaurant manager Cleo Chiang do, Pamplemousse donated all the proceeds of its valedictory dinner to a local children's charity.

But Ling and Chiang bounced back this week, reopening on the old Pamplemousse space with a brave concept: a more casual room serving Asian-inspired, especially Singaporean / Malaysian-influenced, sharing plates (Ling and Chiang are wary of the word "tapas").  And as its cuisine is an amalgam of various influences and experiences, Pidgin, meaning a simplified language with influence from multiple languages, is a delightfully appropriate name.


As the very pragmatic Ling points out, apart from the difficulty of pronouncing "Pamplemousse", the name created a bit of a mismatch in its customers' expectations.  "With all the authentic French bistros opening these days with French chefs and French managers and waiters, we obviously were not like them and our food was very different.  But with the old name, people wanting pure French bistro food who visited us for the first time were disapppointed, while those who didn't want French food wouldn't choose to visit us at all!"

But the change is far from cosmetic.  Newly completed renovations have the walls whitewashed, giving the space a much airier, more open feel, although I miss the purple feature wall plastered with the names of various condiments.  The casual feel is reinforced by the lack of tablecloths, and the inclusion of a bar counter laid out for clients to enjoy the new light bites, as opposed to just an aperitif or a final one for the road.

Pidgin's opening menu features a lot more local inspiration, and Singaporean produce, surprisingly, than Pamplemousse's.  Ling is at pains to point out that it is just that.  "Many people see local dishes such as chicken rice and wanton mee as holy grails which shouldn't be touched or adapted.  We want to convey the idea that the dishes are not "my versions" of these dishes, but simply inspired by them".  There are still a few favourites from the old Pamplemousse menu, such as the excellent crab otak croquettes and duck confit, but make no mistake: Pidgin is a whole new beast.

With that, let's move on to the food.  I made it a point to not order the old Pamplemousse items.

First Appetiser: Spicy Achar Pickle (S$6++)


As reinterpreted by Ling, the achar, a very rustic-looking, in-your-face spicy Nyonya salad served cold, looks more like Julien Royer's Jaan's Garden.  It is faithful to the original insofar as the ingredients list goes (carrots, cauliflowers, radish, pineapple, peanuts, sesame), but has more of a cleansing acidity rather than a brutish sourness.  A good, fresh start.

Second Appetiser: Chicken Rice Arancini, Garlic Chilli Jam (S$8++)

(Photo Courtesy of Cleo Chiang and Pidgin Kitchen & Bar)
This is the one dish I couldn't quite figure out.  Carnaroli rice cooked as a Hainanese style chicken rice (tossed in a hot pan with browned garlic and minced ginger, before being cooked in chicken stock), then moulded as a traditional arancino with scamorza cheese holding the whole deal together.  The rice is too mushy for me, and doesn't have enough chicken rice flavour.  Which is a shame because the perfectly balanced sour-spicy-sweet chilli jam is so good I would buy it by the jarful (assuming it was on sale, of course, which it isn't).  Ling admits this dish is still troubling him, and he will continue to finetune it over the coming days and weeks.  Which is great news because that chilli jam really deserves a better dance partner.

First Entrée: Oyster 2 Egg (S$19++)


A riff on the local fried oyster omelette, Ling sources fresh Pacific oysters from Hai Loong, a small farm just off the coast of Pulau Ubin.  I'm not sure where the description's promised konbu butter is, but the oysters are savoury and seafood-sweet, the scrambled egg is loose and fine, and the two oyster leaves on the side are a suitably playful touch.  Delicious, but the portion is a little small for my liking.

Second Entrée: Thai Green Curry Scallops (S$26++)


The individual components of this dish are well -executed, with properly seared scallops, a subtle green curry froth and this year's super gastronomic crack, which Ling names "savoury granola".  I don't care what's in it (I noticed oats, a few kinds of nuts, etc.), but it's the single most addictive (legal) substance I have consumed all year.  Such is its intensity that I am not sure whether scallops are the best accompaniment for it!

First Main Course: Bak Kwa Mac and Cheese (S$20++)

Wow!  Bak Kwa is a chewy Chinese cured and barbecued meat, sweet, smoky and savoury, in that order.  Ling buys in good quality pork-belly bak kwa, which has layers of translucent fat, finishing it over a charcoal grill before adding it to penne, a sauce of gruyere and cheddar and a light sprinkle of truffle oil.  The sweetness of the bak kwa synergises with the nuttiness of the gruyere, and its fatty belly goodness compounds sin upon sin with the very moreish cheese sauce.  A superb expression of decadence.

Second Main Course: Razor Clam "Tau Suan" (S$20++; comped)


On reading the menu, this was the dish that intrigued me the most.  I didn't end up ordering it, but Chiang insisted that I sample it.  

Why the intrigue?  Well, tau suan is a sweet soup made from split mung beans cooked in a light pandan syrup and thickened with potato starch, before being topped with slices of fried dough fritters (you char kway).  Ling has kept only the aesthetic, the you char kway and the mung beans (albeit not cooked to mush so that they instead provide little bullets of al dente bite), but the thick, rich stock is based on a dashi broth boiled with clams and konbu seaweed.  Excellent, and given the generally deplorable quality of tau suan one finds these days, I would much rather have Ling's version than try my luck at a random food court.

Dessert: Kaya Bread and Butter Pudding, Milk Tea Ice Cream (S$15++)


One of my most distinct childhood memories is helping my mother make kaya, a lusciously sweet coconut and egg "jam".  Ling makes his own kaya for this dish, and on breaking the nicely caramelised crust, the fragrance issuing from the fissure sweeps me back to the old family home in Ipoh.  The kaya is delicious in a way only a homemade kaya can be, while juicy raisins add textural and taste variation.  The accompanying "milk tea" ice cream, a homage to the teh peng (iced sweetened milk tea) that is one of the traditional accompaniments to kaya toast, is made from Japanese hojicha.  Hojicha is an acquired taste at the best of times, and its smoky, bitter notes almost give an impression that the ice-cream base is slightly overbrewed.  But such is the wanton deliciousness of the pudding that it really doesn't matter.

Conclusion

Loh Lik Peng, that extraordinary hotelier and restaurateur (Restaurant André, amongst others), recently said that he was sick to death of tapas joints opening up in Singapore.  The problem, according to Loh, was that Singapore had no cultural affinity or connection to Spain, and he would like to see the emergence of a tapas-style eatery with a Singaporean flavour.

Pidgin, with its distinctive local flavour and showcasing of local ingredients, may well be the answer to Loh's prayer.  Ling and Chiang have taken a big risk in designing Pidgin as they have, but chicken rice arancini aside, the flavours and textures are generally so good and precise that they should win a good following before long.

I am a little concerned about the staff's seeming emphasis on the dishes, except for the explicitly stated "Mains" section, being "shared plates".  Some of the dishes as conceptualised and plated do not lend themselves easily to sharing.  How would one go about sharing the razor clam tau suan, for example, which is essentially a bowl of soup?  Also, spooning scrambled eggs into individual portions is more a task befitting a Masterchef Australia judge than an everyday diner looking for a good meal. I think a bit more work in definition, categorisation and perhaps conceptualisation would be handy here.

And don't expect to get away from here for much less than you paid previously at Pamplemousse (which admittedly was excellent value).  Including the comped dishes, two nibbles, four "shared plates" and a dessert, a big meal for two, cost us S$134 nett (US$105 including tips)

All in all though, given it has only been four days since Pidgin opened, Ling and Chiang are off to an absolutely cracking start.  I have said it before, and I will say it again: I think Ling is one of the most talented and intelligent chefs in Singapore today.  What I tasted today at Pidgin merely confirmed my previous view.

Postscript: Pidgin has now introduced a set lunch menu (with effect from 21 January 2014), with 2 courses going for $28++ and 3 courses for $32++.  I recall that Pamplemousse had a similarly excellent value set lunch running during its day.  Hopefully, this will encourage people to try Ling's new creations at Pidgin, because some of them are truly remarkable and worth the trek out to Dempsey.

Except for the comps disclosed above, the writer paid for his meal in full.

PIDGIN KITCHEN & BAR
Block 7, Dempsey Road
#01-04
Singapore 249671
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 6475 0080 or email info@pidgin.sg 
www.pidgin.sg
Reservations recommended

2 comments:

  1. I agree totally with this review but would add that sacrificing an excellent restaurant (Pamplemousse)just to be able to charge main course prices for smaller "sharing plates" is a shame. Any restauranteur hates the word "Tapas" when they mean "tasting dshes" until the cash registers go into overdrive...then they don't care what it's called. In my humble opinion, Pamplemousse's failure was their dependence on word-of-mouth marketing.... I LOVED Pamplemousse for its integrity, its consistency and excellent service...but I will need a lot of convincing on Pidgin...For me - the jury is most definitely out!

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  2. Anonymous, thank you for your very thoughtful comment.

    To be fair, I thought Ling's aversion to the term was probably founded on the fear of more cultural confusion, as in they are not serving real "tapas". Given the recent invasion of the Spanish Armada, I can sympathise with that viewpoint.

    Just on value, the shared dishes are mostly new concepts so I can give Pidgin the benefit of the doubt on that count. The main courses, however, all come from the old Pamplemousse menu and are at the same old prices, so it will be interesting to see if portion sizes have changed.

    On service, it's the same old floor team, as least as far as the managers go, and Chiang is still working the dinner service.

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