Sunday, 15 December 2013

A Review of Fat Cow, Singapore - More Than Just Chunks of Dead Fat Cow

In September 2011, Fat Cow, a self-proclaimed Japanese beef atelier and whisky/cocktail bar, took up the ground floor space at Camden Medical Centre vacated by Kelvin Lee's much-lamented Le Figue (incidentally, I first tasted Lee's food back when he was the head chef at the now defunct San Marco at the Fullerton Hotel's Lighthouse and loved it since).

I had never visited Fat Cow before, partly because wagyu (which means nothing more than "Japanese cow") beef is, for me, an indulgence that simply isn't worth my limited funds (same goes with black truffles and caviar, with the possible exception of beluga).  Give me a well-hung grass-fed hanger steak cooked somewhere between rare and medium-rare, some red wine jus, mashed potatoes and I will be as happy as I am well-fed.  Regular readers of this blog will also know that I waste whatever liver I have left on wine, not whisky and cocktails.  And when a restaurant calls itself an atelier,  I react reflexively to such pretentiousness by sprinting for the hills.

So why am I here now?  Partly because I heard that Dan Segall, formerly of Zuma in Hong Kong and Ku De Ta at Marina Bay Sands, was the new group executive chef overseeing Fat Cow.  Apparently Segal had revamped the menu to emphasise offerings beyond just charcoal-grilled Japanese beef, so I was curious to see what else they had to offer. And I had been receiving media invites every other month for as long as I can remember asking me to visit, so I decided that if I wasn't going to spend my money on Japanese beef, I could spend someone else's while giving them the courtesy of my time.

So I do need to issue my standard media invite disclaimer, but you know that I'm not going to say it's good just because I didn't pay for it, right? (I hope so, anyway)...

Walking in (after you manage to locate it, of course, which is no easy talk), you first pass through a dimly-lit bar area before taking one's seat at the open counters.  While it has a very natural Japanese feel with its use of light-toned wood, you can tell that a designer, and a rather pricey one at that, has waved his magic wand over the place.

The Fat Cow Restaurant by Brewin Concepts The Fat Cow Restaurant by Brewin Concepts, Singapore

I love an open kitchen, exposing as it does the culinary team to the unpredictabilities of human interaction.  It can be a wonderful outlet for the chefs' personalities, of which the kitchen at Bar-Roque Grill is an exemplar, but it also leaves the chefs nowhere to hide, for example if something goes wrong with the food or they haven't the personality to carry out their role as ambassadors for the restaurant.  I heard that part of Segall's brief was also to help the chefs develop their repertoire of small talk, so it is good to see that the brains understand the need to "control the space", as it were.

Back to the food.

First Appetiser: "Sashimi" of Momotaro Tomato ($14++)

A very pleasant start.  The thinly-sliced momotaro tomatoes have a mild sweetness.  Tender and juicy, they contrast against the crisp snap of the mizuna shoots.  I like the sesame dressing also; lightened with ginger and ponzu, it is not the overwhelming, smothering seasoning often encountered in other Japanese restaurants.  Delicious.

Second Appetiser: Chef's Daily Selection of Sashimi (around $65++)

Fat Cow serves quite a varied selection of sashimi.  Today's choices include o-toro (fatty tuna belly), salmon, scallops, uni (sea urchin), kanpachi (yellow jack) and squid.  It is all very decent, but there was nothing here to blow me away.  The kanpachi, in particular, has a bitter overtone that I find offputting.  The uni is also not an exemplar of its species, seeming a bit watery and lacking the creamy texture and definition of a prime morsel.  

Third Appetiser: Soy-infused tuna cubes with barley miso, tofu and ginger ($23++)

After a relative let-down with the sashimi, this is a welcome return to form, with cubes of chu-toro lightly doused in soy, before being served on a bed of minced tofu and barley miso (basically miso made from fermented barley).  I like this dish on a comfort food level: the flavour combination of soy sauce, miso and tofu is classic, while the fresh, firm chu-toro offers a nice textural contrast with the mashed tofu.  

Fourth Appetiser: Creamy Crab Cake ($16++)

This was OK.  Nothing offensive about it, but if you like to really have the unadulterated taste and texture of crab meat in your crab cakes, this creamy (I can only imagine it was some form of mayonnaise) version will not be to your taste.

Pre-Main: Slow-cooked Wagyu Beef Tendons with Foie Gras and Daikon ($24++)

Wowsers.  After slow-cooking beef tendons in a soy-based stock, they become chewy, gelatinous, comforting morsels of awesomeness.  The daikon adds some freshness when the going gets a bit rich, but for me, the foie gras is mostly superfluous.  It is well-seared and well-cooked, but I think they get in the way of enjoying the wagyu tendons.  If they can leave out the foie and put me in the corner with a cold beer, I will munch away happily on a bunch of tendons for hours.

Main Course: Saga A3 Sirloin (below) and Iwate A5 Rib Eye (below far) (around $150++ for a total 150g)

Even after grilling, the marbling is still clearly visible on the cross-section

I have to admit that I am no connoisseur of Japanese beef; my predilection for textured, stronger beefy flavour and the current state of my cash reserves have seen to that.  However, I was surprised by how much beefier the flavour of the Iwate was compared to that of the Saga.  Climatic conditions in Iwate Prefecture are apparently harsher, resulting in stronger-flavoured beef.  The Iwate, A5-rated on the Japanese marbling scale and therefore larded more liberally with intramuscular fat than the A3-rated Saga (the Japanese scale bears no relation whatsoever to its more modest Australian cousin), is also marginally more tender and rather juicier to the bite.

The cooking on both cuts is excellent, with the meat having a beautiful char on the exterior without going past the requested medium-rare.  I thought I tasted the distinctive smoky, almost sweet note of Japanese charcoal on the exterior, and surely enough, I later discovered that the grill is fired with Japanese binchotan.  And I should also add that the prices are more reasonable than at Cut at MBS, which also serves a range of top-drawer wagyu cuts.

I do think, however, that Fat Cow has missed an opportunity as it does not stock the same cut of meat from the various Japanese prefectures.  To wit, they do not serve sirloin from Iwate, nor ribeye from Saga, etc.  If we could enjoy the same cut from different regions, we keep the variables to a minimum, i.e. the region of origin, allowing us to discern the terroir and its effect on the meat.  I accept it may be an issue of supply, but an atelier (workshop) should be able to offer its patrons not merely the chance to sate their palate, but also to satisfy their gastronomic curiosity.

Mandatory Carb Course: Himi Udon ($9++)

After the flavour bonanza of the wagyu beef duo, I was glad to finish the savoury courses with some lightly-chilled Himi udon noodles doused in a light bonito-based broth.  Himi, a town roughly equidistant from Tokyo and Kyoto on the west coast of Honshu, is famous for its noodles.  I cannot tell you any mythical story about what gives it its virtues, but all I know is that it is ridiculously good.  If you look up "song" (roughly a comforting crunch) in the Cantonese dictionary, you will see a picture of Himi udon.  Its flat surface also soaks in a lot of the mild broth, ensuring that flavour as well as texture are well-catered for.  My Dish of the Month for December 2013; at $9++, this may be my cheapest holder of that title, but no less deserving than the others.

First Dessert: Red Bean "Obanyaki" with White Peach Sorbet ($18++)

I don't get this.  The obanyaki pancakes are "deconstructed" (eviscerated?) so the traditional red bean filling now finds itself as a topping.  They are pleasant enough, but the white peach sorbet has a sickly floral smell and tastes much the same on the palate.  The microwave sponge cake, strawberry-flavoured, I understand, is an old El Bulli creation which has spread across the restaurant world like a virus and has similar virtues.  I am also going to gripe about the plating; see what happens when a sweet tooth is denied his just desserts?  This is a very long platter on which to be serving not much food.  As you can see from the photo (and I have tried to minimise the appearance of distance by positioning the camera), the centre of the platter is virtually empty.  It is about as unsatisfying as seeing a city skyline with a massive gaping hole in its midst.

Second Dessert: Boss Coffee ($18++)

This is much more like it.  A riff on the well-known Japanese brand of canned coffees, it looks good and tastes just as well.  It is an unabashed dessert: cold, sweet and strong, almost a bit too strong for a post-dinner douceur.  I love the fact that it presents that sweet, canned coffee flavour in so many textures: ice, fudge, agar and sauce, as well as the biscuit sticks dipped in chocolate - a blast from my childhood!  I think this is a dessert that will appeal in so many ways to the local palate, which appreciates coffee in that style.  Very well done, but I have to repeat my health warning: it is a LOT of coffee for a late evening so it could / should be shared.

So what is it I have learned today?  Well, I learned that Fat Cow does a lot more than just chunks of dead cow meat.  While some of the dishes are clearly more successful than others, it also represents quite competitive value at the pointy-end of Singapore dining.  For example, the tendon and foie gras dish, with a fair amount of good quality seared foie gras, is a steal at $24++.  Desserts are not quite of the same calibre however, and they really should be when they are going at $18++.

I cannot compare the current offering to that of the pre-Segall era, but Fat Cow is a restaurant that I honestly wouldn't mind returning to and spending my own money on.  There is enough to keep me interested outside of the wagyu options, but Japanese beef fiends will obviously find something here to love.

1 Orchard Boulevard, #01-01/2 Camden Medical Centre
Singapore 248649
BYO Policy: 1-for-1, $50++ corkage fee per bottle otherwise.  For a comprehensive list of Singapore restaurants which allow corkage and their BYO policies, please click here.
Tel: +65 6735 0308
Reservations recommended.

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