Thursday, 12 June 2014

A Review of Bistecca Tuscan Steakhouse, Singapore

I received an email from Bistecca's GM Craig Hemmings a few weeks back, asking if I wouldn't mind listing Bistecca on my BYO Restaurants directory.  He mentioned something about Sydney, which must have triggered some memories from years past because his name sounded very familiar.  Surely enough, it was the same Craig Hemmings who was previously GM at Quay and Guillaume at Bennelong, two of Sydney's finest restaurants.

A house-branded Laguiole knife at Bistecca Tuscan Steakhouse
One thing led to another, and being a gentleman, Craig asked if I would like to come over for dinner.  Now I was a little bit wary, having been quite badly let down by my last bistecca alla fiorentina experience in Singapore.  But a quick look at Bistecca's website shows that they use a Wagyu First Cross steer for their steaks, with a marbling score of 6+ (compared to the 3-4 at La Barca).  So I signed up, ate my meal and because a bill didn't appear, I need to issue my standard comped meal disclaimer.  I trust, however, that my regular readers know that buying me dinner doesn't also buy my unwarranted praise...

I brought along my bistecca buddy, renowned Bordeaux blogger Dr Ric Chen, so I wouldn't get bored chewing on bovine flesh by myself.

To Start: Chicken Liver Pate, Bread, Aged Balsamic

An unctuous, sanguine treat that went very well with slices of room temperature sourdough. Texture-wise, it was more paste-like and spreadable than the semi-solid versions that you often see on French charcuterie platters.  Which was just as well because we still had a long way to go!  Alongside was served an Italian extra virgin olive oil with proper 12-year old balsamic vinegar.  Delicious.

First Entrée: Freshly Shucked Canadian Pacific Oysters with Mignonette ($4.80++ per piece)

Subtle flavour, with a meaty texture and lightly grassy finish.  The mignonette, a light sauce of shallots, chives, cherry vinegar (and in this case, chilli flakes), tantalises rather than overwhelms, leaving the oyster to star on the plate.  It must be said, though, that it doesn't have the rich, iodine-y, sexy/(ual) texture and flavour of a good Belon or Sydney Rock.  Of all of the evening's dishes, this was probably the most underwhelming.

Second Entrée: Sashimi-Grade Yellowfin Tuna Crudo with Pickled Cucumber, Shallots and Extra Virgin Olive Oil (S$28++)

The fish was supremely fresh and delivered rich tuna flavour, so I was glad that it was sliced thinly.  The freshly toasted bread added a nice flavour, texture and temperature counterpoint to the crudo.  My only complaint was that I found the tuna quite over-seasoned, a diagnosis which Dr Chen agreed with.

Now just a little diatribe on the side.  The very competent and charming maîtresse d' Helene told me, when I raised the issue of the salty dish, that she noticed that Singaporeans (and I guess I am an ersatz Singaporean of sorts) were more sensitive to salt than clients of other nationalities.  I must say I haven't noticed that amongst my Singaporean friends.  Sure, there are some who complain about oversalted dishes, but they are also the ones who complain about too much sugar, too much butter, too much cream, i.e. they shouldn't really be eating out at restaurants!  If anyone can cast some light on where this theory of "super salt-sensitive Singaporeans" came from, I would be glad to have your thoughts.

Third Entrée: Tagliatelle with Rabbit Ragout, Pancetta and Wild Mushrooms (S$25++)

I don't really have much to say about this dish, except for wow.  Gorgeously textured and silken pasta with some real bite, while the rabbit ragout was tender, rich and redolent with herbs.  I am writing this some three weeks after the meal, so you will forgive me if some details escape my mind, but what I can remember is that this dish was an absolute screamer.  My Dish of the Month for May 2014 as it was consumed in May.  I told chef Fernando Capasso that I would come back just for this dish, it is that good.  And it's an absolute steal at $25 (mind you, chef, that is NOT an invitation to raise the price by a few dollars!).

It is trite to say that the quality and worth of a steakhouse is judged by its steak, but I add a rider that a genuinely good steakhouse should equally be capable of producing good non-steak dishes.  After all, there is always one non-beef eater / vegetarian communist tree-hugger in every dining party.  This pasta, for me, is the archetype of that perfect non-steak dish.

Main Course: Bistecca alla Fiorentina, Australian First-Cross Wagyu T-Bone (S$178++)

If you name your restaurant after a dish, you had better serve a damned good version of it.  And Bistecca does.  With its higher marbling score (these are first-cross steers sired by Wagyu bulls on Holstein dams), you are left in no doubt about its Wagyu genetics, and it also packs a good, beefy flavour.  

The difference between the bistecca here at Bistecca and at La Barca is enormous.  Here, the meat is properly seasoned, seared and left to speak for itself, with sauces and accompaniments served separately.  The thickness of the cut also allows you to get a proper sear and caramelisation on the exterior without overcooking the meat.  La Barca takes an opposite approach, smothering a thinner cut of lesser meat with a rich sauce so the meat doesn't really take centre stage as it should, not that it could as it wasn't as good quality a cut.  Indeed, driven by our insatiable male addiction for bloody raw meat, Dr Ric and I worked our way through this bistecca in no time, and we didn't feel anywhere near as greased out or stuffed as we did at La Barca.

The clincher is that the pricing of these cuts ends up around the same; La Barca charges $13 / $18 / $20 per 100 grams depending on which preparation you choose, whereas Bistecca charges a flat $178 for 1.1 kilograms.  If I have enough money to spend on a hunk of dead cow for 2 or 3, I know which option I would go for.

First Dessert: Vanilla Pannacotta with Fresh Berries and Pistachio Crumbs (S$15++)

Simple, fresh and classic.  Just what the doctor ordered after a big, meaty repast.

Second Dessert: Chocolate Gelato with Sliced Almonds (S$6++ per scoop)

Good, but I have to admit I wasn't particularly wowed.  It was very nice to finish the evening with some chocolate, though.


I really like Bistecca, and it seems I'm not the only one.  On a Monday night, the restaurant was virtually full.  In a fickle and competitive restaurant market like Singapore's, I'm sure many chefs would give their left testicle to have a packed dining room on Monday night.  And this is not a restaurant that I would regard as cheap by any stretch of the imagination.  If a party of three had two entrees, a bistecca, two sides and three desserts, they would still be spending well over S$100 (US$80) a head.

Dr Ric told me he had been here a couple of years ago, although he did not order the bistecca alla Fiorentina then, and he said he was very impressed with the food on this outing.  Dr Ric is as demanding regarding restaurant food as Iggy Azalea is regarding tributes to dead rock legends, so that is saying something.  

I suspect that some of the all-round slickness has something to do with Hemmings' arrival at Bistecca late last year.  He spent nine years as general manager at the (for most of its life) three-hatted Guillaume at Bennelong, and you don't manage the flagship restaurant of a chef like Guillaume Brahimi for that long a time unless you have some serious chops (excuse the steakhouse pun).   I learn later that the chef Fernando joined as sous chef not long after Hemmings joined, and a few months later assumed the top job.  If he's churning out food of this quality after not very long as the top toque, then more power to him.

Yes, the steaks are great, but Bistecca serves some genuinely good non-beef dishes as well.  I will be back.

25 Mohamed Sultan Rd
Tel: +65 6735 6739 
Reservations recommended
BYO Policy: 1-for-1; otherwise $50++ corkage per 750mL bottle.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Reservations recommended.  Budget S$100++ and above (US$80+) for dinner

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