Friday, 23 October 2015

Review of The Kitchen at Bacchanalia, Hong Kong Street, Singapore - A Hipster to My Taste

2016 update: Please note that chefs Ivan Brehm and Mark Ebbels have left Bacchanalia.  No knocks on the new chef Luke Armstrong as I have not tried his food, but "Michelin" watchers should be aware that the star was awarded to the restaurant under the old regime.

I hate hipsters.  Scratch their pretensions, their logos, their self-conscious badges, and you often find little underneath.  

Singapore is a curious mirror through which this wanker culture is reflected, because of its wealth, generally young and mobile population, Western-oriented aspirations and its obsession with food.  You only need to look at Singapore's ridiculous, uncritical ape-ing of dining trends in the "West" to get your hackles up.  As a food writer, I try to shelve my prejudices and simply focus on the quality of the proposition, but the product is almost invariably rubbish. 

Bacchanalia is one of the few exceptions to that rule.


Bacchanalia, headed by Ivan Brehm and Mark Ebbels, recently relocated to the hipster enclave of Hong Kong Street.  I never visited Bacchanalia at its old Masonic Hall digs; the fact that it was a quasi-nightclub doing 100 covers a night may have had something to do with it.  With its move to a smaller, more intimate venue and a new focus on its food, this was as good a time to visit as any.

Disclaimer: I did not pay for this meal.  I was also dining with my old occasional friend (I see her about once a year on average) Leisa Tyler, who was previously Chairman /woman/person/thingy of the World's 50 Best Restaurants voting panel in Southeast Asia.  Leisa also sells fresh produce to Bacchanalia from her farm in the Cameron Highlands so we were very well-known to the house.

I don't want to do a blow-by-blow review of my meal here.  Rather, I think the spirit of the place may be better shared with a few observations on my meal here.

1.  The Ambience is Unique - As I was walking down Hong Kong Street inhaling le parfum de Sumatra, I walked past a glass-fronted restaurant with an open kitchen get-up.  I thought nothing of it, until I kept walking to the end of the street and couldn't find Bacchanalia.  I backtracked and looked through the glass, saw Brehm's distinct eggshell blond hairdo, then squinted at the small script painted on the glass.  Surely enough, I had arrived at Ground Zero.

Bacchanalia is very casual.  There are no tablecloths, no super-cushy seats on which you can fall asleep, no carpeting on the floor.  The idea, Brehm tells me, is to basically bring the guest into the kitchen and make him feel like he is part of that process.  As is now de rigueur in such chef-driven restaurants (and quite possibly also a side effect of the labour shortage facing the Singaporean hospitality industry?), Brehm and Ebbels run out quite a few of the dishes to their guests, and explain the individual components of each dish to the guests.

The downside of this is approach is that you will hear the sounds of the kitchen.  The team are remarkably quiet and efficient in the kitchen, and Brehm calling out orders from the pass reminds you more of a literary reading than a kitchen general barking at his regiment.  However, you will hear taps running, drawers sliding in and out, pans and pots moving around, the general clutter you would reasonably expect to hear in a commercial kitchen.  I don't mind it, but I know a lot of people who would.

2.  The Wine List is Hipster-ish - There were some wines from Uruguay, some Bordeaux cru non-classe and some sakes.  They may well be very good, and they were decently priced in an absolute sense i.e. they aren't going to break the bank, although knowing nothing about these wines, I cannot really comment on the mark-ups or the value they represent.  Leisa and I make do with a very decent champagne

3.  The Food is Clever, Complex and Delicious - Brehm is a chefs' chef, and the amount of work that goes into each individual component of his complex compositions is simply astounding.  Listening to him describe the processes, I feel a bit fatigued myself (and I mean that in the most complimentary way possible).

His carrot dish, for example, would be described as a declinaison de carrottes if you were dining a la Francais.  He has carrots done sous-vide then seared, carrot custard, a meaty carrot jam, microwaved carrot sponge and a carrot vinegar emulsion.  Is he belabouring the point a little?  Quite possibly, except that the results are astounding.  The transformation of textures also highlights the versatility of the carrots' flavour.

The Carrot
There is also a bit of a "Modern Australian" touch to the menu, that I would date to Mod Oz cuisine's Middle Eastern phase in the mid-2000s.  The inspirations from that part of the world are evident, whether it be the dukkah scattered across your carrot dish or the za'atar sprinkled over the grouper, the use of a creamy, nutty dip (based on pine nuts, parmesan cheese and polenta) as an accompaniment for bread in lieu of the more standard olive oil and butter and a raw beef kibbeh, with bits of popped quinoa adding the crunch of the original without the grease.

A Dip of Pine Nut Puree, Parmesan Polenta, Basil Oil and Pickled Ginger
If one is looking for genius, one need look no further than the scallop tuile, topped with a dollop of beef fat mayonnaise and a scatter of black orange powder.  I'm not going to repeat the minutiae of the process because reading it may well drive you insane (as it would me for typing it out).  Brehm has, somehow, I know not how, infused his tuile with the sweet, oceany meatiness of a scallop.  And while I do like Les Amis' new "Seinfeld tempura" (it's a tempura of nothing) as a textural device, why not incorporate some stunning flavours into the bargain?

Raw Beef "Kibbeh" with Scallop Tuile
Bacchanalia also does a ridiculously good "coconut risotto" inspired by the Thai tom kha.  It is straight-out phenomenal, with the lemongrass and kaffir lime neatly bound up in the coconut cream, and some real interest added by the fermented coconut pieces and housemade chili paste.  At the risk of angering the "white man shouldn't be cooking Asian food" crowd, this is honestly one of the best Thai or Thai-inspired dishes I've had in ages, actually since my meal at Long Chim (woops, another Thai restaurant run by a white man).  Superb.

Another observation: the Bacchanalia menu is dev0id of the key luxury ingredients which mark the very global Singaporean pantry. There is no lobster (whether Boston or Breton), no Wagyu (whether Japanese or Australian), no caviar, truffle or foie gras, there isn't even Hokkaido scallop or any Japanese seafood (at least not in any visually recognisable form).  Rather, the main in our seven-course menu is a butter-poached chicken, with no extravagant claims as to provenance or genetics.  To pull that kind of a stunt in Singapore is either super ballsy or provocatively hipster-ish.  The chicken, incidentally, is stunning, moist and tender with the crunch and savour of brown butter solids and fried capers.

Now the downsides.  A couple of dishes fell flat, such as the grouper with brandade and artichoke puree.  This is a very odd composition, because Bacchanalia's dishes are generally  very pretty plates, with strong shapes and forms, modern plating and bold crockery.  The grouper dish looks indifferent with its very monotone colour palate and I have to say doesn't taste much better.  The grouper is overdone (I know it's a meaty fish) and while I really like the Sicilian olive tapenade on its own, there is no unity to the various components of this dish, no coherent narrative.

Grouper: You can kiss this frog, but it ain't changing...
The apple "mille-feuille" is less adventurous than it purports to be, having evaded the challenge of the thousand leaves of puff pastry.   The "garden scatter" presentation, which seems catchier than a Carly Rae earworm, makes me yearn for inedible pièces montées and other forgotten items from Escoffier's canon.  I do, however, really like the tartness and cleansing bitterness of the grapefruit in the bitter chocolate tart.

Apple "Mille-Feuille" with Green Apple and Cinnamon
Grapefruit and Bitter Chocolate Tart, Assam Tea Ice-Cream

I like the new Bacchanalia.  There is enough artistry and kitchen craft here to impress anyone, and value is good: five courses go for $115++ and seven courses for $150++.   In Singapore, where fine dining can often cost an arm and a leg, this is a superb deal.

And unlike the hipsters of my nightmares, there is nothing pretentious or fake about Bacchanalia.  Its insistence on "locavorism" (i.e. sourcing specially-grown herbs and greens from Cameron Highlands) is not without purpose, as each green element adds a distinct character to the dish.  The whole space is devoted to highlighting what is on the plate; the dining room is comfortable and relaxed, almost domestic, and lighting is good enough to see what you're eating.  There is no sign that cash has been splashed on trimmings such as tablecloths, or absurdities like busts of the owners.

I only hope the more noise-sensitive amongst us enjoy a bit of bustle in the kitchen-cum-dining room, because the food here really deserves a big audience.  And the signs are good, with a very decent crowd on a hazy Tuesday night.

39 Hong Kong Street
Singapore 059678
Tel: +65 6509 1453
Reservations recommended


  1. Love this post Julian (as usual!) :) I also was surprised with the general 'look and feel' when I walked past. And, having made it to the previous venue, the contrast is quite stunning. Sounds like it's definitely worth a try though (I've only briefly chatted to Mark Ebbels outside when I was with a mutual friend). And I'm loving the fact that the menu is, "devoid of the key luxury ingredients which mark the very global Singaporean pantry".

  2. Thanks Victoria! Yes, it is definitely worth trying, although I did miss my foie gras that night ;)

    I forgot to insert a fourth point in my post, which is that the staff, of both sexes, are really, really, ridiculously good-looking. I hasten to add, of course, that that doesn't influence my assessment of a restaurant!