Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Review of Corner House, Singapore - My Sweet Lord!

I don't normally do requests.  The beauty of the blog format is that I am not accountable to anyone, I can write what I choose and I leave it to the audience whether or not they wish to read it.  A couple of months ago, a reader named Marcus asked me in the comments section whether I had tried Corner House, and what I thought of it.  I hadn't, so he made a "request", as if this was some late night radio show.  But I thought, Corner House was ranked Asia's 17th Best Restaurant, has been receiving rave reviews, and was where PM Lee brought President Xi Jinping for lunch during the latter's state visit to Singapore in November last year.  PM Lee is my MP in Ang Mo Kio GRC, and if it's good enough for PM Lee and PRC President Xi, it's good enough for me (with apologies to Dr Seuss).

Now I have had two very memorable meals in this venerable old building, the old residence of Botanic Gardens curator E.J.H. Corner in the colonial era.  In its earlier incarnation as Au Jardin by Les Amis, I was witness to what was perhaps the biggest piece of marketing fluff since the Carbolic Smoke Ball, and the Singaporean debut of the very talented chef Sebastien Lepinoy who now runs Les Amis.  Now, as Corner House, a joint venture between Wine Culture director Renny Heng and chef-patron Jason Tan, it invited a new visit to see what the new kids on the block had to offer.

Before I begin, I have to say that as beautiful as this place is as night, in the daytime, it is absolutely stunning.  Surrounded by the swaying leaves of the coconut palms and the somnolent flight of the mynahs, you could almost forget the rat race from which you just took a pit stop, a mere kilometre away as the crow flies from this most magical and romantic of Singaporean restaurants.

I am seated in the corner of the quiet corner of Corner House, on request, and have the privilege of sitting at a table adjacent to a man I recognised as the Chief of the Royal Australian Navy, Vice-Admiral Tim Barrett and his local host (back turned so no identification possible).  Vice-Admiral Tim and Mrs Barrett seemed to be enjoying their lunch, so if it's good enough for him...

I decide on the five-course Lunch Discovery Menu ($128++), which is basically a tasting menu served at lunch time; you never get the full measure of a restaurant from a cut-price three-course menu, and a hex on any blogger who writes reviews of restaurants based only on such "second team" fare.  

First, some bread and butter:

Bread Service: Walnut and Almond Bread, Baguette and Cinnamon Scroll

This is served with a cone of unsalted Norman butter from Bordier.  I recognise the distinctive serrated cone immediately, but when I asked one of the managers, he said something along the lines of "it's a trade thing and I need to ask the chef", implying that it was some sort of insider secret.  Believe me, sir, if Bordier is a secret, then I'm the Chief of the Singaporean Navy (I'm not).  Another manager is immediately forthcoming and fesses up that it is Bordier.  But when I ask for salted butter, he invites me to sprinkle some sea salt crystals on my unsalted butter.  I shake my head, more in sorrow than in anger.  

Bread is otherwise decent.

Trio of Amuse Bouches

The Oyster Leaf with Yuzu Jelly and Kumquat Strip (foreground) is unfortunately overwhelmed by the yuzu, so I don't get the oyster flavour from the oyster leaf.  The cucumber jelly (top left) is a spherification filled with cucumber and yellow mustard seeds, which is all good until the spherification spurts some juice directly down the back of my throat and almost causes me to choke to death (tastes nice, though).  The housemade fish cracker with tobikko and creme fraiche is, ummm, an absolute cracker.  Delicious.

First Entrée: Hokkaido Scallop Carpaccio, Burnt Mentaiko, Pickled Fennel, Ikura

Tan's food is incredibly pleasing to the eye, and he sources ingredients of truly outstanding quality.  The scallops are incredibly fresh, the light char on the exterior of the mentaiko adds an intriguing smoky, "cooked" sensation to a dish that is otherwise raw.  The little salad of micro-greens is dressed in what tastes like a citrussy yuzu jelly, which is a bit sweet for my taste,  Thankfully, Tan has a light touch with the dressing, which allows the seafood to steal the show.  Outstanding.

Second Entrée: Oignon Doux de Cevennes

This is the dish that Marcus said I had to try, and I was genuinely excited.  A "62 degree farm egg" (seriously, aren't all eggs from farms?) smothered with an emulsion of Cevennes sweet onion (the only AOP onion known to French bureaucracy), a dried slice of Cevennes sweet onion, shavings of Manjimup black truffle and a scatter of croutons.

Marcus, I really wanted to like this dish, I really did.  It looks sensational on the plate, reads even better on paper, sounds even better when my waiter describes it.  But I didn't, I couldn't.  The onion emulsion was waaaaaaaaaaay too sweet.  It killed the egg, it mortally wounded the truffle, it GBH'd my palate.  Which is a shame because I love nothing more than a good egg, but the sweetness was at such a crescendo that I couldn't even tell if the egg was battery or free range.  Really disappointing.

First Main: Crispy-Scaled NZ Cod, Harissa Emulsion, Butternut Squash Velouté, Crab Croquette

Taken with all the elements in one mouthful, this is a superb dish.  The cod is perhaps the most perfect specimen of fish I have had all year, beautiful product and expertly handled and seasoned, while the crab croquette is wonderful: salty, crispy more-ish and only lightly oily.  But the velouté is again overly sweet, and I can't perform my usual indulgence and mop the plate up with my bread because of this.  Tan is quite clearly a very talented chef with real technical chops, but his apparent penchant for sweetness is really starting to disrupt my palate and my focus.

Second Main: A4 Toriyama Beef, Confit Shallots, Horseradish and Macadamia Purée

Again, I cannot fault the quality of the product or the cooking of the beef, which is flawless.  But the sweetness quotient is upped again, this time due to the soy caramel coating the beef and the shallots, which are confit-ed then grilled.  The only thing saving this dish from diabetic damnation is the delectable purée, and it really needs a lot more of it to provide the necessary balance.  This dish has enormous potential unfortunately not realised.  Disheartening.

I start wondering about this sudden penchant for creating caramelised sauces out of Asian condiments.  It was only last week that I had a gorgeous red alfonsino at Julien Royer's Odette, which was shamefully overwhelmed by a "miso caramel".  Here, the culprit responsible for robbing a beautiful protein of its character was a "soy caramel".  Are we again trying to blur the lines between the sweet and savoury?  First it was the hipster chefs in the 80s and 90s, then everyone started to realise that sweet things taste better with a sprinkle of salt.  Are we now testing the converse theory that savoury things taste better with a little sugar, and taste a lot better with a lot of it?  Sorry, I'm not buying it.  

Dessert: "My Interpretation of Kaya Toast"

Kaya parfait, sandwiched in muscovado sablé, with a kaya "coulis", pandan snow, gula melaka foam, pineapple sorbet and buckwheat tuile.  Try reciting that after a few glasses of wine.

Thankfully, I didn't have to.  All I had was the very pleasant duty of enjoying this superb dessert.  Gorgeously smooth and set parfait, perfectly cooked and crumbly sablé, rich coulis, textbook sorbet and paper thin buckwheat tuile.  If this is Tan's work, and I have reason to believe that it is, he is a damned fine technician with his sweets also.  Exceptional, and my Dish of the Month for July.

Petits Fours

A very interesting selection of petits fours with a local spin: jackfruit mochi ice-cream, durian churro, salted egg yolk macaron and caramelised macadamias coated with Jivara milk chocolate.  I have an unshakeable prejudice against mochi ice cream so cannot say much more that is printable except that the ice-cream really did taste of jackfruit.  The churro is great, the heat of the pastry contrasting beautifully against the coolness / coldness of the durian.  Salted egg yolk gives an unexpected umami burst to the traditional macaron, while the macadamias are textbook.  Very good, and also very pleasant to see a lot of originality and thought so late in the progression.


I walked away sated and very satisfied, but there was something nagging me.  Tan is a fine chef, and his CV, boasting success at the Bocuse d'Or Asia, experience at the three-starred Robuchon a Galera in Macau and Sky on 57 (I will forgive him for that trespass), does him much credit.  But the sweetness factor in so many of the dishes, in a progression laid out by Tan himself, is a real bugbear for me.  Ironically, it was in the dessert course that I found the sweetness best managed, although that may have been due to my expectations anyway that dessert would be the sweetest course.

Service is good but inconsistent.  One of my managers was very civilised and correct in his manner, Mr "Bordier is a trade secret" a little less so.  The wine list is a true tome, as you would expect from a restaurant part-owned by a wine merchant, and features some museum bottles that would catch the eye of any wine lover (and that of his/her bank manager).  As is usual in this town, the wines I would like to drink are priced at a level beyond that which I would be comfortable paying, but there is a very fair selection below $150++ per bottle across various regions and countries  and a lot at $125++ per bottle, so diners on a relative budget don't feel compelled to go for the second cheapest bottle: you don't need to when you have over ten choices at the cheapest price!

I am really, really excited by Tan's potential, and he could well be the finest native "Western cuisine" chef on the island.  His food is confident and composed, and importantly, he does not allow himself to be hemmed in by the rather wanky and utterly unnecessary "Gastro-Botanica" tag that he has invented for his cuisine.  Corner House is an enchanting restaurant, and Tan is that close to also putting that magic on the plate.  Today, however, the sweetness of the courses got the better of me, and I can only describe what I experienced, and my reaction to it.  If the sweetness of some of the courses could somehow be toned down, allowing some of the other components of the dish to shine, I would be looking at a score closer to 17.  

Chef-Patron: Jason Tan
Owners: Renny Heng and Jason Tan
Score: 15.5 / 20

How many Michelin stars do I think it should get: *
How many Michelin stars do I think it will get: **

Address: 1 Cluny Road, 
Singapore Botanic Gardens, E J H Corner House (Nassim Gate Entrance)
Singapore 259569
Tel: +65 6469 1000
BYO Policy: $80++ per 750mL bottle only.  Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.

1 comment:

  1. The thought of all that sweet tasting sauce is offputting, but the location sounds delightful. And his dishes look stunning. Have to get Edna to persuade the daughter and son in law to swing for this next time we are in town. Cheers!