Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Casual Eats - Reviews of French Feast, Non-Entree Dessert Cafe, Pacamara, Skillet @ 163, Clinton Street Baking Company and The Study

As Singapore's dining scene is in the throes of casualisation, diners have a larger than ever selection of accessible venues than ever before.  Prices are being slashed (God forbid, even three Michelin-starred Joel Robuchon's poshest tasting menu is now 20% cheaper compared to its opening back in 2011), name chefs are now opening outlets from their more "downmarket" brands (Gordon Ramsay with his Bread Street Kitchen, David Thompson with Long Chim), even the Michelin Man, in a bizarre mix of populism and condescension, gave a star to a bak chor mee joint.

The problem with greater choice, unfortunately, is that you have to sift through a lot more of the rubble to get to the good stuff.  Here are the results of my gold-panning efforts in recent weeks.

French Feast, 20 Tengkat Tong Shin, Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur

When Jean-Michel Fraisse's beloved La Vie en Rose was literally buried in a landslide late last year, a few tears were quietly shed in KL's French community.  I only visited once, a fortnight before the landslide (it closed before I had the chance to write it up), and despite the haze's best attempts to choke us out, I had a great dinner of French classics: foie gras terrine, duck confit, a sald with poached egg and house-cured duck prosciutto.  Young Burgundian chef Mickael Cornutrait (and Fraisse is insistent that there is only one chef in the kitchen: Mickael, not him) is not trying to reinvent the wheel, but delivers the clean yet bold flavours which bring back memories of the brasseries and bistros of l'Hexagone.

French Feast opened quietly in June in Tengkat Tong Shin, and wouldn't you know it, the menu is a clone of La Vie en Rose.  And it is still excellent.  The oeufs en meurette, a classic Burgundian trencherman's dish with poached eggs, lardons and mushrooms in a red wine sauce, is simply superb, a creamy mustard sauce sets off tender slices of pork loin, and the confit "salmon trout" melts in the mouth, even if I find the ratatouille slightly overwhelming as an accompaniment.  Hearty French food does get a bit rib-sticking after a few courses, so finish off with a glass or two from French Feast's wide selection of Delord Armagnac, with vintages going back to the 1960s.

Disclosure: As much as I try, I am never allowed to pay for a meal here.  Fraisse's partner is Julie Wong, who was my long-time editor at Flavours.

Tel: + 60 3 2110 6283.  Reservations recommended.

Non-Entrée Dessert Cafe, 204 Rangoon Road, Singapore

Situated across the road from my old haunt Old Lai Huat Seafood Restaurant, the oddly-named Non-Entrée Dessert Cafe is a very welcome addition to the local area, if only because Lai Huat doesn't serve any desserts.  And I'm not the only one who thinks so; on weekend nights, the place fills up and you need to queue for 30 minutes (my advice is to take a number there first and cross the road for a quick bite at Lai Huat).

The crowd here is a strange one, seemingly trapped in the awkward phase between adolescent uncertainty and the even greater uncertainty of starting off on "the rest of one's life".  As a companion put it, "McDonalds isn't good enough for them anymore, but they still can't afford to reserve a table at Zouk".  Ouch.

I had to go for the Chocolate Avalanche, a lava cake sitting on top of a little crescent moon of nougatine, which you are meant to cut and watch drip, drip onto a scoop of ice-cream underneath.  The allegedly orange-infused ice-cream I found too icy, and hints of orange were elusive.  However, the combination of the rich chocolatey cakey bits and nougatine doused in warm chocolate lava was a winner.  My companions'  desserts didn't look as good and certainly didn't taste as good, but the Avalanche deserves every bit of positive press it has received.

Tel: +65 9878 6543.  No reservations taken.

Skillet @ 163, Fraser Place, Jalan Perak, Kuala Lumpur

This new-ish restaurant was recommended to me by James Won, when I was at a loose end and looking for a new place to try.  Run by former Barry Callebaut ambassador chef Raymond Tham, Skillet is a ridiculously popular restaurant, with a local crowd filtering in for the early dinner session, and the captive foreign audience upstairs visiting for the second sitting.  And this on a Monday!

To cut a long story short, desserts are excellent (as one would expect), savouries range from decent to frankly revolting. My party ordered four different desserts, three of which incorporated liquid nitrogen as a significant element of the dish, the other had dry ice.  Now I can forgive that as the desserts tasted pretty good, and I know not everyone is an impatient kaypoh like me.  What I can't forgive, however, was the sous vide barramundi (really?) in a " white wine reduction sauce" which, forgive me, smelt like my little daughter's vomit, and probably tasted just as bad (I say "probably" because I've never tasted my little girl's vomit).  And this was the daily special that came highly recommended by the knowledgeable if rather long-winded staff.  And the dish was returned 3/4 uneaten, yet there was no comment or any engagement from the staff or the chef, nor any acknowledgment that what they had served was well nigh inedible.

But it does two full turns on a Monday night and is rated #1 of 3,173 restaurants in KL on TripAdvisor, so what the hell do I really know?

Tel: + 60 3 2181 2426.  Reservations essential.

Pacamara Boutique Coffee Roasters, 185 Upper Thomson Road, Singapore

Somehow affiliated with the Thai coffee roasters of the same name, Pacamara has become one of my happy places.  The only (big) downside is that you can't book, but communal tables and hard surfaces ensure a steady turnover of bodies so I have never waited too long for a table.

What I do come back for, time and again, is the food, and I can say hand across my heart that I have never had a bad dish here.  It's all casual, upmarket cafe-style grub, like a big breakfast for the morning after the night before, or a spaghetti aglio olio with bacon and mushrooms, but they do it very, very well.  Most dishes are under $20 and servings are generous, so it's not going to burn a hole in your wallet either.

The only thing I don't really quite understand is the cold-brewed coffee, and I suspect it is one of those things I am destined to never understand, like cronuts and fruit caviar.  Just give me a good caffe latte and be done with it.

No telephone number, no reservations taken.

Clinton Street Baking Company, 31 Purvis Street, Singapore

I must have developed a bit of a masochistic streak going to all of these restaurants which do not allow reservations.  But a recent Sunday brought us to Clinton Street Bakery near Bugis / City Hall, a branch of the famous NYC institution.

I love the ambience here, and the food is decent but hardly worth the wait.  A root beer float is anaemic in flavour and doesn't really remind me of the good ol' days at A&W.  I love the crispiness and non-oiliness in the fried chicken, but again, there is a lack of flavour and spice to really ratchet things up.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, the baked goods steal the show, although we only had room for a couple of their homemade chocolate chip cookies.  Simply divine, with that chewy moreishness and extreme chocolatey flavour that mark a superior specimen of the cookie race.  Next time I'll skip savouries and head straight for the desserts.

Tel: +65 6684 4845;  no reservations taken

The Study, 49 Keong Saik Road, Singapore

Another of Jason Atherton's projects with Loh Lik Peng's Unlisted Collection.  We started off here with drinks at the next door Library bar, the kind of ridiculously pretentious venue where the "receptionist" pretends not to know why you are there or that she is actually working at a bar, and where you need a password to get in and get a drink.

Now despite the absurdity of its sister bar, the food at the Study is actually very good.  The triple-cooked chips are disappointing and soggy, but the rest of the menu has a certain star quality.  It reads very well, in that peculiarly self-deprecating British fashion, and despite its brevity, you may well have trouble deciding what you actually want to eat.  The iberico pork scotch eggs are a winner, as is the sea bass and wagyu beef burger.  I couldn't stay for dessert, which was a damned shame as the raspberry Bakewell tart sounded mighty tempting.

Tel: +65 6221 8338