Saturday, 15 October 2016

Review of Whitegrass, Singapore - Dude, Where's My Star(s)?

It has been a sloooow 12 months on the Singapore dining scene.  The economy is not exactly going gangbusters at the moment and the ambition of new restaurant openings is noticeably modest.  Even Gordon Ramsay, that temperamental purveyor of chilli crabs and Katong laksa, decided to open only the very mid-range Bread Street Kitchen at Marina Bay Sands.

Now I care a lot about my food; you don't keep a food blog running for four-and-a-half years if you don't care about your subject matter.  But I have found more in the way of exciting new openings in our northern neighbour than here, and I was beginning to get rather disillusioned with the local dining scene.

And then I went to Whitegrass.

A little bit of background before I go on to the meat of the review.  

As the months dragged on, my boredom morphed into apathy and threatened to morph into something else altogether, until I saw that my tenth wedding anniversary was creeping up.  So I redoubled my efforts to find somewhere new and which I hadn't tried but sounded interesting enough for me to make an effort (i.e. not Shokouwa).  I made a booking at Whitegrass, successfully negotiated a corkage waiver for a half-bottle of wine from my wedding year, etc., and all was good.  On the morning itself, my little girl developed a rather high fever, which meant I had to stay home to look after her; cue cancellation.  The very warm, professional and sympathetic manner in which the staff handled this unwelcome development sent me all the right signals, and I made it a point to rebook as soon as possible.

Whitegrass is a modern Australian restaurant which opened rather quietly in CHIJMES in December 2015.  The kitchen is run by chef-owner Sam Aisbett, formerly head chef at the three-hatted Quay (presumably cooking while Peter Gilmore was swanning around on TV and writing books) and senior sous at the once-great Tetsuya.  With such a great resume, one wonders why he would launch his Singaporean adventure in a restaurant wasteland such as CHIJMES.  But one does not know the meaning of greed until one deals with the basket of deplorables known as Singaporean landlords.

Lunch here starts from a very good value $48++ for two courses.  But you never get a good measure of the kitchen's capability with cut-price lunch menus, so I go for the five course $130++ tasting lunch.  To put things into perspective, the very same menu is available at dinner, but costs you $170++.

Bread and Champagne

Henri Giraud's NV Esprit de Giraud is offered by the glass ($32++).  Stone fruit, typical brioche and yeast of a good non-vintage champagne, nice body and a pleasant hint of bitterness on the finish

The more observant readers would have noticed two thinner slices of bread behind my glass of champagne.  Yes, that is gluten-free bread, and the kitchen can alter the menu to cater to gluten-intolerant guests.  Such places are few and far between in Singapore, and new discoveries in this category are always welcome.

Amuse Bouche: Bibimbap


Aisbett walks out the first taste of the meal, a little bowl which he emphasises is "my version of a bibimbap", presumably to stop angry Korean expats coming in and putting some taekwondo on his ass.  But concerns about authenticity aside, this is absolutely delicious.  I can't remember most of the ingredients, but from what I see in the photo, you have nori and nori cream, puffed rice, radish, dashi jelly, salmon roe and chrysanthemum petals.  It is  complex in both flavour and texture, but everything is balanced, everything feels right.  To be honest, I hadn't been sure what to expect, but I rapidly recalibrate my expectations: here is a chef who is supremely comfortable working with Asian ingredients and flavours, and who is not afraid to use them to illuminate his perspective on cooking.

First Entrée: Salad of Slow-Roasted Young Beetroot, Smoked Eel Cream, Rosella Jam and Tasmanian Pepper Berry


My wife will tell you that I am the worst sort of carnivore.  I eat one serve of vegetables a day to keep regular, and one serve of fruit for my daily sugar intake.  This, however, is a super-sexy salad that I would eat numerous times a day could I afford to.  The eel cream, with the tartness of a good home-churned crème fraîche, works beautifully against the sweetness of the beetroot and rosella jam.  Again, there is a multiplicity of textures, but the elements have a very rare synergy.   The gorgeous red and white leaves on top, apart from adding a visual wow factor, are thinner than paper and add a lovely crispiness.  Superb.

Second Entrée: White-Cut Organic Chicken, Violet Artichokes, Pickled Jellyfish, Fresh and Roasted Hazelnuts, Sesame Oil and Ginger Vinegar


The inspiration of this dish is clear: the traditional Cantonese chicken and jellyfish salad.  I encountered this dish on numerous occasions when I was in Sydney, and I suspect that it more of a Hong Kong dish as I have never seen it offered in restaurants in Malaysia or Singapore.  Aisbett's rendition is jaw-dropping: apart from turning an always rustic-looking dish into a work of art, he has amplified the nuttiness of the dish (traditionally bestowed through the liberal use of sesame oil) with toasted hazelnuts, three kinds of artichoke and broad bean flowers.  The chicken is as tender as any pak cham kai (he didn't call it "white-cut chicken" for no reason) you will encounter anywhere, and chewy little stars of salted egg yolk add bursts of umami.  My Dish of the Month, very easily.

As I get further into the meal, I am beginning to notice (and appreciate) more and more the size and shape of each element incorporated into the dish.   This emphasis, traditionally more within the ken and aesthetic of Chinese cuisine chefs, is meant to optimise the textural and flavour experience of each mouthful, without you having to do any cutting or portioning yourself.  And I need to add that Aisbett appears to have mastered this to a T.

First Main Course: Roasted Mangalica Pork, Scallop Silk, White Turnip Cream, Cabbage Stems, Black Moss and Aromatic Pork Broth


The pak cham kai's reign as Dish of the Month lasts about as long as a Pokemon Go gym in Singapore.   The jowl is used here, roasted then wrapped in fatt choy (the black moss mentioned in the dish's name) before being pan-fried.  This produces a crispy layer of fatt choy, a fatty, juicy slab of sweet pork that cuts literally as easily as the cliched hot knife through butter.  For the first time, I genuinely appreciate what the fuss ab0ut Mangalica pork is all about.

But that's not all.  The pork broth, has a lightly musky hint that I can only imagine comes from more moss / seaweed-type elements.  I also encounter the most delicious, translucent film which I originally thought was the smoothest, most delicate hor fun noodle ever, and as you know, I am the worst kind of noodle slut.  When I receive the printed menu, I learn that it was actually "scallop silk".  I recoil, aghast at the undoubtedly godless and profane dark arts required to produce such a sinfully good "noodle".  Twenty "Hail Marys" later, though, and it's all good.  And I'm not even Catholic.

Wow, wow, wow, bloody wow.  This is the real Dish of the Month, and long may it reign.

Second Main Course: Grass-Fed Beef from the Scottish Highlands cooked over white charcoal, 20-year Aged Japanese Soy, Black Salsify and Fermented Mushroom


Now after all of that, you will excuse me for saying that this dish is a bit of a come-down.  Not that it isn't any good, because it is still excellent.  Our waiter portions out exactly three drops of 20-year aged Japanese soy sauce, apparently aged in cedar barrels.  This is a revelation, a sui generis tasting experience that defies description because, at least in my taste memory, I find no precedent.  And it has to be because the beef, brilliantly cooked and rested, is mildly underseasoned.  Very good.

Dessert: Young Coconut Mousse, Jackfruit Ice Cream, Fresh Longan, Almond and Ginger Cake


I must admit that my palate was shot after the roller-coaster ride of the savoury courses, but I remember this as being very pleasant.  I love young coconut water (ergo I love the young coconut mousse), and again, the use of varying textures of longan flesh, the light acquiescent crunch of Italian meringue, the creaminess of jackfruit ice cream, is masterful.  A very good finish, and the light sweetenss and spicy hints of the ginger cake match beautifully with a half-bottle of 2006 Domaine Weinbach Gewurztraminer Furstentum Selection de Grains Nobles.


Anniversary Gesture


The kitchen prepared us a little something to send us on our way, a nice little dark chocolate dome to complete our food pyramid for the day.  But I treasured far more a card with a personalised message from every single member of their staff.  Now bear in mind that I was not known  to the house nor am I a VIP by any definition of the word, and you start to get an idea of what this restaurant is all about.  Throughout the meal, service was incredibly friendly and accommodating, supremely competent and confident but always with a smile and never any side.  Want to work through a five-course meal with amuse bouche  and petits fours in 90 minutes?  No worries.  Gluten-free?  Of course.  And the list goes on.

Conclusion

For me, this was easily the best meal I have had in Singapore all year, and on this showing, just as good as, if not better than, some of the three Michelin-starred meals I had in France in April.   The cuisine, with its Asian flavour, underpinnings of classical technique and very Australian sense of adventure, is unique and uniquely delicious.  It is a fusion cuisine which is more than the sum of its parts.

"Michelin's" failure to recognise Whitegrass, for me, tells you all you need to know about its credibility in Singapore, and Asia writ large.  Yes, Whitegrass is a young restaurant, but no younger than Odette and Shokouwa which won twin macarons for their trouble.  I love it that Michael Ellis, the international director for the Michelin Guide, said that Shokouwa's inclusion was "probably" due to their "Japanese network" of inspectors.  Presumably they were the same plonkers who decided that Shisen Hanten was the best Chinese restaurant in Singapore, and that Shinji and Waku Ghin deserved only one star each.  Whatever.

I may be doing Whitegrass a disservice by the fulsomeness of my praise and for that I apologise, but it is difficult to be objective about something you love.  And I love this place to bits.

WHITEGRASS
Score: 18.5/20
Chef Patron: Sam Aisbett

How many Michelin stars it got: Sweet FA
How many Michelin stars it should get: ** or ***

#01-26/27 CHIJMES
30 Victoria Street
Singapore 187996
Tel: +65 6837 0402
whitegrass.com.sg
BYO Policy: 1-for-1; otherwise $80++ corkage per 750mL bottle, Please click here for a list of Singapore restaurants which allow BYO, and their corkage policies.
Reservations recommended.  Budget from S$48++ (US$40) for lunch; S$108++ (US$91) for dinner

6 comments:

  1. julian ... I am with u on this ... have not tried whitegrass personally but the few trusted reviews that I have read all say the same. hoping things turn around for them as it seems business is slow ... will make it a point to send more ppl there so chef Sam can keep working his magic

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    1. You should try it soon, Calvin, it is very good. And they weren't doing too badly when I visited on a Thursday lunchtime, most of the dining room was occupied :)

      But I agree fully with the sentiment. If we don't support the places we love, then who will?

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  2. Sold as well. Will share your superb write with Edna's favourite son in law and see if they are up for a beano. Singapore landlords - I can just imagine...

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  3. the food looks good! how much was the course? Was it filling?

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