Friday, 3 February 2017

Review of Alma by Juan Amador, Singapore - Good but Unfairly Burdened by Expectations?

What is in a name?  Are you, presumably a discerning diner, entitled to lofty expectations of a restaurant simply because it has a famous star-spangled name attached to it?  If so, can you then expect that the restaurant serves food which, even if it wasn't created by the famous chef, at least bears the same DNA as his (and it is almost always a "he") cooking?  Such were the questions / first world problems seething in my mind as I walked to lunch at Alma by Juan Amador.

Amador is a German chef who previously ran a three-starred restaurant in Mannheim.  His cooking is supposedly influenced by Spanish (he is the son of Spanish immigrants), German and Asian cuisines.  He lent his name to this restaurant in the grand old Goodwood Park Hotel, which opened in June 2016 under the direction of his faithful lieutenant Christophe Lerouy.  Lerouy helped win Alma a "Michelin" star, before being shipped off to open another outpost of the Amador empire.  In came Singaporean chef Muhammad Haikal Johari, fresh from his adventures in Bangkok where he ran the Water Library in Thonglor.

I was here with K, my old friend from primary school.  K looked up the website and found they offered only a $39++ three-course menu at lunch (four choices each for entrée and main, with a fixed dessert) .  Now we are both cash-poor and time-poorer, and I really did not want to waste a precious lunchtime on a cut-price lunch menu.  The receptionist assured him over the phone that we could add a couple of extra dishes to the three-course menu, depending on what was available on the day.

So we are seated in a relatively minimalist but comfortable and spacious room.  We call the waitress over and ask what extra dishes we could order.  She shakes her head and says they serve only the three-course menu.  We relate our conversation with the receptionist but she remains adamant.  "If you want extra dishes, you can order another menu and choose the other dishes".  The only thing worse than one cut-price lunch menu is two cut-price lunch menus, so that isn't really an option.  We place our orders and off we go!

Potato Bread in a Hot Stone Sack

This rather quaint little cloth sack arrives at the table, filled with three potato bread rolls.  Why three, for a table of two?  The waiter tells me the bread is entirely free of wheat flour, which will come as a relief to coeliacs and others on gluten-free diets.  The bread is fresh and delicious, warmed by a handful of hot stones at the base of the sack.  A good start.

Entrée: Homemade Egg Tofu, Wild Mushrooms, Foie Gras Emulsion ($7++ supplement)

As regular readers may remember, I visited the Water Library's branch at Chamchuri, where I had a delicious tofu, mushroom and foie gras emulsion dish.  Hey, wait a minute...

The same dish, from Mirco Keller at the Water Library, Chamchuri
I will come back to this later, but again, the tofu was excellent; crispy, hot and providing a delightful lightness as a counterpoint to the rich foie gras emulsion.  Delicious.

Entrée: Salad with Pata Negra

And if you don't want to pay the supplement, you can have a salad!  K is really not impressed, and says he could get a salad of similar calibre from SaladStop.  He offers me a taste, which I politely decline on the grounds that I am not a rabbit.

Main Course: Boston Lobster with Angel Hair Pasta and "Thai Sauce"

The waiter introduces the dish as being served with a "Thai Sauce".  It was described on the menu as "Tom Yam", so K asks if he means "Tom Yam".  The waiter shakes his head.  "No sir, it is not tom yam, it is a Thai sauce".  I get the feeling he doesn't want to be cross-examined on what exactly is in the Thai sauce, so we let him stand down.

Lobster, mee kia, chilli padi (serious), spicy sauce.  Sound good?  It tastes pretty good too.  But again, does this dish have anything to do with Juan Amador, or is it a Haikal Johari dish, with the Thai twist reflecting his time in Bangkok (as the tofu almost certainly was, or was it a Mirco Keller dish)?  And it is clearly yet another permutation of that all-time favourite yet unbearably hackneyed Singaporean "Western restaurant" formula, namely:

pasta (to appeal to the local love for noodles, and it's dirt cheap) + expensive ingredient (lobster, caviar, truffle, to appeal to the local love for luxury ingredients) = profit (to appeal to the restaurateur's love for money)

But hey, you know, whatever sells...

Main Course: Kingfish with Saffron and Kaffir Lime Beurre Blanc

I had a nibble of this dish from the edge of the fillet, and it seemed overdone.  K disagrees, however, and seeing he had more of the fish and actually finished it, I defer to his judgment.

Dessert: Piña Colada

Rum and coconut "espuma" (Jesus, if I hear that word one more time, I swear I am going to send my army down to take out some bad hombres), pineapple "gazpacho", basil granita and croutons.  K finishes his croutons but leaves the rest of his dish basically untouched.  I find it too simple, a bit too sweet, and more of a palate cleanser both in size and flavour impact than a real dessert.  And I did ask them beforehand whether they could make me a replacement dessert as I really didn't like the sound of this one (the answer was obviously no).  No, I don't like piña coladas.


I have railed time and again against shitty bloggers who try to assess gastronomic restaurants based on their cut-price lunch offerings (yes, it's a real pain in the arse to have to pay for your own meals, isn't it?).  I don't do it myself, and when I write up a lunch, I always opt for a menu which bears a greater resemblance to the standard offerings at dinner.  This might take the form of a lunch tasting menu, or maybe a couple of a la carte orders to supplement the lunch offering.

But Alma just couldn't do it!  This restaurant, resident in one of Singapore's grand old hotels and bearing the name of a famous three-star chef, offers only a cheap cut-price menu with no possibility of add-ons, even with 36 hours' notice.  Look around boys. Ambitious new-ish openings such as Corner House and Whitegrass offer cheap lunch menus but also more complete tasting options.  Of course, perennial high-achiever Les Amis with its scrumptious four-course menu formule is only a little walk across Scotts Road...

Which brings me back to the first world problem I raised in the first paragraph of this post.  When does "Alma by Juan Amador" stop being "Alma by Juan Amador" and instead becomes "Alma by Haikal Johari" (or as a wag friend of mine suggested, "Ahmad by Haikal Johari" because the Spanish element in the lunch menus is tokenistic)?  As Haikal is apparently serving his own signature dishes, wouldn't the diners who pay attention to these things feel misled?  Not because the food isn't good because it mostly is, but with the "Michelin" stars and the resultant deluge of food tourists, I would argue that people would walk in expecting food with the Amador DNA.  At lunchtime, Alma doesn't deliver it.

A cheap lunch is never going to blow you away, hence my modest score below.  In this case, unfortunately, it also didn't give me any hint as to what I could expect if I paid the significant premium to visit at dinner.  But don't blame me, I tried squeezing blood from this particular stone and it just wouldn't yield.

ALMA by Juan Amador
Score: 13/20
Executive Chef: Muhammad Haikal Johari
Chef de Cuisine: Muhammad Sufian Zaini

How many Michelin stars did it get? *
How many Michelin stars it should get: None, but with a caveat on the lunch thing.

22 Scotts Road, Goodwood Park Hotel
Singapore 228221
Tel: +65 6735 9937
Reservations recommended.  Budget from S$39++ for lunch (no appetisers, petits fours nor coffee/tea are included) and S$138++ for dinner.

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