Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review: Palio

Not long after our recent visit to Chinois, S and I found ourselves back in Resorts World Sentosa, looking for some dinner before attending what turned out to be a very enjoyable Air Supply concert. Most of the restaurants seem to be clustered in Hotel Michael, but I am assuming that, in the fullness of time, other restaurants will be opening in some of the other (currently culinarily-starved) hotels.

One of the four restaurants in Hotel Michael is Palio, a brightly-lit, cheery Italian eatery that reminds me of Prego, although I don't think Palio has a buffet, unlike Prego.

The restaurant does have, however, an open counter where you can see the chefs working on making pizza, which, as we shall see, was of rather high quality.

The seafood pizza was of an extremely generous size, and boasted a thin, crispy and crunchy crust. Scorch marks were to be found in all the right places, adding to the vivid appearance of the pizza, as well as enhancing its oven-roasted aroma and taste. The seafood was also very fresh, but I have come to the conclusion that I don't think seafood pizzas are a good idea: tomato paste, mozzarella cheese, squid, prawns and scallop are too varied and discordant in their textures, tastes and smells to work in harmony. I imagine, however, that pizzas using more robust ingredients, like salami, ham or mushrooms, will be outstanding.

Palio does not offer a very wide selection of pastas, but one that caught my eye in particular was the tagliatelle served with rabbit ragout and black olives, which is a dish I remember fondly from L'Ancora. Palio's version, unfortunately, did not quite measure up, for a number of reasons. First, the amount of rabbit in the ragout was not as generous, and second, the ragout simply lacked the lip-smacking vibrance of the one at L'Ancora - perhaps it might have been the omission of tomato puree to the stew, or a lack of fresh herbs, but whatever it was, Palio's rabbit ragout was, I thought, somewhat too bland and limp to stand up to the saltiness of the olives.

The tiramisu was a little dry, but this is very much a matter of personal preference - some people like their tiramisu drowning in coffee, while others like the sponge bone-dry. What cannot be denied though, is that the tiramisu is very arrestingly presented, which is how all desserts should be.

Palio is a welcome addition to the community of Italian restaurants in Sentosa, and is fairly reasonable in its prices. Be sure to make a reservation on weekends, as the restaurant fills up alarmingly quickly.

8 Sentosa Gateway, Level 2,
Resorts World Sentosa, Hotel Michael
Tel: +65 6577 8888

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Review: Tippling Club

It's been a while since the Tippling Club first came onto the scene at Dempsey. When I first heard about it, I had my doubts about the concept: a bar restaurant where the food took second place, as a convenient means by which the cocktails prepared by a world-renowned mixologist could be showcased? I also heard secondhand accounts of how the food was disappointing and overpriced.

I suppose it's fair to say that the Tippling Club is a bar first and a resturant second: that would explain why there are almost no tables in the restaurant - rather, there is a massive counter which allows you to get up close and personal with the bartenders, and to admire the panoply of bottles, all containing some form of spirit, that hangs down from the rafters like an alcoholic's windchime. It's a clever effect, almost as if you've wondered into an Aladdin's cave with colourful stalactites of alcoholic beverages.

There is some devotion to the food, however, as the large island attests. The space here is mainly used to create desserts, although the numerous jars that adorn the shelf also contain rather exotic spices and seeds which are used for infusing cocktails and adding allure, which all fits the Tippling Club's image as a sophisticated, almost chichi spot where people come to be seen.

Not that the Tippling Club does not resort to frivolity on occasion: their famed "kopi-o", although served in a chilled, vase-like glass, is wrapped in the same plastic bag a genuine kopitiam drink would be served in, and you are expected to drink through a straw. Cute, and well-balanced, with the strong espresso evenly distributed through the clean, crisp rum, I was only sorry that my drink went down as quickly as it did.

The delightfully named "no blossoms and no moon, and he is drinking sake all alone!" is a delicate mixture of sake (of course), noilly prat, orange blossom and lemon verbena grape mist. Served in a Chinese teacup, this dry, light drink is refreshing and genteel - drinking this makes you seem like a connoiseur, or a cultured philosophe enjoying a quiet libation at the end of a taxing day deep in thought.

By this time, however, I was beginning to see why the Tippling Club had a reputation for being expensive. Drinks were, on average, $24, and did not come in very large portions, so even if you did not observe the pinch immediately when looking at the price tag, you certainly felt it when your drink was finished in three sips.

Perhaps unwisely, we decided to order some dessert to go with our drinks. "Lemon Tart", the menu proudly proclaimed, and then listed its ingredients: meringue, sable, lemon chips and lemon curd. I was rather surprised by what eventually appeared: a blob of lemon curd sandwiched by three blobs of meringue, into which three sable crisps had been stuck, over all of which crumbs had been sprinkled.

"Deconstructed lemon tart", our server announced.

Now, I think this deeply disingenuous. Although I regard the "sum of all its parts" method of presenting a menu (i.e. listing the constituent elements of a dish) irritating, I can live with it as long as it actually describes, with a fair degree of accuracy, what I can expect to receive. Which brings me to another pet peeve: "deconstructed" foodstuffs. I greatly dislike molecular gastronomy's habit of serving you various bits and pieces and claiming that you have been given a masterpiece. A slice of apple, a glass of apple juice, flour, butter, sugar and cinnamon is not an apple pie, "deconstructed" or otherwise, and I wish people would stop pretending this is a clever way of serving food (apart from the fact that it is a clever way of getting people to pay outrageous sums of money for what is, essentially, a lack of skill).

The Tippling Club has, unfortunately, managed to combine both these sins of molecular cooking: it borders on misrepresentation to say on your menu that you are serving "lemon tart", only to give your customer a pathetic few squeezes of a piping bag. At least have the decency to tell me that you plan on serving me something "deconstructed" so I'll know not to order it. In addition, the size of the dish was really rather pitiable, and it was outrageous that the restaurant saw fit to charge $18 for it.

The other problem, and I'll readily acknowledge that this one was largely our fault for ordering it in the first place, was that the meringue and lemon curd totally killed our tastebuds, rendering them useless for appreciating the drinks that were to come.

Mb's Apple Pie is another cute drink, though this time it was a bit more inventive than it was tasty. Calvados, Cinnamon, Italian vermouth and apple liqueurs made the drink taste too much like apple juice, although the riff on McDonald's famous apple pie packaging was an inspired touch.

My final drink involved a Tonka Bean Elijah Craig 12 year Bourbon. Tonka beans, Wikipedia informs me, are native to the Orinoco, and are wrinkly black beans that smell faintly of vanilla, although it disturbs me slightly to learn that their use in food has been banned by the FDA. In any event, I didn't like this drink at all, though I think it had less to do with the Tonka beans than the fact that I now know I just do not like the taste of whiskey very much.

Overall, I was not very impressed with the Tippling Club. I don't think it succeeds magnificently as a restaurant, although to be fair I didn't try any food apart from the "deconstructed" lemon tart. As a bar, the Tippling Club is overpriced. Sure, they boast that they use only freshly-pressed juices, and hand-chipped ice, and "totally exclusive" drinks, but a lot of the drinks seemed merely flashy - a convenient prop with which to impress a date - rather than a truly sophisticated and multi-textured work of skill and devotion. Once the novelty wears off, you might be wishing you chose somewhere slightly more down to earth, or at least somewhere with larger, and perhaps stronger, drinks.

The Tippling Club
8D Dempsey Road
Tel: +65 6475 2217

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Review: Chinois by Susur Lee

With the introduction of the Integrated Resorts in Singapore, diners are eagerly anticipating the arrival of superstar restaurants such as Daniel Boulud and Guy Savoy at Marina Bay Sands, but there are also some pretty good restaurants at Resorts World Sentosa, such as Chinois by Susur Lee.

Chinois is, I believe, the latest addition to the Tung Lok Group's impressive portfolio (stable might be more appropriate) of restaurants, and is also celebrity chef Susur Lee's first restaurant outside North America. This collaboration aims to elevate Chinese fine dining by introducing elements of modern Western cuisine. It is, in a sense, "fusion", but that is a term that is no longer in vogue, and it would do the restaurant a disservice to so label it.

Resorts World Sentosa is not the most impressive of venues: the facade of the resort and the various hotels is very tacky, and you have to make your way past hordes of tourists, children and gamblers. Sometimes they're even all the same people. Parking was also a problem: although the electronic signs indicated that there were thousands of parking lots available, I had considerable difficulty in locating a free lot, and that was after being directed to turn the wrong way by various parking attendants. Once you get to the restaurant itself, however, it's a different story: the lights are dimmed, and there is generous use of burgundy and black, which evokes a contemporary, almost seductive ambience. Straight lines and pronounced edges contribute to the mystique.

The restaurant boasts large bay windows which look out into a covered courtyard, which is a nice touch as it allows you to feel close to some natural greenery. Periodically, a laser show might be performed, lighting up the artificial roofing with incandescence.

Chinois has a very extensive menu, and it therefore took us a while before we were able to decide what we wanted, which turned out to be a number of appetisers and main courses, leaving us far too full for dessert.

The whitebait was extremely crispy, and accompanied by a spicy, tangy sauce, it was a delightful start to a big meal.

I fancied the ox tendon rather less: it had been cooked for quite long and tasted like jellyfish - bodiless and slippery. I like cartilage, but only when it is firm and crunchy, though I suppose tendon is not exactly cartilage and cannot therefore be prepared any other way.

The next appetiser was a cold dish that consisted of finely shredded cucumber strips wrapped by a thin piece of pork and slathered with a spicy peanut sauce. I did not enjoy this, as the sauce was overwhelming - it filled your mouth and overpowered everything else. A more delicate, soy or miso-based sauce would have been much more complementary.

The grilled eel served atop little squares of toasted yam cakes was delectable: the eel was sweet and umami, while the sesame seeds lent a delicate smokiness, which was then overlain by the refreshing coolness of the cucumber strips. Rounding it all off was the sensation of biting down into the supple, chewy, starchy yam. For an appetiser, this dish was beautifully complex and very well-executed.

Chilled momotaro tomatoes followed, with an unusual sauce that was laced with wasabi and diced fruits, such as mangoes and peppers, topped with a slice of Alaskan King Crab meat, and served on a bed of crispy rice.

One of the restaurant's signature dishes is braised vermicelli with mushrooms, served in an edible "nest" or "cage" or "basket" of fried yam. Not only is it visually stunning, but it makes for delicious eating too: the mushrooms are bursting with flavour, while the vermicelli soaks up the sauce and effectively multiplies the taste quotient along its entire length, and the yam basket adds an extra layer of complexity by providing a sharp, crunchy contrast to the gooey mushrooms and noodles.

There's not much that can be said about fried rice, but Chinois's version is excellent: it is not at all oily, and it contains such a surfeit of ingredients that it seems like the rice is actually outweighed by the amount of prawns, crabmeat, eggs, Chinese sausage, chives and onions it is cooked with.

Rather foolishly, at some point during the dinner, we thought we didn't have enough food, so we ordered some smoked duck with five-spiced sauce, which was a bit of a mistake on two counts: first, by the time the duck arrived, we were already rather full; and second, although the duck was enjoyably tender and meaty, the sauce was unbearably sweet - almost sickeningly so - and had to be mixed into a sizeable bowl of rice to dilute its effect.

The sauteed beef cubes were the clear favourite that evening, as they were perfectly cooked. Not only were they soft and supple, they were also cooked pink - juicy and bursting with a rich, almost smokey flavour, which of course went very well with the accompanying onions and green peppers. I must have eaten half the plate by myself, even though I was by this point exceedingly stuffed.

There was just enough space left in our bellies for one dessert to be shared, and so we chose a molten chocolate cake, which arrived in an exceptionally short span of time. Usually it takes about 15 minutes just to bake one of these things, but ours must have appeared on our table within 5 minutes of us ordering it. The cake boasted an exceptionally thin skin which, when broken with a spoon, released a torrent of melted chocolate onto the plate. A very credible offering and a delightful way to end the meal.

I've grown to become rather wary of restaurants helmed by celebrity chefs, especially when they are opened far away from the chef's hometown. I always feel that causes a loss of homeground advantage, in the sense that new suppliers have to be found, and new business relationships cultivated. New staff have to be hired and trained, and completely different expectations are brought to bear. Chinois by Susur Lee, however, does not compromise quality for reputation, nor substance for hype, making me cautiously optimistic about what the other celebrity restaurants will have to offer.

Chinois by Susur Lee
26 Sentosa Gateway, #02-142/143
Resorts World Sentosa, Hotel Michael
Tel: 6884 7888

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Review: The Universal

Apologies for the dearth of posts recently, as I've been a little busy at work, and haven't been eating out very much, nor found much time to be blogging.

I know my sister has previously written about dining at The Universal here, but I thought I'd revisit the restaurant (and the review), given that it has been a while.

As it turns out, there have been a number of changes. The restaurant is much smaller, for one thing - the dining room now occupies only the ground floor, when it used to have a second (and possibly even third) floor - a sign that perhaps The Universal is not seeing as many diners as it used to?

Another sign is that the food, while competent, is no longer as inventive and evocative as it was when my sister first visited. Gone are the dishes that have been meticulously layered, taste upon texture, colour upon element. Gone too are the artful pastes, almost pastel-like in hue and consistency, enlivening steaks and filets with vibrance and panache. The conclusion I draw is that a chef, or perhaps the entire kitchen, has left, and if so, I'd like to know where he's gone...

What I do like, however, is the fact that The Universal offers both a three course set dinner menu ($55) and a four course chef's menu ($68), both of which are very value for money, especially since the four course menu gives you, in effect, two main courses. My only complaint, though, that I was not given more choice and detail as to what was going to be on the chef's menu; I would have preferred a pasta rather than fish course.

My appetiser was a pan-seared foie gras, served with a crostini, atop a rasher of pancetta and a slice of grapefruit. I thought the pancetta was unnecessary, as the foie gras is rich enough as it is, but the acidity of the grapefruit helped cut through some of that.

The mushroom soup was the first course in the three course set dinner, and was a tasteful affair, perfumed with some drops of truffle oil. Blended mushroom bits gave the soup some texture, but not, I thought, sufficient body: the soup was not as thick and luscious as it could have been.

My first main course was a pan-seared salmon, served with diced root vegetables and wilted spinach in a butter sauce. While I am not generally a fish person, I thought this was quite well done: the salmon was sweet and soft, while the wilted spinach provided a hint of nuttiness, and the sauce enriched the entire dish.

The main courses for the three course set were a choice between a fish main, a sirloin steak, and duck confit. The steak was extremely tasty, and accompanied with a dark, savoury sauce, as well as some excellent chips, which were crispy on the outside but soft and fluffy on the inside. The duck confit, too, was a winner: a nice crackly skin hiding fork-tender meat.

My second main course was osso bucco, served with what I think were edamame beans (though they could have been green split peas) and mashed potatoes. A sizeable dish, I could not finish the entire helping, but I felt the shanks could have been braised for longer to achieve that desirable falling-off-the-bone effect, and in order to further reduce the sauce to really provide a burst of meaty intensity.

My dessert was a deconstructed cheesecake: a square of spongecake sitting atop some cream cheese mousse, with macerated berries and what I think was a strawberry ice cream. I quite liked the cream cheese mousse, but it was rather too rich to be finished, especially someone who's not that fond of cheese cake to begin with.

The regular dessert was the ever-dependable molten chocolate cake, though The Universal's offering that night fell a little short: the cake was somewhat over-baked, and as a result the inside was merely moist, and not runny. Which was a shame, as the cake was in other respects quite good - it was suitably rich and bittersweet, and of a fairly decent size.

The Universal has, unfortunately, dropped a few notches in quality, but it still remains a relatively sophisticated, almost debonair venue for a Friday night dinner for two, after work, amidst the tranquility of Duxton Hill.

The Universal
36 Duxton Hill
Tel: 6325 0188