Singapore

Esquina, Singapore

Located along Jiak Chuan road(which I had never heard of prior to this visit) in Chinatown, Esquina is probably a place where you would least expect to find a Spanish tapas bar. The place is headed by Andrew Welsh, who followed Jason Atherton(Culinary director) from the UK over to Singapore to set up Esquina; Jason Atherton, incidentally, was the first British chef to complete a stage at El Bulli in 1998, its something I would list on my CV as well, but in truth, Esquina doesn’t serve up molecular cuisine, so don’t go there expecting tapas that will foam and blow up in your face.

The website states that the restaurant opens at 6:00pm, I arrived at 6:05pm, only to be told that the indoor portion of the restaurant had been completely filled out, and we would have to wait for about 1.5 hours for a seat at the bar. We could, however, dine outside if we wanted to. I did not come to a tapas bar to eat at anywhere other than the bar, so I ordered a sangria and decided to wait it out. After about 40 minutes, a waitress came out to offer us a table inside(not at the bar), but having already waited so long, we decided we would continue waiting. At the 1 hour mark, we finally managed to get a seat at the bar, albeit one right at the edge, away from all the kitchen action. The bar is very elongated and sits maybe…14 – 16 people, the chefs are saturated at the center and slightly towards one end of the bar, the other end, where I was, was where the drinks were being made.

Le comptoir

   

Sangria (with sangria foam)

All the components of the meal which contained sangria (total of 3) were nicely made, it had strong hints of citrus that made the wine seem lighter than it actually was, even under the sweltering singapore heat, when my sangria was warm, it still tasted pretty good. This would be the only ‘molecular’ portion of the whole meal, but this sangria foam made sense, the foam packed quite a lot of flavor, so it wasn’t like the drink ended up having to carry the foam through. A similar concept to the ‘Gin Fizz’ aperitif served at El Bulli. My one gripe was that although the foam improved the overall aesthetic of the dish, what’s the point putting a foam on top if you’re going to provide a straw? Good

           

Salt and pepper squid, black ink aioli

This was easily the best dish of the night. Squid was expertly cooked, had a light crisp coat that gave way to a meaty interior with good bite, tentacles were extra crisp and provided a natural contrast in texture. The real star of the show was the black ink aioli, the perfect consistency for dipping, or in my case, dragging the squid though delicious black sludge, hitting all the right spots: the creaminess, richness from the egg yolks, the kick of garlic, the refreshing zing of lemon, the unctuous mouthfeel, with a briny taste from the black ink that always lingered in the background but never intruded on the key flavors. I could have a lot of this. Good

         

Scallop ceviche and radish salsa

This was touted as the best ceviche in Singapore by Appetite magazine. Although it was a good ceviche, it was nothing mind blowing like the magazine seemed to suggest. Props to the restaurant for getting using really good produce, the scallops were very fresh and had a complex natural sweetness, this balanced out well with the acidity in the vinaigrette. Contrast in textures between the soft ceviche and crunchy radish was lovely. Also liked that the dish was served at the right temperature, cold enough to be refreshing, but not too cold so that the flavors were muddled and couldn’t pop. Okay-good

           

Ox cheek oloroso, mash, caper, bacon, bonemarrow crumbs

The ox cheek is braised in oloroso, which is a kind of sherry. The ox cheek was a little dry on the inside and it was tough to look past that; overall the dish also needed more sauce because whatever glaze was on the ox cheek was getting pulled into the mash. It was just a dry, dry dish in general, the bonemarrow helped a little, but nothing really stood out for me. Okay

            

Iberico pork and foie gras burger

The foie and iberico burger was the biggest disappointment of the night. For the record, Iberico pork and foie gras are 2 of my favorite ingredients, so I was prepared to fall in love with this. The main issue I had was that I couldn’t taste the foie in the burger at all. If I’m going to consume those foie gras calories, I better damn well taste the foie gras. The iberico patty was just too strong in flavor and overpowered the foie, plus the patty wasn’t particularly juicy anyway. Ironically, the best component of the dish was the bun, which had a nice crust and soft, fluffy center. Who raves about the bun when talking about a burger? Bad

             

Sangria ice cream (Given free as a pre-dessert)

I had expected this to be more sorbet like, regardless, it had a strong sangria flavor and a wonderful richness from the cream. Good

             

Pistachio cake, sangria jam, vanilla ice cream

The pistachio cake had a good, moist consistency, but didn’t carry a very strong pistachio flavor. The vanilla ice cream was surprisingly well made, very strong vanilla flavor, nice creamy texture without being cloying on the tongue. The sangria jam worked well with the ice cream, its a pity the pistachio flavor was pushed back into the background. Okay

I quite like Esquina, the quality of food being put out is high, the chefs have a clear vision for the food and aren’t trying to do too much. I wouldn’t exactly call it “authentic” by Spanish standards, but if the food is delicious, who really cares?

Service was hit or miss during the night, because of the logistical nature of the restaurant, it can be quite difficult to flag down a waiter or waitress, plus some of them are not very attentive to begin with. The chefs do not really mingle with the customers, even those who are sitting at the counter right in front of them(which I found surprising consider that would be how many Spanish tapas bars work), so don’t expect a very personal experience from the place. Prices are high for what you are getting, most plates of food will cost approximately $25 on the average, and I’d say the average diner can finish 2-3 plates of food with dessert, and therefore the bill will easily run up to about $80. All in all, if you are willing look past all the faults I’ve listed, rest assured that the food is reliable and you’ll have a tasty meal at Esquina.

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Singapore

Keystone restaurant, Singapore

I’ve heard of Keystone restaurant for some time now but never really made the effort to go out and try it. To be honest, I get pretty lazy when thinking about going out to fine dine in Singapore; but Keystone recently piqued my interest with chef Marks presentation of Sous vide cooking at the Savour.sg event. I’ve always wanted to document the impact on Sous vide on a modern restaurant that embraces the technique, and thus I emailed chef Mark to ask for a chance to view the kitchen if I happened to have a meal at his restaurant. I should probably point out as a disclaimer at this point that Chef Mark knew I was going to be coming in for a lunch reservation; I do not know if I was given preferential treatment based on this information, or if my dishes were plated differently, but to stay true to myself and the blog, I will be upfront with how I felt about the meal.

      

Amuse: Caramelized banana, pineapple with shaved almond, truffle popcorn with soy
The banana portion was a pureed banana, with a brûlée-d sugar finish over the top, truffle popcorn had a custard like texture, both were quite surprising texture wise, but it was the flavor of the cold pineapple with shaved almond that popped the most. Okay

   

Parmesan rosemary focaccia
The Parmesan gave the soft fluffy bread a nice crunch and textural contrast. The use of rosemary, which can be quite an aggressive herb, was spot on, it perfumed the bread nicely. I don’t usually go crazy about bread courses bur this was quite enjoyable. Good

   

43° SALMON GRAVLAX 
Tat Soi | Smoked Cream | Arctic Char Caviar | Tarragon Pommery

The salmon was cooked sous vide at a very low temperature, even lower than mi cuit, it was very similar to sashimi. I liked the dish, the cream tied everything together, the caviar had a firm, almost crunchy like texture. The orange pommery provided flavor encapsulated bursts of sweetness that provided a nice pop to the dish. The black calamari crackers had a similar texture to keropok(sorry for those non singaporeans/malaysians), albeit slightly more crisp, and it packed a lot of briny flavor that worked well with the fish. I wish it had been served in smaller pieces, because of the nature of is texture, it was quite impossible to break using utensils, so they had to be eaten in one bite. Just a slight issue with ergonomics in an otherwise solid dish. Good

   

GREEN EGGS & PULLED PORK
Agria potato Espuma | Atsina Baby Cress | Tsukiji Seaweed Soil | Green pea puree

The ‘green’ portion of the dish that isn’t quite visible is a pea puree. The pulled pork is first cooked sous vide, then braised in a Japanese style to infuse flavor. To be completely technical, it’s not really pulled pork since it wasn’t pulled, but the braise definitely gave it strong soy flavor that balanced out nicely with the vibrant, sweet pea puree. The egg was poached sous vide and the custard like texture of the yolk bound the whole dish together. The potato espuma tasted like an incredibly fluffy, light, savory potato puree, incredibe. Lots of soft textures in the dish but it all amalgamated together in harmony, one criticism is that the Atsina baby cress was slightly chewy, unpleasantly so, but this was the best dish of the meal, although I wish the pea puree was served on top for a greater visual effect. Good

    

NORWEGIAN FLAT WHITE 
Chanterelle Fricassée | Smoked Berskshire Belly | Smoked Sea Urchin Foam

A beautifully plated dish, but easily the one I agreed with the least. First, the faults- The fish was overcooked, which I found surprising considering the fact that Keystone utilizes a lot of sous vide cooking. The fish was seared before plating and this was probably where the fish got overcooked. The mushroom stew was completely over-seasoned, and it was all you could taste of the dish after a couple of spoonfuls. I assumed that the belly would throw the richness of the dish completely overboard before eating it, but to my surprise, the belly had a sweet glaze, which actually played off the savory notes of the dish beautifully. Unfortunately, there was a lot more mushroom stew than there was belly, and the dish was quickly off balance again. To my surprise, there was a hidden veal sweetbread hidden under the fish. Personally, I have no problems eating offal, but I can imagine some who would be quite upset to discover sweetbreads in a fish course, I pointed this out to the waitress, who responded that it was intentionally placed there to surprise the diner, hmm.. Regardless, the surprise addition of the sweetbread completely pushed the dish into a different direction, it was like going to an engineering class and discovering that your professor is about to give the class a surprise quiz on stem cell research, everyone is bewildered and noone is happy. While there were times when the dish worked for me, overall it was much too convoluted. Bad

   

KUROBUTA STEAK FRITES
Dehyrdated Yukon & Cheese | Heirloom Vegetables | Mission Fig Ketchup

I was quite taken aback by the amount of food in this dish, easily the most bang for buck choice in their set lunch menu. This is basically Kurobuta pork shoulder, cooked sous vide, then finished on the grill. The grill must have been at quite a high temperature, because the meat stayed moist and tender, with no cook ‘rings’ around the edge of the meat. I found the pork to be slightly under-salted, but when eaten together with the fig ketchup, it was perfect, very intelligent seasoning. The strong char on the pork from the grill gave it a distinct smoky aroma, as well as slight bitterness that again, worked nicely together with the sweetness of the ketchup. Im not sure why the yukon was referred to as “frites” since they were more similar to chips. A solid, safe dish, but not particularly boundary pushing. Okay

   
360 BRÛLÉE TEXTURE
Caramel Custard Foam | Salted Maple | Valrhona Equatoriale
I was not entirely sure what to make of this dish, the name seemed to point in the direction of a modern take of a creme brulee, but what arrived was basically a chocolate pots de creme, with a salted maple layer sitting atop of it, and a custard foam to top it off. The only flavor profile that reminiscent of a creme brulee was the custard foam, everything tasted foreign. Despite the inconsistencies with expectations, the dessert was delicious- the chocolate creme(55%) had carried the flavour of chocolate through the custard and maple well, the foam had a nice body to it. The main technical fault was that the mouse was either not strained properly, or did not freeze right, because there were distinct lumps in it. The dish has a striking resemblance to Le Bernardin’s “Egg” dish, right down to the layers- Bernardin’s consists of a milk chocolate Pots de creme(55% as well), caramel foam, maple syrup, and maldon sea salt. The dish was also plated with dehydrated mandarin oranges, which doesnt sound like much, but tasted amazing. Okay
COMPOSITION OF FRUITS 
Coconut Palm Sorbet | Sudachi Lime Curd | Peppered Tropics | Dehydrated lychee
The coconut sorbet wasn’t too intensely flavored, and its muted flavors worked well with the peppered pineapple(the pepper revealed itself at the end of the dish). There was a freshness about the dish with all its acidic notes, but the lime curd was slightly overcooked and had a gummy texture. Quite unfortunate because it was difficult to get past, seeing as to how it formed the base for the dish. Okay
Overall, I had a pleasant meal at Keystone, this is going to sound incredibly greedy, but my lunch at Keystone(at 2pm) was my first meal of the day, and I opted to have 2 lunch sets by myself. Yes, I literally ate everything that I’ve just posted by myself. Somewhere along the Kurobuta dish, I was ready to give up, I could feel lethargy starting to creep in and a belly starting to form; instead I pushed on and by the end of the meal, I was pretty glad that I got to try quite a few dishes. The strengths of the restaurant clearly lie in their starters, lots of innovation and creativity flowing through both dishes- many subtle, delicate flavors interplaying with one another.
The mains came out with lesser, but more distinct, stronger flavors, unfortunately the Norwegian Flat White dish wasn’t well executed and didn’t work for me. Desserts brought the creativity back a notch, I loved the use of the dehydrated fruits, it brings about a familiar taste in a strange texture, but were let down by the technical aspects of the dish- Lumps in the mousse and overcooked curd.
Service was absolutely top notch, Id go as far as to say that it is on par with a 2 Michelin star restaurant, my server had no problems answering all of my food related questions, although I should also point out that I was the last customer in the restaurant. Chef Mark seems to be genuinely passionate about his food, and wants to educate the general public about it as well, I spoke to one of his sous chefs, who told me that he loves working for chef Mark because he is open to testing out new dishes and embracing new ideas, this is reflected in the food- a lot of flavor memories and profiles borrowed from different cuisines, Japanese, American, French. At its core they are all strong flavors, but slightly let down by finesse and execution. I personally think that the direction the restaurant has taken is a sound one, although my criticism is that they should cut down on the number of dishes in their repertoire and iron out the nooks and crannies of each dish. For those wanting to try Keystone for lunch, do note that parking in the area is a bitch.