SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) A restaurant can evoke different emotions in a diner.
Delight when the food is good. Disappointment when it's not, escalating into Anger when the bill turns out higher than you expect. Annoyance - when you have to pay for tap water and bad service.
But Depression? That's a new one for us, but weirdly, that's what hits us when we step into Alma, the new/old, sort-of celebrity chef-driven Spanish restaurant in Goodwood Park Hotel.
When you're so used to new eateries brimming with attitude and designer chic, Alma comes across as a battle-worn weary veteran who's given up on life. Little is changed from the Italian restaurant Gaia that it used to be - characterless, not quite old-fashioned, contemporary if seen from an 80s perspective. Ok, it's ugly.
Goodwood Park Hotel
22 Scotts Road
Tel: 6735 9937
Open for dinner Mon to Sat: 6pm to 10.30pm.
Lunch on Wed to Fri: 6pm to 10.30pm
It's had a token touch-up, but the heavy chairs upholstered in a tired shade of vermilion so need to be taken to an abandoned space and put down, out of their misery.
It doesn't help that the restaurant is near-empty both times we are there - when the place first opened in June and recently, for lunch. We hope that's an anomaly, given that Alma is supposed to be linked to a three Michelin-starred chef, Juan Amador, who earned his stripes cooking his own style of Spanish food in Mannheim, Germany. We say "supposed" because the man himself has yet to show up in Singapore, so we can't be sure if he's still involved in the restaurant in anything but name.
How chef Christophe Lerouy - we get his name off the menu cards - has kept his spirits up over the last two months is no mean feat. The enthusiastic staff we encountered in our first dinner seem to have gone, and at our recent lunch, only one server held fort, albeit with grace and efficiency.
So too chef Lerouy, who is French but manages to pull off the kind of Spanish cuisine as interpreted by Amador, a German chef with Spanish heritage but a fascination with Asian spices. As a result, the food at Alma is kind of Spanish, mainly European, partly avant-garde, and with a bit of Indian influence thrown in for good measure. Out of this jumble comes a menu that works more often than it doesn't.
To start, you pick from both ends of the spectrum: one section is devoted to familiar Spanish tradicion, another to evolucion, and if you can't decide between the two, there's the tasting menu of four to eight courses where chef Lerouy decides what to feed you.
From the tradicion menu, we had some light-as-air croquetas made with salt cod or bacalao at our first dinner, which have since been replaced by empanadas. They should bring them back because the crunchy fried balls filled with creamy bechamel of fish are worth re-ordering. Otherwise, to fill your fat quota, deep fried fish fingers a.k.a. monkfish cheek (S$22) are addictive, recalling hazy memories of yore when Bird's Eye and Findus were considered luxury treats. Here, thick fingers of meaty fish are simply crumbed and packed into a metal basket with a perky tomato-enhanced mayonnaise dip. The familiar octopus (S$22) done la plancha (in the pan) is commendably tender, even if the chorizo it comes with is the polar opposite.
Sadly, a few dishes we liked aren't on the menu anymore, including the steamed Carabinero shrimp that balances the extremes of sweet and sour with sour lemon curd and crumbled Spanish nougat (turron) and cauliflower cous cous. But there's pleasure to be had in the velvety pigeon breast (S$32) with the texture of foie gras, even if the "purple" curry that is really a syrupy hibiscus sauce scented with Indian spices sets off our weirdo meter. Grilled scallops and daikon with a dab of miso and leek puree (S$28) gets an unusual garnish of crunchy mustard seeds. Apart from the slightly overcooked scallops, it's the kind of combination that looks odd on paper but works well in practice. Less successful is the signature dessert Brick in the Wall - an easy-on-the-eye but puzzling-to-the-palate "brick" of milky ice cream infused with cardamom and cinnamon and coated in beetroot syrup.
Alma is now open for lunch from Wednesday to Friday with a two- (S$38) or three-course (S$48) menu option. It's a mixed bag. Kick off with satisfying starters such as a fluffy tortilla of tender sliced potatoes and refreshing salad of raw tuna and couscous moistened with aioli. But the mains disappoint - the off-tasting monkfish cheek and mussels in saffron cream sauce and dry duck breast.
Missteps notwithstanding, there's substance in chef Lerouy's work. But what life he brings to the kitchen isn't strong enough to fill the overly-big dining room. If Alma is going to make a long-term impression, it's going to need a personality transplant. Stat.
What our ratings mean
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on August 24, 2015.
Get The Business Times for more stories.