SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Since I don't know what Lollapalooza actually means, I looked it up online. Google helpfully offered the options to translate it into Hindi or Urdu but for my own English intent and purpose, "lollapalooza" refers to something which is "particularly impressive".
I don't think the owners of indie eatery Lolla are being that presumptuous about their new place in Keong Saik, though - I also Googled "words that start with lolla" and lollapalooza was the only word available. Which means they will not be able to name their next restaurant lolla-something. And yes, I am that free.
Still, there's something fairly prescient about the name because, food notwithstanding, Lollapalooza does make a visual impression. It feels totally fresh and in-the-moment as part of the larger complex Working Capitol - a multi-purpose co-working and eating space that includes Neon Pigeon and Luxe as hipster F&B neighbours.
There's an almost Danish aesthetic to its interiors from the cosily cluttered bar area in front, and the spacious dining room (way bigger than the original Lolla) with its calming pastel-green banquettes and blond wood chairs.
1A Keong Saik Road
Open for dinner Mon to Sat: 6pm to 11pm. Closed on Sun. Lunch to be introduced soon
The open kitchen is a hive of organised activity, centred around a blazing wood-burning oven where chef Issac Lee churns out everything from grilled Spanish iberico pork to giant tuna eye balls. Even the young male servers fit into the designer vibe in their white T-shirts and black harem pants with the restaurant's triangle and circle motif pinned to their chests.
Even the food is too cool to confine itself to any particular style - so you have this free-wheeling, anything-goes attitude where much of the menu is left to the whims of the chef and the supplies he gets. He's got the caveman thing going with the roaring fire and basic plating - no fancy flourishes, just your grilled meat of choice, maybe a bit of sauce or dressing.
There's the forager-by-phone bit with the exotic seaweed sauteed in brown butter. There's the nose-to-tail eating, although across species rather than a particular animal. For example, you get lamb's hearts, veal tongue and tuna eye ball ripped right out of its skull, in the way a warrior sardine in a David and Goliath battle with said tuna might offer his triumph to the god of the fishies.
All of this plays out to your inner Forrest Gump as you really don't know what you're going to get from the ever-changing menu that evolves on a day-to-day basis. Such a disparate style of cooking isn't bad, it's just that it appeals to so many different palates at the same time that it's going to be hard to get a consensus across the board.
Our meal starts off promisingly. There's nothing like thick, rustic flat bread (S$8) that's all crusty outside and chewy inside and comes piping hot on a wooden board. Some complimentary olive oil or dip would have been welcome but is not forthcoming. If you want anything to go with it, it's another eight bucks for chorizo and herbed ricotta.
We skip the saltwort seaweed sauteed in brown butter as our server candidly says that it's pretty "ordinary" compared to the other choices on the menu. We like that they don't try to hard sell or play up anything, preferring you to make up your own mind about what you order.
The chef treats his meats well, going by the char-grilled secreto iberico de bellota (S$22) that is served pink and juicy, in true justice to the acorn-eating Spanish pigs that are usually turned into top-grade jamon. On the other hand, despite our fondness for tongue, it's hard to come to terms with the whole cooked specimen that arrives on our table. Bring the rest of the cow to the table to say "hello" next time, why don't you - we can't help thinking to ourselves. When it comes to realism beyond fish head curry, we're cowards. It's also why we give the tuna eye a miss after the server's graphic description of it being fishy.
Still, the corned veal tongue (S$44) is tasty if just somewhat overcooked for our taste. Interestingly, we're told to remove the skin because of its chewiness but some bits are nice and crusty - a contrast to the soft, slightly mushy flesh within.
We prefer our tongue a little more resilient in texture (and in nondescript slices). The tartness of the salsa verde is meant to temper the richness of the tongue - but the dance of dull and sharp on our palate seems out of step.
On the other hand, a charred hunk of tuna collar (S$44) totally hits the spot in a comfortingly cloying way. The skin of the fish is a blackened cover that you remove to reveal moist, juicy, oily fish that cuts like butter. You can literally crawl into it and stay warm all winter - just saying. A roasted lemon half drips welcome acidity to balance off the oil.
Another off-kilter combination is the crispy deep-fried pig's ears (S$21) which are fine on their own but overkill when drizzled with some kind of cocktail sauce and presented on a bed of crisp, bitter radicchio leaves tossed in too much vinegar. A hand-torn pasta (S$28) in so-so tomato sauce is killed by crab meat that's either canned or had overstayed its welcome.
Lemon semolina cake (S$18) tastes nice and homespun but an uneven drizzle of lemon syrup and a weird rosemary cream that tastes like creamed olive oil makes us wish they would cut the price and just give us the cake on its own. We're also not sure if we like the homemade rosewater and cardamom ice cream (S$9), which has a pleasant fragrance but an odd, overly smooth texture.
All this free-style, guerrilla cooking means that a meal here is a bit of a gamble where, given the upscale pricing, you stand to win or lose big depending on how your meal turns out. Lollapalooza is impressive by definition, but it needs to do more to stand out where it matters.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on April 20, 2015.
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