SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) In a perfect world, all chefs would own their own restaurants.
There'd be no higher master to please; no cooking to a tune other than their own. They would rise or fall by their own saucepan; and if they want to serve duck hearts or pig ears on their menu, who can stop them except maybe a supply-starved market stall-holder or one indignant porker.
But what's important is that when a chef truly feels ownership, the food, more often than not, shines.
Jean-Philippe Patruno is the second chef we've seen in the past couple of months who flourishes in his own space. The first was Seita Nakahara of Terra - whose previous stints at Japanese-Italian eateries were more like that of an understudy waiting for the starring role that he now enjoys in his own place.
Similarly, chef Patruno had a running start at now-defunct Bomba, where he held a paella pan in one hand and a salt shaker in the other that he wouldn't let go of. He later did a stint as opening chef of Una in One Rochester - which more or less failed to please the palate.
But now he has us eating our words along with the aforementioned duck hearts at Dehesa - his solo debut in a tight-fitting North Canal road space that has seen dining concepts come and go. Hopefully his nose-to-tail approach will have a longer shelf life as it isn't a token attempt at slipping offal into a conventional menu but a full-on embrace of the chef's inner butcher.
The idea is that yes, several ducks are harmed in the making of the lovely duck hearts on toast (S$13), but nothing is wasted in the process. What would have otherwise ended up in the entrails waste bin are instead turned into supple, crisp-tender morsels, cooked in a fruity, syrupy balsamico-enriched sauce that soaks into a crunchy toasted slice of sourdough bread for an umami-rich snack.
Besides specialising in organ meat, Dehesa also reflects the Spanish side of chef Patruno's Italian-Spanish heritage. The quality of the home-fried potato crisps that start off your meal is proof of his dominant side - they're salty, oily and thoroughly addictive.
He doesn't neglect his growing up years in France either, with an elaborate cold platter (S$32) featuring whatever terrines or cold cuts he's prepared for the day. When we are there, he has some deep red-hued shavings of Iberico ham, pig head terrine, pork shoulder rillette, fifi pate (made from liver and kidney) puffed pork crackling and assorted salami. The pig head terrine has all the requisite bits of skin, cartilage and meat to make it an appealing gelatinous meatloaf of sorts. The rillete more than passes muster, moistened with an ample mix of shoulder meat and fatty pork belly. But we're not so fond of the liver and kidney pate, which seems more funky than fifi to us.
Chef Patruno trips up slightly when he ventures into more neutral European-Asian territory, for example, the local lala clams (S$15) which get the wine and chili treatment but are curiously robbed of flavour, leaving us to plough through a whole lot of shells and leathery mollusc flesh. But he more than makes up for it with chunks of slow-cooked octopus lightly charred - the texture of firm fishcake (in a good way) without losing any of its octopus macho-ness. Place them on a bed of crushed potatoes and capers, drape a couple of slices of translucent lardo over everything and the enjoyment is complete.
He also does justice to ox tongue (S$17), an imaginative interplay of long, wide slices of tender flesh, celeriac cubes and cauliflower smothered in a rich sauce of veal stock reduced with cream, anchovies and grain mustard that makes it taste vaguely cheesy. It's ever so slightly cloying, but we like how the flavours of the tongue and mustard-anchovy sauce complement each other.
That there's more to chef Patruno's cooking than meets the eye lies in the subtle way he fuses techniques in his chocolate and olive oil dessert (S$14). Home made chocolate ice cream is deeply intense with more chocolate than sugar and is matched with aerated chocolate chunks that our server says is made by pumping gas into a mixture of chocolate and olive oil. We call it Aero bubbly chocolate all grown up.
On the dessert flip side, we don't understand why perfectly good fluffy Spanish french toast Torijas (S$14) has to be re-interpreted as sticks of eggy bread practically fossilized in a thick crust of caramel. It isn't worth the hassle of fighting to cut through it to get the custard cream within. We'll take regular French toast any time.
That said, chef Patruno gets our vote as favourite "body parts" chef of the year. He may be the only nominee, but for someone to strike out on his own and tackle the kind of cuisine he's chosen - that really takes guts.
12 North Canal Road
Open for lunch and dinner; Mon to Fri: 11.30am to 2.30pm; 5.30pm till late. Dinner only on Sat. Closed on Sun.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: BT pays for all meals at restaurants reviewed on this page. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.
This article was first published on February 15, 2016.
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