SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) When it comes to a restaurant's name, Rishi Naleendra is one who doesn't take it literally.
After all, his first main Singapore gig was at Maca, where he cooked everything except the Peruvian superfood said to treat everything from depression to erectile dysfunction. Now, he's head chef of Cheek By Jowl, which has no trace of meaty off-cuts on the menu - it's actually a sweet reference to him working cheek-to-cheek with his wife Manuela Toniolo, the restaurant's manager.
It's nice and all, but it's not much to go on when you're a chef trying to distinguish himself from a sea of equally competent peers. Just being pleasant doesn't cut it in this rather directionless addition to Loh Lik Peng's stable of eateries. Artfully arranged plates hint at modern fine dining yet the ala carte portions lean towards sharing platters. Duck confit and waffles spells brunch, while laksa leaf ice cream tells you this guy does not believe in the sanctity of rum and raisin.
But - somewhere in this eclectic mish-mash is a chef of substance waiting to come out. That's if he can shed his Jack-of-all-trends compulsion and become master of one: his own voice. One that doesn't have to rely on a resume that includes Tetsuya's in Sydney and Taxi Kitchen in Melbourne. There's an underlying pressure to impress in the food, which means you sense less joy in each dish; just a medley of competing elements as if the chef is afraid of leaving something out.
CHEEK BY JOWL
21 Boon Tat Street
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm; 5pm to 10.30pm.
Dinner only on Sat. Closed on Sun.
Take the cured ocean trout that's part of the S$38 three-course set lunch. It's got a nice sear on top, with a dollop of creme fraiche and a citrusy green sauce with a hint of wasabi in it - but what delicate joy it presents is wiped out by a salad that swops mellow vinaigrette for a full frontal acid assault.
Good quality chopped venison - done rare and lightly seared, with lovely texture and so pretty with thin zucchini shavings covering it - is again no match for a jealous green pea and avocado puree which conspires with chopped nuts and fried capers to smother it in a vinegary blanket.
We're no vegan advocates, but we find comfort in the warm garlicky roasted pumpkin that sits in an ugly beige but umami-rich velvety mushroom sauce, with crushed seeds and nuts for texture. Then who comes and spoils the show but a jarring pumpkin chutney and charred kale - both of which must have fallen into a vat of lemon juice on its way to the plate, which explains their mouth-puckering demeanour.
When chef Naleendra lets down his guard and just lets things be, the result is just nice - a simple barramundi fillet plump and perfectly cooked, with just a charred leek and squid ink-hued onion puree as flavour props.
As far as duck and waffles (S$36) go, the inhouse version is more than satisfactory despite the duck confit leg and waffles fighting to outcrisp each other. We don't exactly know what kind of marriage deal was brokered between the American breakfast favourite and classic French bistro fare but it works, and the drizzle of Chinese-style five-spice caramel sauce adds up to a United Nations treat. Even so, we recommend that the duck give in to the crispy waffle so that we can have some tender moist bits of meat instead of having to crunch through its crisp but dry texture.
Dessert is where chef Naleendra's free-wheeling instincts come into play with the most success. He shows how you can turn the wackiest ingredients like laksa leaf and green chilli into dessert if you restrain yourself to just extracting a hint of flavour. Taking laksa leaf as a slightly more aggressive version of mint, the coconut ice cream picks up just enough of the leaf's fragrance to tease your brain cells, along with a sweet green chilli sauce that has the mildest amount of heat. Chopped nuts, pomelo sacs and fried laksa leaves add up to a refreshing, velvety sweet ending.
He also pulls off a challenging salty-sour-sweet combination of black olive cake with a fluffy dark chocolate sponge texture and salty overture, yoghurt sweetened with white chocolate bits and sweet sour raspberry sorbet. Think of it as a slightly salty brownie and your brain will re-calibrate to accept this as a dessert.
Chef Naleendra treats ingredients with respect, although he needs to rein in his tendency to overdress to impress. In time, we reckon he'll be able to develop a more confident style that is uniquely his. And if he ever needs a restaurant name that truly captures it, we think "Rishi" has a nice ring to it.
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 22, 2016.
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