Flexing culinary muscles and flavours at Morsels

 Marinated raw kingfish.
Marinated raw kingfish.PHOTO: MORSELS
Octopus on squid ink risotto with salted egg sauce and tobiko.
Octopus on squid ink risotto with salted egg sauce and tobiko.PHOTO: MORSELS
Beef noodles.
Beef noodles.PHOTO: MORSELS

SINGAPORE (The Business Times) - What a difference four years makes. Looking at Morsels today is like seeing an awkward, geeky youngster blossoming into a sleek, well-groomed adult.

When we first encountered it, it was a whimsical eatery in Little India, fronted by a young food-loving couple making the life-changing leap from well-paid banking jobs to pursue their culinary passions. The food was quirky and rough around the edges, but gained enough of a following to withstand the competition, even moving to a bigger and better location at hipster enclave Dempsey Village.

Okay, it’s not prime Dempsey real estate as it’s located in what looks like a little outhouse behind Samy's Curry – a nondescript structure that would hardly elicit a first look, much less a second. But step inside and see its transformation into a rustic, farmhouse-chic abode – filled with weather-beaten wood furniture, lamp fixtures fashioned from twigs, and a curated retro feel.

It conjures up an easy-going casual vibe, except that the food is nothing of the sort. Solo chef-owner Petrina Loh seems keen to flex some serious cooking muscle, so there’s more emphasis on presentation and making things from scratch – be it curing her own duck prosciutto or pickling and fermenting just about everything that can handle long periods in an acidic bath.

The cooking defies stereotyping for sure – swinging between relatively familiar beef noodles and assam laksa at lunch to experimental fusion at dinner. Your palate is left to frantically juggle multiple flavours, ingredients and cooking methods, hoping for the precise moment when they all fall into place.

It doesn’t happen often enough in a menu that, while a lot more polished and precise than it was in the beginning, still lacks the finesse to pull all the ideas together in a harmonious whole. The true test of a chef’s ability is when he or she can manage salty, sour, sweet, savoury (and bitter) in a way that each exists to complement each other – not get into a popularity contest. But it’s clear from Chef Loh's penchant for pickling and fermenting, which flavour rules them all.
If your palate leans that way, then there’s plenty to please. But if your taste is more middle of the road, then Morsels will be a mixed bag.

Devilled eggs (S$8) feel like unsuspecting creamy egg yolk-stuffed appetisers on their way to a canapé party who are kidnapped and filled with a salty-sour crabmeat mixture topped with smoky pimento cream and a slice of home-made duck prosciutto. Our tastebuds are equally shell-shocked by the combination.

Fortunately, we find refuge in the less heavy-handed marinated raw kingfish (S$22) that’s artfully plated with pretty colours from rhubarb aioli and pistachio praline which add a nutty sweetness. Mildly pickled grapes stay sweet and the ikura lends a matching brininess.

The kurobuta char siew (S$24) is too lean but is enjoyable in thin slices and permeated with a fragrant marinade. On the other hand, the smell of the fermented, highly acidic grated pineapple it is served with is too hardcore and jarring for us.

An old dish – poached octopus on squid ink risotto with salted egg sauce and tobiko (S$26) gets a smart makeover, classily presented with grainy salted egg sauce spooned into a pattern around somewhat stodgy black rice covered with tender, perfectly textured octopus.

The dish of the evening turns out to be the hanger steak – done rare and extremely tender, sliced thin and embedded in whipped potato with a drizzle of coffee balsamic dressing and crunchy deep fried capers. In fact, Chef Loh has converted us into caper eaters with her treatment of them.

While our server claims his dislike of jackfruit was cured with the jackfruit done three ways (S$14), we lovers of the real thing aren’t enamoured. It's an odd juxtaposition of dehydrated jackfruit strips, sauce and jam with bits of cake, coconut yoghurt and other bits and pieces that seem like a lot of work for little appreciation.

The Milo “tiramiso” (S$16) which we like more for the Milo topping than the tiramisu itself, is passable.
Morsels can be inventive, and it can be contrived. But the point is that it dares to be different. And with that must come the conviction that it doesn’t have to please everybody.
jaime@sph.com.sg

Rating 6.5

WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN

10: The ultimate dining experience
9-9.5: Sublime
8-8.5: Excellent
7-7.5: Good to very good
6-6.5: Promising
5-5.5: Average
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