This review was first published in The Sunday Times on Aug 3, 2014.
A few months ago, my colleague Tan Hsueh Yun lamented in this newspaper how there are so few Singaporean chefs who have joined the big league. Other than Justin Quek of Sky On 57 and Willin Low of Wild Rocket, she said, there are no other local-born chefs getting international attention.
With the opening of Corner House, I am certain we shall soon see one more name on that list: Jason Tan.
The new restaurant at the Singapore Botanic Gardens opened on July 25, taking over the two-storey bungalow previously occupied by the now-defunct Au Jardin restaurant.
From 1929 to 1942, the house was the home of Mr E J H Corner, assistant director of the Gardens at the time and whose name is now memorialised in the new restaurant.
1 Cluny Road, Nassim Gate, Singapore Botanic Gardens E J H Corner House, tel: 6469-1000
Open: Noon to 3pm (Monday to Saturday, lunch service starts from Aug 18), 11.30am to 3pm (Sunday brunch), 6.30 to 11pm daily. The restaurant is closed on Monday until Aug 31.
Price: From $38 for three-course lunch to $248 for eight-course dinner
In a nod to its location within the Gardens, a nature theme runs central at Corner House, which is opened by restaurateur and wine shop owner Renny Heng and Tan as chef-patron and co-owner. Botanical paintings adorn the walls. On the tables are side plates designed like the cross-section of a tree trunk. Salt containers look like large pebbles.
The cooking is Gastro-Botanica, a term coined by the chef to reflect his use of vegetables as more than garnishes.
It is refined cooking but playful at the same time. The restaurant also makes an attempt to appear less serious by doing away with table cloths and formal settings.
Tan had shown a lot of promise when he was chef de cuisine at the now-defunct Julien Bompard restaurant in 2008. A short stint at the Mandarin Oriental Singapore in 2010 where he took charge of the buffet restaurant Melt was a surprising move, though I remember he introduced an excellent barbecue selection while he was there. He then moved to Sky On 57 when it opened that same year, where he headed the kitchen under Quek.
But now at Corner House, he has finally come into his own, presenting a menu of his own creations. And what marvellous dishes they are.
I was invited to the official opening lunch and returned on my own for dinner afterwards. At both meals, there wasn’t a single bad dish. Everything on the plates was carefully crafted with high quality ingredients and a lot of finesse, with results ranging from good to excellent.
There is no a la carte menu, just set menus that range from $38 for a three-course lunch to $148 for a six-course dinner. But there are a few selections for each course, with some dishes carrying a supplementary charge, so it is not very different from ordering a la carte. Lunch service starts from Aug 18.
There is also a $248 eight-course degustation meal called Discovery Menu Experience for those who prefer to leave the decision on what to eat to the chef. Some dishes here, however, are not available in the set menus.
I like everything, so I’ll just mention some of my favourites here.
Top on the list is the Free Range Chicken. I usually avoid chicken breast, which is often dry and coarse. But the sous-vide piece of meat in this dish is so succulent and tasty that I prefer it to the pan-roasted thigh meat, which is deliberately made tougher for contrast.
The sauce, made with a blend of meat and prawn shells, is delicious too, and the shaved pieces of Manjimup black truffle from Australia add just the right touch of elegance.
The Hungarian Mangalitsa Pork is good too. The pork is medium-cooked, so it may appear a tad raw. But that is the best way to enjoy this flavourful meat and its exceptional succulence. It comes with pieces of pear, endives and apple gel but the meat is undoubtedly the star.
The Carabinero Prawn is another dish I love. The sweet Spanish prawn is complemented by a variation of tomatoes, some turned into an intensely flavoured mousse and some simmered with basil or soaked with salted plum. It is refreshing and delicious and gives you a good idea of what Gastro-Botanica means.
My favourite dessert is the Cocoa Pebbles, which is offered in only the degustation menu. What looks like two pretty pebbles are actually spongy pieces of Alpaco chocolate mousse with a tart mandarin filling. They sit on chocolate soil, from which sprout mushrooms – some of which are made from meringue while others are real shimeiji mushrooms soaked in lemon juice. And to complete the effect, there are jelly “water droplets” on the pebbles as well as chocolate twigs.
This is a work of art that not only wins points for visual effect but also tastes good. As with most of Tan’s dishes, it is refined, delicate and surprising – the work of a world-class chef.
SundayLife! paid for its meal at the eatery reviewed here.