The Jalan Besar area is becoming a hipster hangout, with the opening of cafes such as Chye Seng Huat Hardware. So it is no surprise to find other eateries targeting the same young and trendy crowd popping up there.
The latest is Babette, a gastro-bar opened last month by 987FM radio DJ Darren Wee.
The food is a mix of French cooking with Japanese ingredients. With prices ranging from $8 to $13 for small plates, and up to $28 for main courses, it offers casual dining that places more effort on creativity than quality ingredients.
So the flavours are not going to blow your mind, but there is an honesty and simplicity in the food that makes it appealing all the same. And in some instances, the French-Japanese combination works pretty well.
The menu is divided into a section of "tapas" and sides, one of salads and pastas, and another of mains comprising mainly donburi or rice bowls.
The tapas are meant to go with the gastro-bar's long list of alcoholic drinks that include beer, whisky and cocktails. But they are also substantial enough to work as appetisers for lunch or dinner.
I am not very impressed with them though. The Bacon Tempura ($10) is an interesting idea but the deep-fried batter is not as crispy or fluffy as promised in the menu. The Octopus Tempura ($13) also disappoints for the same reason. And the sous-vide octopus needs to be more tender for the dish to shine.
The Charred Cauliflower ($8) with yuzu veloute is undercooked too. Cooking the vegetable longer would not only soften it but also make it sweeter.
From the second section, the Sashimi Salad ($17) comes with a nice mix of diced raw tuna, salmon and scallop complemented with fresh greens and tamago in a light and slightly tangy dressing. It is perfectly decent, though the predominance of bland iceberg lettuce among the greens cheapens the dish a little. Mixing in some romaine or butterhead varieties would make it more elegant and taste better.
The Chilli Crab Pasta ($18) would also work better if the sauce is less sugary, so the other flavours of the spice paste can come to the fore.
The main courses are what I enjoy most. The Duck Confit Donburi ($28) is a good example of how East and West can meet in a dish. The duck is done very competently, with the tender meat of the drumstick covered by an almost crisp skin. And the slightly salty meat goes with the bowl of steaming rice it comes in.
Even better, cubes of pickled vegetables in the rice balance the fat in the duck perfectly. These get washed down with an accompanying bowl of hot miso soup.
The Steak & Foie Gras Donburi ($28) works just slightly less well. Steak, I have discovered for some time, goes really well with rice, and so it does here. The beef is not top grade but at $28, I'm not going to complain. The foie gras, however, needs something acidic to cut its fat. Perhaps the pickles in the duck confit rice bowl would work as well here too.
The desserts yield a pleasant surprise in the Matcha Lava Cake ($12).
The cliched lava cake is given an Asian update by replacing the liquid chocolate filling with green tea- infused white chocolate. It's a marvellous idea as the bitterness in the green tea not only makes it more edgy, but it also balances the sweetness of the dessert.
The accompanying scoop of vanilla ice cream drizzled with red bean is the classic Japanese companion for green tea desserts and works well here.
Babette is not without problems but they are not major ones. Those seeking a good, simple meal of original dishes will be happy here. But if you are seeking a gourmet feast, go somewhere else.
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SundayLife! paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.