SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Reviews of vegetarian restaurants written by non-vegetarians typically start this way. First, there will be a declaration of one's devotion to meat. A snide remark or two about how vegetarians always seem to be kind of thin and grumpy. A dissertation about how the hamburgers or mee pok tar that you need to eat after a vegetarian meal negates the reason you went for one in the first place - to be more healthy.
Now, with everyone from Alain Passard to Rene Redzepi championing farm-(or wild roots)-to-table cuisine and a growing interest in edible gardens by local chefs and green enthusiasts, are we ready for the next phase of dining - a restaurant where no animal has been harmed in the making of its dishes?
JOIE BY DOZO
#12-01 Orchard Central
181 Orchard Road
Open daily for lunch and dinner: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 10pm
Joie - a new concept by the people behind the now-defunct popular Japanese eatery Dozo - eschews the token vegetarian menu or special occasion chef's creation and goes the full vegetarian monty, if you will. There isn't even a slab of tofu in sight in this elegant, fine-dining set-up at the rooftop of Orchard Central - a perfect setting of landscaped gardens and even spa-like music playing at certain intervals.
A menu that divides the courses into categories such as "prelude", "awakening", "elixir and crescendo" offers a good-value six-course lunch set for $38.80, but jumps to $68.80 for seven courses at dinner (apparently the portions are bigger).
What it lacks in meat it makes up for in flowery descriptions of the dishes and even more elaborate presentations, starting from the complimentary glass flutes of passionfruit juice hooked to the sides of a vase filled with crushed ice and flowers. Even the amuse bouche gets the fine-dining treatment - a slightly bitter black sesame gummy ball on top of grated carrot and daikon; carrot jelly strips that are a dead ringer for smoked salmon with its smooth silky texture and briny flavour; and slightly dry black sponge tasting of ground pistachio that's topped with a crispy wafer and mayonnaise. It stops short of being delicious, but we do appreciate the effort involved.
Chef Sherwin Sim (ex-Coriander Leaf) casts an artist's eye on his food, sending out a shimmering "transparency of machego" - a layer of semi-melted Spanish cheese so thin you can almost see right through it to the glass plate it's laid over, artistically covered with roasted peppers and cherry tomatoes, walnuts, olives and little croutons. Add a few arugula leaves and you've got a pleasing starter that would make a great cheese course in a conventional tasting menu.
He follows up with a portobello tart - a triangle of puff pastry that can't take the weight of the sweet caramelised onions, tomato slices, juicy grilled mushroom and chunks of brie. The combined juices seep right into the pastry and render it limp and soggy, even if the other elements are happy together. We would have been perfectly happy if chef Sim had just put everything between two slices of good crusty bread - it may not look as pretty but it would have been more enjoyable.
By the time the zucchini tower (an a la carte pick) arrives, it's becoming apparent that the fussy plating is more important than the ingredients this restaurant is supposed to champion. There's little heed paid to letting the vegetables speak for themselves. Rather, they're twisted and twirled into pretty confections that look better than they actually taste.
Take for example this fussy, tall structure of puff pastry, with mandoline-sliced green and yellow zucchini coiled around its cream cheese-filled base. Pretty pearls of beetroot caviar taste of nothing, as does the jellied sphere that crowns it.
The chef does hit the spot with the snow pea and napa cabbage consumme (sic) - a mispelling but thankfully not a misfire. The double-boiled vegetable broth has a bit of tang from the addition of lemon peel or juice but otherwise has an intense flavour.
Poured out of a teapot into a little cup holding a tiny slow-cooked pear and crunchy Chinese almonds, it's one of the chef's better creations. Also good - if a little too rich and cloying - is the super-rich cream of peas that's whipped into a frothy green capuccino with hard focaccia spears doubling as savoury biscotti.
If familiarity breeds content, you'll want to dive into the sauteed wild rice for its resemblance to Chinese-style fried rice, except that the grains take a lot longer to cook. Add the mock sausage bits, pine nuts and garlic and you've got a healthy, chewy alternative to yang chow fried rice. But if you're still in pure vegetarian mode, the platter of grilled baby root vegetables with truffle oil-scented mashed potatoes and garlic butter sauce is exactly as it's described on the menu.
For dessert, a heavy trolley is wheeled to your table with a small assortment of cakes, chocolates and macarons to pick from - all standard hotel buffet treats such as miniature tiramisu and black forest cake, which are pretty ho-hum.
Maybe the challenge for Joie isn't so much that meatless cooking is a hard-sell. Rather, it's how to find a balance between style and substance, without going the way of health-centric vegetarian restaurants and their tofu-burgers-and-green-juice mantra. There are also more ways to make vegetables taste good than adding cheese to everything. For now, Joie should be lauded for taking the bold step of lifting meatless cuisine into the fine-dining spectrum. But if it really wants to get people to make the switch, they should just forget the "fine" and replace it with "joyful" instead.
This article was first published on Nov 17, 2014.
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