SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - When we first visited La Ventana, a Spanish restaurant that opened in Dempsey in 2015, we complained about the salt.
We do that a lot - Singaporeans, not just us. You know, these fancy foreign chefs with their star-studded background and all, coming here and putting too much salt in their food; do they have cured sausages for intestines or what; grumble, grumble.
This constant berating has seen two extreme effects: One - you get chefs who refuse to capitulate out of pride, arrogance or sheer chest-beating indignation. Generally, they do not last very long. But sometimes it is also because their cooking is not very good anyway.
Two - you get the hand-wringing, well-meaning chefs who truly want to adapt and yet be true to their cuisine. But in the process, they become complete nervous wrecks who cannot hold a salt shaker without crying or having a crisis of conscience. For them, we feel rather bad.
We mention La Ventana because it was the first Singapore consulting gig of Carles Gaig of the one-Michelin-starred Restaurant Gaig in Singapore. He placed his daughter Nuria Gibert in charge and he himself would regularly visit, adding a sprinkle of Catalan homeyness to Dempsey's multinational dining enclave.
Now, two years later, the contract has ended but the family is keeping its foothold in Singapore with a bona-fide branch of Restaurant Gaig, where Nuria Gibert imparts her love of Catalan cooking in this little cubby hole in Stanley Street.
Helming the kitchen is Esteve Garcia Vilanova, the original sous chef from La Ventana who returned to Spain to train at the original Restaurant Gaig in preparation for his gig here. He has come back armed with recipes for everything from tapas to traditional Catalan stews - but still the fear of salt-intolerant Singaporeans is etched deep in his soul.
We get a sense of this when we tuck into Spanish fideua ($29.50) - short noodles roasted and then resuscitated in just enough seafood broth such that they spring to attention in a hot cast-iron pan, with a handful of fresh clams and shrimp scattered on top. Like its paella cousin, there is a nice crust of noodles at the edges, while diced peppers break the monotony. We are enjoying the texture of the noodles, mixing in dollops of creamy aioli and thinking - it is really nice, but did they forget to season it?
When Ms Gibert happens to come by our table, we innocently ask if the under-seasoning is deliberate. When she says "yes", we are hit by a wave of empathy at the plight of this well-meaning young restaurateur clearly wrestling between the food she grew up with and the customers she is trying to please.
"We are so scared to use salt," she confesses plaintively. "We don't trust our own tastebuds because I have a salty palate, so we try to under-salt because it is easier to add it than to remove it."
The fact that we still enjoy it is proof that this simply-dressed eatery is doing something right, with food that is not cliched but heartfelt. Rather than shove a travel brochure in your face, there are just little touches of Spain here and there - textured white walls decorated with ornamental plates, dainty dinner dishes that look like porcelain doilies and even the thick linen napkins are brought in from Barcelona.
Spanish charcuterie is the saltiest thing on the menu, with two kinds on offer - Lomo iberico de bellota ($22.50) and Jamon Joselito ($27). They are decent quality and a good match with the crystal bread and tomato ($6.50) - traditional thin crusty bread that is usually toasted on a griddle, slathered with olive oil and topped with crushed ripe tomatoes.
There is some overlap with the La Ventana menu, namely Carles Gaig's signature cannelloni ($14) made from a family recipe dating back to 1869. Slim cigar-shaped pasta shells are filled with a very fine, crumbly meat mixture and covered in a rich cream sauce which does not excite us the way it might have excited other people in the 19th century.
Our tastebuds lean more towards the 20th century, so we are quite happy with the patates bravas ($9), humble nuggets of fried potato that are crisp on the outside and fluffy inside, needing just a swipe of fluffy garlic aioli and spicy salsa brava to finish off.
We are also charmed by the unctuous collagen-rich stew of boneless pork trotters that barely keep their shape in a paprika-scented brown gravy that will not win any Instagram photo contests, but will instead steal your heart. It would have been perfect, yes, with a wee bit of salt.
If anything, the chef overcompensates for the salt restriction with dessert - a sugar shock of Catalan creme brulee ($10.20), which is a cloud of sweet whipped custard and syrup with a torched sugar surface. There is also orange ice cream souffle ($10.20), which is really a citrusy ice cream with a cakey texture that looks like a souffle but tastes like a bad marriage of cake and frozen custard. We would not change anything on the savoury menu, but the desserts definitely need a re-look.
That aside, this little eatery has an endearing appeal that will make you want to come back. The food has substance and authenticity coupled with a sincere desire to share one's culture. Yes, take it with a pinch of salt. But not too much.
16 Stanley Street; tel: 6221-2134; open: noon to 2pm and 6 to 9.30pm (Mondays to Saturdays), closed on Sundays