Restaurant Review

Surprising combinations in Cheek By Jowl's dishes

Cheek By Jowl's dishes boast odd combinations of ingredients and flavours that do not always work

Chef Rishi Naleendra, who was born in Sri Lanka but grew up in Australia, totally charmed me with his eclectic and excellent menu at Maca, which opened at Tanglin Post Office in the middle of last year.

His odd combinations of ingredients delivered interesting and pleasing flavours.

So it was no surprise to hear that restaurateur Loh Lik Peng had persuaded him to take over his beleaguered restaurant Sorrel in Boon Tat Street, which opened early last year but lost its head chef before the year was up.

The restaurant, which reopened more than a week ago, was renamed Cheek By Jowl, apparently a reference to the chef having his wife Manuela Toniolo work by his side as restaurant manager.

But it could just as easily refer to how the tables are set close enough for diners to have to sit almost cheek by jowl with one another.

  • CHEEK BY JOWL

  • 21 Boon Tat Street, tel: 6221-1911, open: noon to 2.30pm (Monday to Friday), 5 to 10.30pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday

    Food: 3.5 stars

    Service: 3.5 stars

    Ambience: 3 stars

    Price: Budget about $100 a person, without drinks

The new name comes with a slightly new look for the dining room, which is now opened up in front, so guests sitting near the entrance can look out.

But the open kitchen at the back of the shophouse unit remains the same, offering diners - especially those sitting at the counter - a better view of the team of chefs at work. Also carried over from Sorrel is the practice of having members of the kitchen team bring out the dishes and introduce them to diners.

This means that Ms Toniolo and her service staff need to focus only on taking orders, clearing tables and ringing up bills.

The place is buzzing on the Monday night I'm there, packed with groups of executives out on the town and couples eager to check out the chef's new kitchen. But service is quick and efficient.

For his menu at Cheek By Jowl, chef Naleendra repeats some dishes he served at Maca, such as a pan-seared barramundi and a coconut dessert. But these were introduced after I visited Maca, so they are new to me.

The dishes, which are meant to be shared, continue to take influences from around the globe, but the results are rather erratic. Some dishes boast strong, bold flavours, but others fail to make much of an impression.

Barramundi ($32) is one that fails to excite the palate. The locally farmed fish is seared nicely enough, with the fillet gaining a crisp coat that contrasts well with the soft flesh. But the dark pool of sauce it sits on is so insipid you can't really make out what the flavour is. It also does nothing to bind the fish to the other ingredients on the plate, which include pieces of pickled turnip and whole charred scallions.

Another dish that does not work is Oyster ($5), a raw oyster smothered by a heap of smoked tomato granite. The bright orange ice makes for a pretty photo, but it also renders the oyster too cold to bite into. So you have to keep it in the mouth until the ice melts away, and then it tastes like any ordinary, raw oyster.

But other dishes are excellent.

The one that impresses me most is Confit Duck Leg ($36), which comes untraditionally with a plate of waffles on the side. The classic French dish is also given a Chinese twist by matching it with a five-spice caramel sauce. It is thick and sweet and reminds me of the hoisin sauce that is served with xiang su duck (deep-fried crispy duck).

You eat the dish by pulling the tender duck meat off the bone and piling it on a piece of waffle together with some sauce and lightly sauteed slices of cucumber. I've eaten waffles with fried chicken and enjoyed that, but the combination of crispy batter and tender duck meat, together with the sweet and mildly spiced sauce, is even better.

I also enjoy Tomato ($12), where wedges of the fruit are covered with dollops of parmesan cream, crushed macadamia nuts and strands of green beans. The melange of textures and flavours brings much pleasure to the palate, with each bite springing fresh surprises that complement one another very well.

There are only two desserts on the menu and both are nothing I've eaten before.

The more bizarre of the two is Coconut ($15), which comprises a scoop each of coconut and laksa leaf ice cream, with pomelo sacs and a green chilli sauce. It evokes Thai and Indian curry flavours, but is also sweet and cold.

It is not bad, but neither is it something that I would think of ordering again. It's just too weird.

The other dessert, Black Olive Cake ($15), is also a mix of sweet and savoury flavours. But this is a mix I totally enjoy.

The black olive cake itself is an airy confection that dissipates in the mouth to release the slightly oily taste of black olives. It is served with strawberry sorbet and strawberry compote, a scoop of yogurt and a generous sprinkling of roasted white chocolate bits.

The tartness of the strawberry and yogurt works well in the dessert and I like that nothing is very sweet.

Not everything on Cheek By Jowl's menu works, but you can be sure of one thing: your palate will never be bored.

  • The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 21, 2016, with the headline 'No boring dishes'. Print Edition | Subscribe