There is much to like about Open Farm Community, a collaboration involving the Spa Esprit Group, chef Ryan Clift and Edible Garden City, a food garden specialist.
The restaurant, which opened in the Dempsey area last month, is a simple glass building with a high ceiling from which hang metal structures intertwined with fairy lights. The effect is like little stars overhead, which is quite pretty.
The assorted wooden furniture adds to the casual garden feel, as do the jars of herbs on the tables. There is a long chef's table in front of the open kitchen and smaller tables that are a mix of round and square.
What makes this project special, however, is what lies outside the building. There are rows of vegetable beds planted with herbs, vegetables and fruit such as tarragon, mint, basil, ladies' fingers, papaya and guava.
There is even a beehive somewhere, I am told, though I do not see it anywhere. Bees are busy buzzing around the flowers though.
Then there are the play areas - a petanque lawn, where diners can try the popular French game; and a sandbox for children to play in. There is also a ping-pong table in an alfresco area set with tables under colourful, frilly umbrellas.
OPEN FARM COMMUNITY
130E Minden Road, tel: 6471-0306
Open: Noon to 3pm, 6 to 10pm (Monday to Friday); 11am to 10pm (Saturday, Sunday and public holiday)
Price: Budget about $70 a person, without drinks
Such rusticity is rare anywhere in Singapore, let alone in a restaurant, and that is the charm here.
However, the food is less appealing.
The farm is too young and too small to fill the restaurant's needs, but there is still an emphasis on using as much local produce as possible. That includes most of the vegetables and some seafood, but the meats are generally imported.
This effort to eat local may be laudable, but it does not always translate to great food. Whether it is the ingredients or the recipes, a number of the dishes just do not excite the palate.
Head chef Daniele Sperindio does double duty as chef of Open Door Policy, another restaurant under the Spa Esprit Group, and I'm quite a fan of his food there. But at Open Farm Community, the balance of flavours just seems off in many instances.
In the Chilled Avocado & Ginger Soup With Poached Yabbies & Fresh Radish ($20), for example, the ginger is too tentative to provide zing to what tastes like cold blended avocado. The yabbies are plump and sweet, but are detached from the soup, taste-wise.
I find the same sense of detachment in Roasted Goldband Snapper With Ratatouille "A La Provencale" & Wild Rocket Salad ($28). The fish is perfectly roasted, but the soulless ratatouille is unlikely to evoke memories of the Provencal countryside for anyone. And do we need a rocket salad with a ratatouille?
There are successful dishes though, even if they are in the minority.
The starter to get is the Coal Baked Omelette With Smoked Haddock, Tarragon & Grain Mustard Mornay ($24). Served in a pan and covered with a layer of melted cheese, the omelette is delicious and - for me - wonderful comfort food. It is heavy though and the serving is big, so think of sharing it among three or four people.
My pasta of choice is the Rigatoni, Local Mushrooms, Smoked Pancetta Topped With Stilton & Balsamic Reduction ($26).
Mushrooms and pancetta always work for me, but it is the balsamic reduction that makes the dish exceptional here. The acidity in the vinegar lifts the dish nicely and the thing about a good balsamic is that it is never sharp, so the other flavours come through too.
Among the main courses I try, the Roasted Mangalica Pork Belly, Apple & Ginger Salad, Sauteed Bok Choy With A Spring Onion & Soy Jus ($34) is my favourite. The Hungarian pork has good flavour and the shreds of sour apple help cut the greasiness. But the bok choy, which is more associated with Chinese cooking, does not gel with the dish and is unnecessary.
Desserts are generally good but I am partial to the Caramelised Mango With Textures Of Coconut ($17), with its coconut meringue, ice cream and desiccated coconut going so well with the slightly charred mango wedges.
Not many dishes catch my fancy, but I'd still recommend Open Farm Community - especially to families with children. It's a great place to take your kids and let them run around outdoors to play or learn about the food that is grown there.
As for the lack of excitement in the dishes, that can't be too difficult to fix. Chef Sperindio just needs to bring over some of the magic he weaves at Open Door Policy.
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•Life paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.