SINGAPORE (THE BUSINESS TIMES) - Just like babies, naming a restaurant must be as tough as finding the right chef and concept. What if you named your kid Alonso, but he grew up to be more like a Chin Huat? Imagine wanting to call your eatery Origin, until you find out there is another restaurant opening with the same name.
So you settle for something a little more obscure such as Ards with its deep, inner meaning. But for the less intellectually-inclined, we are not sure whether to pronounce it as is or wait for a few more letters to form an actual word.
Ards is an acronym for "Asia, roots, distinct, singular" - part of an earnest but over-wrought mission statement that pegs it as a modern, fine-dining new Asian restaurant with grand ambitions to create a new cuisine out of age-old Asian recipes and modern techniques, while balancing arts and gastronomy, yada yada yada.
By this time, we are usually floating halfway out the door, carried by the hot air created by such bluster, from chefs more in love with how concepts sound rather than taste. Instead, we are firmly anchored to our seats because, when you cut through the fancy-speak, the two chefs - Ace Tan and David Lee - actually have something to say.
In their debut effort, the duo have taken on a tough, thankless task - developing progressive cuisine in a market that does not appreciate it, especially from untested and local names. Not for them the mod-Sin route, where they turn chicken rice into roulades with freeze-dried chilli sauce. Still, despite constant reminders about the Asian-ness of their cuisine, we taste food that is perfectly cosmopolitan, which should be the way.
Dinner is the best platform for them, as the 15-course tasting menu ($188) contains tried-and-tested dishes compared to the hit-and-miss lunch menu, where dishes seem to be auditioning for an evening gig.
If the 15-course sounds too daunting, there are shortcut three and five-course versions or you can just meet them halfway with an eight-course shortlist at $150.
A whole Japanese peanut shell holding two deep-fried kernels tossed in spicy masala powder - hot, crisp-tender, chewy and spicy all in one mini-bite - sets the tone for the inventiveness to follow. Chinese dumplings are de-constructed as smoked minced pork folded into meticulously sliced raw carrot instead of dough. The dim sum familiarity lasts just a second before you just enjoy it on its own terms.
An earthenware pot that erupts with Osmanthus tea-infused dry ice smoke entertains before you wave the heavy mist (an over-calculation of dry ice) away to get at the icy cold Hokkaido oyster inside. Sitting naked in its shell, the meaty shellfish's modesty is protected by a coat of osmanthus jelly and squiggles of frozen cream cheese. It is an off-the-wall interpretation that is not a perfect marriage of flavours, but enjoyable enough.
The 21st egg tart is familiar yet not, a crumbly crust filled with wobbly warm egg custard that is savoury with a hint of mentaiko in it, getting its sweetness from raw corn niblets, garnished with a little corn cracker and grated mullet roe. It's a clash of memory and unfamiliarity but in the end, it's a happy union of the two.
Mother's chicken soup is as it should be - potent chicken essence extracted from steaming chicken with lots of Chinese herbs for a comforting brew. A grainy chicken and vegetable floss at the bottom of the soup adds a different dimension which distracts after a while, but the cubes of chicken stock infused winter melon and braised fish maw bits hit the spot.
If you still need your bread, a coil of pale white steamed bread arrives, looking like the Michelin Man after he's flattened by a truck. It is soft and malleable, pull-apart tender and served with a dollop of ginseng butter with no hint of ginseng, and delicious crunchy fried green tea leaves.
The 33 Ingredients is the chefs' version of fried glutinous rice - multigrain rice steamed to just the right stickiness, sharing space with deep-fried lotus root, slightly bitter sea cucumber sauce, daikon cubes, chestnut and a host of other things. It's a cacophony of tiny little voices trying to be heard, though, which threatens the overall balance.
It is the same with the two main courses of fish and beef. There are too many things going on with a sous vide fillet of garoupa topped with XO sauce and paired with wine-steamed clams, pickled goji and umami "snow" made of tapioca flour, wasabi and furikake seasoning. The slow-cooked wagyu is also weighed down under the cover of charcoal powder, although it is ably supported by grilled bamboo shoots and mountain yam puree.
We should also mention here that the art of roots - a vegetarian dish that is also on the lunch menu is a winner for its sauteed multigrain rice and butter ginseng sauce, garnished with cubes of root vegetables and a deep-fried lotus root.
End off with an inspired take on cheng tng in the form of chewy barley cooked in syrup, with sliced water chestnuts, bird's nest and a fluffy shower of grated almonds. Or refreshing cubes of tropical fruit cooked in its juices, with yogurt ice cream.
Restaurant Ards is still a work in progress as chefs Ace and Lee are still testing the waters to see how far they can go. But while the whole mod-Sin or mod-Asian slant is currently the rage, it would be a waste for them to pigeonhole themselves in this genre. There is too much emphasis on the Oriental trope which makes them overdo the Asian heritage angle. A little bit of restraint and allowing themselves to be creative without an artificial ethnic boundary will do their cuisine a world of good. The key word here is original, except they will need to find a new word to describe it.
Restaurant Ards is at 76 Duxton Road; tel: 6913-7258; open: lunch - noon to 2.30pm (Tuesdays to Fridays), dinner - 6 to 11pm (Mondays to Saturdays).
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
Our review policy: The Business Times pays for all meals at restaurants it reviews. Unless specified, the writer does not accept hosted meals prior to the review's publication.