SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) You know how new restaurants try to distinguish themselves from old restaurants by, well, looking new? Where, even if they're going for that retro look with recycled furniture and all, they still manage to infuse a laid-back sense of cool? Not so the new 1919 Waterboat House, which doesn't so much as recreate a bygone era as it does make you so grateful that you never lived in those depressing times.
In the hands of its new operators Massive Collective - known more for its bars than eateries - the heritage building has gone back in time to 1919, and looks it. Whether in a good or bad way depends on your personal affinity for the over-the-top Art Deco chandelier, white elephant head on the wall, and drapes that may qualify for Pioneer Generation status.
Oh, and that weird smell permeating the sombre dining room - we can't decide if it comes from the fading lilies or some Thai auntie cooking bamboo shoots in the back kitchen.
With an ambience that more or less fails to please the eye, it's up to the hospitable and well-meaning staff to try to execute the haute French dining concept that 1919 has fashioned for itself. And they do try their best, so kudos to them.
1919 WATERBOAT HOUSE BAR & GRILL
3 Fullerton Road, #03-01
Open for lunch and dinner
Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 11pm. (Dinner only on Sat) Closed on Sun
It's not their fault that they have to serve you warm but supermarket quality bread with butter cut in triangles like they did in coffee houses in the late 1970s when it was really classy. We've moved on. And we don't use butter knives from the same era either.
When we were there for dinner, our server - who introduces himself as the senior supervisor - kindly arranges to swop the options from the S$69 set menu with our choices from the a la carte. Nice service move.
The creamy cauliflower soup is a super thick potage - cloying but with welcome texture from mushroom chunks and shredded leeks all cooked into the broth. While we have low expectations about the quality of the seafood in the Provencal fish stew ciopinno, the mussels, clams, prawns and fish are acceptably fresh. What lets the dish down is the tomato broth - which tastes of canned tomato soup infused with the essence of burnt toast. The dramatic pouring of the soup at the table is a wasted effort.
A pleasant surprise awaits in the Bar d'Atlantique - when what looks like an over-charred piece of Atlantic sea bass (most likely locally farmed) yields a crispy crust and milky soft flesh, served with a side of mixed vegetables painstakingly arranged in pretty formation, with a small mound of potato puree.
Grass-fed ribeye is more rare than our requested medium rare. And very lean without the marbling that makes ribeye relatively tender, which does make us wonder if we got a different cut instead. The meat is on the chewy side, but is like all grass-fed meat - clean but with less flavour than their grain-fed counterparts. On the side is the same arrangement of vegetables as the sea bass, albeit with pumpkin puree replacing the potato mash.
Dessert shows some imagination, with the 1919 Chocolat a pleasing arrangement of semi-frozen chocolate mousse balanced on a bed of chocolate soil and topped with a dehydrated pineapple slice. We like the thick chewy texture of the frozen mousse - a cross between ganache and ice cream.
The Pomme (apple) is pretty decent too, with cooked slices of Granny Smith on a bed of cookie crumble, and a scoop of store-bought ice cream. Straightforward sweet ending, but by this time we're wishing the chef would stop doing most of his grocery shopping at the nearest supermarket.
While the Waterboathouse can bank on its more welcoming rooftop bar - with its choice Formula One viewing position - to bring in the bucks, the restaurant 1919 is going to need more than so-so food and generic ingredients if it wants to be taken seriously as a dining destination. There are way too many attractive culinary alternatives available instead of a tired-looking location that is past its prime and novelty value.
There's a white elephant on the wall. Let's just hope that wall decoration is not an omen of things to come.
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on October 26, 2015.
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