SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Just as there are dog people and cat people, there are chefs that lean specifically towards meat or seafood. For example, a seafood chef may be able to find you a decent steak but cannot make a good sausage. Give a pig to a meat chef and he'll dance around you with pork chops, sausages, and all the itsy bits that go into headcheese. But he will not be as concerned about which ocean floor and at what depth his scallops are picked from, or the blood bond the seafood chef signed with the diver who gives him the pick of his catch.
The reason this comes to mind is that it makes a real difference to your meal if you know which way the chef swings. If you don't, what should have been a good meal becomes underwhelming. And opens you up to a lot of "but I had a great meal at such-and-such restaurant, what's wrong with you?" comments.
But such describes our meal at Salted & Hung.
SALTED & HUNG
12 Purvis Street
Tel: 6358 3130
Open for lunch and dinner Mon to Fri: 12pm to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10pm. Dinner only on Sat. Closed on Sunday
As the name says, the restaurant is a reflection of Drew Nocente's penchant for smoking, curing and drying cuts of meat. Which is pretty much what he did at 5th Quarter - his original restaurant in the less-than-accessible Hotel Vagabond in Syed Alwi - which we really enjoyed for its S$10-a-dish lunch menu, confident balance of flavours and easy pricing. He had too few seafood options on the menu for us to notice, so our meat and vegetable-centric meal made us fans.
But now he's gone and moved to Purvis Street - where hipsters and high-rent landlords roam - and everything's changed. The prices have gone up. The menu is different. We could get hot water at Syed Alwi, no questions asked. Here you are given a choice of only still or sparkling, and if you still want it hot they will boil the still water and charge you three bucks without ever showing you the bottle as proof. Ordering alcohol from the drinks list does not get you any free water either. Methinks tap water burns their servers' sensitive skin - they need to charge you so they can pay for antiseptic cream. If you don't believe me, try asking them for tap water and see them flinch.
Many of the dishes that we were enamoured with from 5th Quarter are no longer there. A fair number remain, though, albeit with different descriptions and condiments, perhaps to rationalise charging S$15 for fried tripe with togarashi, Szechuan pepper and caponata puree. The old salt and pepper tripe used to set you back by S$10. We've heard much about this dish - slow-cooked offal deep-fried for an engaging crunchiness, while the peppers anaesthetise your tongue. We like the way it starts - like chewy pork crackling - but not the way it ends on a gamey note.
The best dish of our evening there is a blackboard special - soft-cooked egg (S$28) sitting on savoury, earthy porcini mushroom crumbs, showered with wafers of Aussie black truffle, with a surprise dollop of uni on toast. Whichever way you attack it still ends in a mouthful of joy - the rich creaminess of the egg and sweet fresh uni plus the mushroomy match of truffles and porcini, all reined in by the sweet piquancy of pickled cucumber.
Then come our seafood missteps: a thick, meaty hamachi collar (S$28) that's slightly off its peak, with a bitter edge to the burnt skin that clashes with the smooth lardo draped over it. A carpet of fried basil sits on top, and a puree of kale all add up to an awkward match. And weirdly, the same octopus (S$28) we enjoyed as part of the set lunch the other day falls flat at dinner time. Maybe because the octopus doing the evening shift is bulbous, bloated and squelchy compared to the lunchtime thin, tender strips covered by a shower of finely shaved raw wagyu. Black squid ink sauce and caponata cream should pull everything together but at night, it's like a different dish altogether.
Lunch is actually a saner affair - dinner is busy and frenetic and they forget to give you the complimentary Anzac cookie despite us looking forward to it all evening and dropping a gentle reminder. But they don't forget at lunch time, so you enjoy the savouriness of bacon in a sugary background of chewy coconut and caramel. Sangas - burger-like sandwiches - are done in by the dry buns used. It's just part of the reason that we don't care much for the well hung sanga (S$15) which is an over-the-top club sandwich packed with copa, manchego, rocket, lardo and super sharp semi-dried tomatoes.
But our sweet tooth is well catered to with the pancake sanga and fried chicken (S$15) where the dry bun is replaced with two fluffy (slightly powdery) pancakes drizzled with syrup and icing sugar as the perfect foil to juicy fried chicken.
Thumbs up to the peanut tim tam dessert (S$16 from the dinner menu) where chewy peanut butter ganache and chocolate ice cream are just made for each other. The home-made tim tam chocolate fudge cookies add to the fun.
Maybe we liked the food better at 5th Quarter because it was just so hard to get there. Or maybe the food seemed more effortless and tasty, like the home made pasta with just bacon bits and rosemary. Salted & Hung seems more self-conscious now, as if there's a real need to impress and cater to a wider, seafood-loving crowd as well. Suffice to say that the next time we go, we're skipping anything that swims.
This article was first published on August 1, 2016.
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