SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) For time immemorial, we've been fed all manner of old wives' tales and fairy stories that we believed to be true at some point in our lives.
Such as the existence of Santa Claus and the tooth fairy. How you shouldn't point at the moon in case some goblin comes by to cut off your ears when you're asleep. How it's perfectly legal to pay someone you don't like in fishy 20 cent coins. That French food is expensive.
We all know now how most of the above have played out, but how many of us dutifully accept that French fine dining is all linen tablecloths and degustation menus priced above $100 a head, regardless of whether the chef was born in a farmhouse 50km outside Aix-en-Provence, or had grandparents who once reared pigs in Lim Chu Kang?
#04-11 Ion Orchard
2 Orchard Turn
Open daily from 12pm to 9.30pm
Nationality notwithstanding, French or European produce has to take a fast plane or a slow boat to get here and either way, that all adds to the menu pricing, so we have been led to believe.
A $52 set dinner menu at a supposedly upscale French restaurant is therefore greeted with slight bemusement, an ingratiating nod of encouragement reserved for cooking school students running a campus eatery.
Why, there're even two kinds of amuse bouche, we clap silently in our heads, wondering how many set menus they have to sell to recoup the cost of one Laguiole steak knife the owners insist on using.
Until you realise that you're dealing with the Fabulous Budget Boys, the Chappies of Cheap, the guys who made it affordable to eat foie gras and sakura ebi pasta in a coffee shop, and then hip when the crowds came and they moved out to more decent shophouse premises (although you still eat canteen style).
Now, owner-chefs Joshua Khoo and Dylan Ong who earned their wings in the likes of Raffles Hotel and Guy Savoy have come full circle into the kind of kitchens they first worked in with Saveur Art, taking up "pedigree" space on the fourth level of Ion Orchard (instead of the basement food court).
The eatery is a little too bright and the decor too black and busy to qualify as a refined dining space, although the managers in jackets, the proliferation of wine glasses and bottles everywhere you look indicate the restaurant's intentions.
Youngsters on date night couldn't ask for a better place.
For the rest of us, it's an easy way to get acquainted with Saveur's food if you were curious before but not enough to join the lines or eat in the harried, utilitarian surroundings of its other outlets.
Food is to be savoured in pleasant surroundings at your own pace after all, so you can enjoy a chef's skill and creativity on a plate, not in his accounts.
The afore mentioned amuse bouche come in the form of bite-sized squid ink crackers that are light and airy, topped with a smidgen of anchovy and romesco sauce.
It's followed by a glass cup of creamy seaweed-flecked sabayon over which your server pours potato skin dashi from a beaker that looks nice but pours terribly, making him spill the soup on the table.
We don't quite know how you make dashi from potato skins but the clear broth tastes pleasantly unlike potatoes and thins out the sabayon nicely, with crunchy rice bits adding texture.
A soft-cooked egg sitting on creamy mashed potatoes with a drizzle of truffle oil for fragrance and toasted hazelnuts for crunch starts off the $52 set menu very nicely.
Potato crisps help to counter the richness of the egg and mash and amp up the fun element as well. If you want to indulge, shavings of real truffle can be added for an extra $18 (but would you?).
Cod poached in olive oil gets a lovely shiny silkiness offset with a colourful capsicum cream and brunoise of tender peppers, sticky chewy fried baby squid and a paprika foam.
There are a lot of things going on but everything falls in place, just like the multi-component main course of tender pink pigeon breast and confit thigh, on a bed of chewy fregola pasta tossed in a fruity dressing with a dollop of slightly tart liver vinaigrette on the side.
From the ala carte menu, Saveur Art's pasta ($13) is a small mound of cold pasta tossed in shellfish oil and minced konbu with a solitary grilled Mozambique langoustine that makes up for the blandness of the pasta.
A chestnut veloute ($10) is all cream and chestnuts - rich buttery soup that's let down by a dreadful ball of undercooked dough trying to pass off as chestnut bread.
Pastry may not be the chefs' strongest suit as the pork cheek pithivier in the Mangalica Pork Two Ways ($22) features a savoury pork and mushroom filling in a less than flaky pie crust. The accompanying pork belly, though, is melting-soft, its fat-to-meat ratio frighteningly high.
To end off the $52 set, there is Chocolate and Pistachio with a pretentious description of Guanaja Fondant, Tanariva mousse, Ivory espuma, Araguani chips and pistachio ice cream.
What we get is chocolate lava cake with chocolate mousse decorated with chocolate flakes and a scoop of intense pistachio ice cream with an unusual hint of pepper. Do we really need to know what brands of chocolate they use?
Tropical ($13), on the other hand, is a sharp passionfruit sorbet forced into an awkward composition of thick mango custard, torn sponge cake, grilled pineapple and nuts that somehow fails to add up to a pleasing whole.
Service at Saveur Art is friendly and brisk, with the food coming at a steady clip. Portions are on the whole pretty small so you can literally finish in under an hour if you want to. But even at that portion-size, 52 bucks is still a steal - you wonder how many people are working without a salary so they can charge these prices (granted there's a little inconsistency considering desserts can cost more than some of the starters).
Plus, the food isn't your garden variety bistro fare either, thanks to chef de cuisine Tyler Lai's thoughtful cooking and tight execution.
One thing Saveur Art does do is debunk the notion that French food can't be both cheap and good. So why aren't other restaurants following in their footsteps?
WHAT OUR RATINGS MEAN
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on Nov 10, 2014.
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