The first thing that strikes you when you walk into Le Binchotan is how small the place is.
The three-week-old French Japanese tapas restaurant is in a corner of Gemmill Lane, a back alley that you enter from Club Street. Ignore its address, which says 115 Amoy Street, because you will not find it on that street.
The first time I am there is for lunch, and walking into the dim room from the sunny alley, I can hardly make out my surroundings and almost walk into the mirrored wall at the end of the room.
My second visit is for dinner and, being already familiar with the restaurant's layout this time, know exactly where to head to. And it is then that it strikes me how narrow the 38-seat eatery is.
Parts of the shophouse unit have been carved into areas for the kitchen, a washroom and a semi-private room. That leaves a narrow rectangular space, three-quarters of which is taken up by a bar. Diners sit at the bar counter, with just enough room behind them for people to walk in single file.
Comfort and privacy are therefore not priorities here. What makes up for that is the food.
The menu is the work of chef Atsuhiko Hagiwara from French restaurant en.terrible in Tokyo and resident head chef Jeremmy Chiam.
Like the eatery's name suggests, most of the food is grilled over bincho-tan, the white charcoal used in Japan that burns with very little smoke. From the smoked sea bream among the small plates to the selection of yakitori skewers to big plates of wagyu beef and pork jowl, they all go over the charcoal pits.
Perhaps because of that, the food comes across more Japanese than French, even though ingredients from both culinary cultures are used in the cooking.
I am not complaining though, because I love smoky food grilled over charcoal. In fact, I find some of the yakitori items at Le Binchotan not smoky enough.
The Chicken Tsukune ($13 a stick) is one of them. The small patties of minced chicken have the requisite crunch from pieces of soft bone, but come across a bit flat because of the missing smokiness.
So does the Ika ($17), a whole squid topped with a bit of sea urchin and squid ink sauce. It is also too chewy and requires too much work for too little reward.
What I like a lot is the Wagyu Striploin ($15), which comes with ume sauce and a port reduction. The Australian beef may not be as wellmarbled as Japanese wagyu, but is so flavourful that the sauces, to me, are redundant.
Meat lovers should also order the Iberico Pork Jowl ($35) from the large plates section. The chunk of meat is tender, juicy and, yes, smoky. There is also a hint of the katsu curry the pork has been slow-cooked in before being grilled. Dollops of green apple sauce help to cut the fat, while lumps of "charcoal pumpkin" - pumpkin covered in charcoal batter and deep-fried - make an interesting and delicious side.
I am surprised that even the Emperor Snapper "En Papillote" ($33) has a strong smoky flavour.
My initial guess is that the paper-wrapped fish is baked in a charcoal oven. But checking with chef Chiam afterwards, he says the snapper is instead grilled over charcoal before being wrapped in paper with sudachi fumee (stock infused with the sudachi citrus fruit) and baked in an ordinary oven.
115 Amoy Street, 01-04, tel: 6221-6065, open: 11.30am to 3pm, 6 to 11pm (Monday to Saturday)
Food: 4/5 stars
Service: 3/5 stars
Ambience: 2.5/5 stars
Price: Budget about $80 a person, without drinks
The dish is delicious and a good example of how the restaurant marries French and Japanese culinary traditions.
The charcoal grill is used less for the small plates, but there are interesting dishes among them.
The Foie Gras ($21) is a cold dish that makes a refreshing starter for lunch. Pieces of daikon are cooked in dashi and served chilled with dashi gelee. Frozen foie gras is then shaved on top just before serving. Everything melts in the mouth, releasing flavours that work well together.
For quite a different sensation, try the Tenkatsu ($15) - enoki tempura with mushroom ragout topped with strips of pickled daikon. Eat everything together and enjoy the play of textures and how well the pickle goes with the tempura.
There are only two desserts on the menu. If you want to stay with the binchotan profile, the Smoked Chocolate ($15) is the one to pick. It is topped with snowy yogurt powder, which does not have much flavour but looks good against the dark chocolate. The frozen blueberries scattered around the plate do a good job of cutting the richness of the chocolate.
The other dessert, Coconut ($15), is the one I prefer. The coconut cremeux is soft and yummy. Matched with frozen matcha powder and raspberry bits, it evokes delicious desserts of France and Japan. And Singapore too.
•Follow Wong Ah Yoke on Twitter @STahyoke
•The Sunday Times paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.
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