RESTAURANT REVIEW

Soulful salute to Spanish cuisine

Surprise your tastebuds with (from above) The Gambas ($18); the Pigeon, Mango, Coco, Purple Curry ($32) and the Crema Catalana ($16).
Surprise your tastebuds with The Gambas ($18).PHOTO: ALMA
Surprise your tastebuds with (from above) The Gambas ($18); the Pigeon, Mango, Coco, Purple Curry ($32) and the Crema Catalana ($16).
Surprise your tastebuds with the Pigeon, Mango, Coco, Purple Curry ($32).PHOTO: ALMA
Surprise your tastebuds with (from above) The Gambas ($18); the Pigeon, Mango, Coco, Purple Curry ($32) and the Crema Catalana ($16).
Surprise your tastebuds with the Crema Catalana ($16).PHOTO: ALMA
Surprise your tastebuds with (from above) The Gambas ($18); the Pigeon, Mango, Coco, Purple Curry ($32) and the Crema Catalana ($16).
Alma.PHOTO: ALMA

Three-Michelin-starred chef Juan Amador's Alma restaurant serves tapas with a twist

While other celebrity chefs drum up a media storm when opening an outlet here, three-Michelin-starred German chef Juan Amador chose instead to quietly open his restaurant in Goodwood Park Hotel last month.

Amador was born in Germany to Spanish immigrants and his restaurant here, Alma (which is Spanish for soul), serves tapas with quite a different take from what you would find in Spain.

The menu is divided into two sections, Tradicion and Evolucion. However, even the traditional dishes - despite their familiar Spanish names - are given the chef's own interpretation.

The evolutionary dishes go further, with some of them comprising Asian ingredients that may result in their tasting more Eastern than Western. Yet they are not Asian dishes, which make them rather intriguing.

That is the charm of dining at Alma: the element of surprise. And while it may take a while sometimes to adjust your expectations of what a dish should taste like - especially the "traditional" ones - you end up saluting the chef in most instances.

The Gambas ($18), for example, are not the garlicky prawns you find in Spanish tapas eateries. Yes, there is a clove of garlic in the pool of olive oil that the prawns come in, but the aroma and taste are dominated by the generous amount of rosemary and thyme in the dish.

  • ALMA

  • Goodwood Park Hotel, 22 Scotts Road, tel: 6735-9937

    Open: 6 to 10.30pm (Monday to Saturday), closed on Sunday

    Food: 4/5

    Service: 4/5

    Ambience: 3.5/5

    Price: Budget from $110 a person for a la carte. Set menus are cheaper.

If you like the perfume of these herbs, you will be pleased. I prefer garlic, but the prawns are succulent and it's not hard to enjoy the dish. The fragrant oil makes a good dip for bread too.

The Monk Fish Cheek ($22) is excellent. The fish, lightly floured and deep fried, has a lovely firm texture and remains moist under a crisp, golden coat. The nuggets taste delicious on their own, but for variety, you can dip them into the accompanying sauce chorron, creamy and flavoured with tomatoes.

The traditional dessert of Crema Catalana ($16) is not the simple concoction of burnt cream or creme brulee, but has bits of fruit embedded in the milky pudding.

The evolutionary dishes are more interesting. The one to order is the Pigeon, Mango, Coco, Purple Curry ($32). It is, as the server is quick to bring to your attention, the dish that got the Amador restaurant in Mannheim, Germany, its third Michelin star in 2011.

The pigeon breast - plump, tender and juicy - is perfectly roasted under a crust of "purple curry" spices, a blend of aromatics such as coriander, mustard, ginger and fennel. On top are tiny dots of coconut and mango purees, as well as diced fresh mango. And then there is the inky chocolate sauce that adds a deep, moreish flavour to the dish.

It is wonderful how each slice of the pigeon can taste different, depending on whether you eat it with the coconut or the mango. A lot of thought has obviously gone into putting together the range of flavours and it is no surprise that the Michelin inspectors were impressed.

I am pleasantly surprised, too, by the Foie Gras Ice Cream, Mango Gazpacho, Pistachio ($18). This take on the Spanish cold soup is a harmonious match of the savoury flavours of foie gras with the sweetness of the mango. The pistachios are crucial too, providing bursts of texture and flavour when you bite into them.

The Yellow Fin Tuna, Shiitake, Green Curry ($18), while tasty, is the least revolutionary to my Asian tastebuds. I can see how it can taste exotic to a Western palate, but the flavour of Thai green curry is too familiar to this part of the world to be remarkable. And the lightly seared tuna does not add much to it either.

All the servings, even the meats, are tapas-sized, so you will need to order quite a number of dishes to fill up. My dining companion and I shared 10 items, including dessert, and we were just about full. The bill came to $226++.

For better value, you can choose to go with the Surprise Menu, which is priced from $68++ a person for four courses to $148++ for eight courses. However, you cannot choose your dishes and get to taste fewer items.

Alma takes over the space formerly occupied by Gaia, an Italian restaurant, and little has changed in the layout. The framed pictures are different and the walls are now a lighter colour, but the dark wood furniture is the same. Even the huge mirror at one end of the dining room is still there.

I don't have a problem with that, however, as the quiet, contemporary design works just as well with Alma's cooking. With such good food, you do not want too much distraction.

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•Life paid for its meals at the eateries reviewed here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'Restaurant Review Soulful salute to Spanish cuisine'. Print Edition | Subscribe