SINGAPORE - (THE BUSINESS TIMES) Imagine - just a decade ago, hipster chefs didn't really exist; millennials were not considered a demographic; and people actually aspired to eat in fancy French restaurants.
We wished we could afford a meal at the Raffles Grill, while the tai-tais who could, turned up not for perfectly seared foie gras but to ogle its young talented chef Jean-Charles Dubois who bore more than a passing resemblance to heart-throb Orlando Bloom (Legolas of Lord of the Rings).
But times change. Raffles isn't a Singapore-owned icon anymore; chef Dubois has long gone solo and discarded the Orlando Bloom link; and sigh, even Orlando isn't half the elf he used to be.
But what remains is chef Dubois' dab hand at French classics, which he recreates to good effect in his cosy new Balzac Brasserie in the Pinacotheque du Paris in Fort Canning.
5 Cox Terrace
B1-08 Fort Canning Arts Centre
Open for lunch and dinner Tues to Sun: 12pm to 3pm; 6pm to 10pm.
Closed on Monday
His last two solo ventures - The French Kitchen and the original Balzac in the Rendezvous Hotel - were decent but muted in impact, leaving the impression that he wasn't pushing himself to the level that he was capable of. But he seems to have found renewed zest in this relocation of Balzac - named after the 19th century novelist - in the fitting environment of the French art museum. But did they have to put him next door to a painfully garish Mexican-Indian eatery that looks like a halfway house for rejected pinatas?
Once happily ensconced in the sane, tasteful confines of Balzac, take comfort in a menu that - in a dining culture that thrives on being of the moment - is a heartfelt tribute to the past.
The food is old-school but not frumpy. When you're so used to locavore-this and hipster mod-that, you almost forget what straightforward French food tastes like. Chef Dubois does a good job of reminding you, striking a middle ground between fine dining and gutsy grandmother-inspired bistro fare.
Before we have time to grumble about the very blah free bread, an amuse bouche arrives of char-grilled toast topped with braised cabbage and bacon - a delicious Gallic version of our Chinese "kiamchye" with savoury bacon fat rendered into the tender shredded cabbage. A chaser of hot cauliflower veloute rounds off this encouraging start.
We soon learn that the key to appreciating chef Dubois' cooking is to mix everything up. There are a lot of things on each plate which don't make much of an impression individually, but eating bit of everything in the same mouthful makes a big difference.
Thin slices of raw, wild-caught Hokkaido scallop (S$26) are fanned out carpaccio-style with scattered capers and dollops of home-made tarama - we're not sure if it's a version of the Greek roe-infused taramasalata but this one reminds us more of cod brandade. The slightly pungent, salty fish mixture plays off rather well against the mild scallop.
We don't initially "get" the thinking behind the tender charred octopus ($26) crowded with grilled not-ripe-enough avocado, salty jamon and creme fraiche which hasn't got enough acidity to tame the other ingredients. We notice too late the swirl of olive oil and dusting of smoky paprika - when we finally get round to squishing everything together on a fork, we wish we'd done so a lot earlier.
The one dish that we would go back for is chef Dubois' signature lobster bisque (S$24). We've been disappointed before at the first Balzac, but this time, it's spot on enough for us to declare it the best bisque in town. It's soupy as we prefer it - not the thick cloying cream of artificial lobster that we're used to - with just enough fat, plenty of shellfish flavour and lots of slippery, cheesy baby ravioli that we can't get enough of.
A small fillet of grilled fresh turbot (S$46) is fine on its own, but is elevated by a bitter lemon garnish that we almost miss - camouflaged among the roasted potatoes, home-fried crisps and melting soft grilled fresh porcini which is in season now.
Lamb chops smothered in a brown sauce (S$42) belie their tenderness - although you need to like rustic strong flavours to plough through the chops, home-made merguez (a lightly packed sausage-shaped patty of foie gras and sweetbread), smoky eggplant mash and chick peas. The Moroccan influence is enhanced by the super spicy harissa paste which can take on our chilli padi - bear with the heat because it does a great job of cutting through the "jelak" richness of the dish.
Chocolate fondant inertia sets in with the Molleaux (S$16) - which is more chocolate sauce than cake, served with vanilla ice cream. Our tastes lean more towards the fat fluffy Brioche Perdu (S$16) - French toast with poached pears, mascarpone and an initially incongruous mango sorbet which counters the indulgent toast. OK, we'd still rather have vanilla ice cream.
That chef Dubois recognises us somewhere between the first and second course is not lost on us (our water was religiously topped up after that) but it shows just what this guy can do. So we challenge him to keep up the standard. Fort Canning Arts Centre is not the easiest of locations, requiring a bit of an uphill walk in a leafy but almost foreboding forest-like space. But conquer this mountain, and people will come.
What our ratings mean
10: The ultimate dining experience
7-7.5: Good to very good
This article was first published on September 7, 2015.
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